When Artwork Is Important, and When It Is Not

Nursery school, Preschool, and Pre-Kindergarten age children churn out masterpieces all day long in their childcare centers and schools. Parents probably receive at least one “gift” of children’s artwork a day. Soon, the refrigerator is covered, and the walls are slowly being invaded. If it gets thrown away, heaven forbid a child see it in the trash. So what is a parent to do with a metric ton of scribbled sheets of paper? It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation.

Children don’t begin doing art for praise. When they first begin, they are exploring. Somewhere down the line, all the “good job!” comments from adults shape their motivation into something that is praise driven. This is why we parents get ten pieces of printer paper scribbled on with one color of crayon, they’re substituting creativity for quantity, bringing the adults they love every single piece with the knowledge that they will be praised. After all, who is going to critique a toddler’s artwork?

How do we move away from praise driven artwork, and into a creative process? Children should make art because they want to, because they want to touch the materials, and because they have stories to tell! They should be allowed to paint a wonderful rainbow and then cover it completely with thick black tempera paint. They should be allowed to make their own Valentine or other holiday art rather than copy a model. If that means we get Christmas Bees, that’s fine. They have a lifetime ahead of them to conform, allow them their imaginations now. It will come in handy when they’re adults, creativity is key in problem solving.

Kids will make art anywhere they go, from tracing a stick through wet sand to playing with their food, to using a stolen ball point pen to write all over their own faces, this is all a creative process. They’re always making, adding, and imagining.

These ideas aside, let’s talk about the paper shredder.

Allowing for creative process does not mean homes need to be surrendered to the artwork infestation that inevitably occurs. When art clutter is at its peak, simply go through the stack with a discerning eye and separate the wheat from the chaff. Special drawings, ones that show developing skill, the ones they’re especially proud of, sentimental ones of their family or their pets, can be hung or framed or put into a scrapbook. The rest, the one-color scribble rush jobs, the artwork that was smashed into the bottom of a backpack, the artwork that has been on the floor for a few days and no one has rescued, these get shredded.

Certainly if the child sees them being shredded, they may get upset. However, if parents can be clandestine, and shred at night or when the children are not home at all, the children will never notice the purge…We simply cannot keep every piece, and that’s okay!

Going forward, notice the language used when children show adults their artwork. It may begin with them gifting the piece, or asking, “Do you like my picture?”

Most adults want to say yes, of course, because it seems like the thing to say. Instead, reply with, “Do you like your artwork? Tell me about it.” Or, “I see you worked very hard on this.” Ask them questions about the colors they used, make objective comments, such as “You used a lot of red,” or, “That’s a very big monster.”

Shaping the language we use to acknowledge their effort more than their products helps them to wean off of praise driven art and get back to being creative for themselves.

This article is part of a child health and wellness series posted for the benefit of parents by Prime Time Early Learning Centers. Prime Time is a family owned child care company that provides Infant Care, After Care, PreK, and Summer Camp programs for children from six weeks to 10 years of age in Paramus, Edgewater, Hoboken and East Rutherford New Jersey, and in Middletown (Walkill) and Farmingdale (Babylon) New York. See what parents have to say about their experience with Prime Time Early Learning Centers on Google and Yelp!

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