Art attack: unlock your child's creative spirit


Your child comes home from primary school carrying a misshapen lump of clay covered in blotches of paint. Do you: a) Ask: “What is it?”; b) Exclaim: “That’s amazing; you’re fantastic!”; c) Suggest: “You can do better than that, surely.”; d) Laugh and say: “Don’t worry, I wasn’t any good at art either”?

If you don’t choose b) you might want to rethink your response, because you’re in danger of snuffing out your child’s creative spark.

“You should be telling them everything they do is amazing – it was creative, it took time,” says art teacher and mother of three Gillian Blaney Shorte. And if you haven’t a clue what it is? Encourage the child to talk about the project and you might glean what the artwork is in their eyes.

If you have responded to your child in any way other than b), the chances are you have “issues” with art. Like me.

I never recovered from a damning verdict on my artistic abilities back in first year at secondary school. Among the A and B grades on my summer report was one D, for art, with the teacher’s comment: “Talent is limited”. It’s no wonder I shied away from hands-on art after that – right into parenthood, unfortunately. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t encourage my children in their early years to let rip with paint, play dough, pastels and clay. Life always seemed too busy to cover the kitchen table with newspapers and dig out paint, pots and brushes.

I was intimated by artistic parents who always seemed to have the right materials at hand and knew how to encourage their children to transform them into eye-catching art to adorn the kitchen walls. And inevitably, when scanning classroom walls for my sons’ work, I started with the least-accomplished looking. Sure, what hope had they?

But for children, art is about the process, not the end product. And it’s a vital part of early childhood development.

“I think all small children are equally creative,” says Jole Bortoli, founder of Art to Heart, which advocates children’s rights to creativity and imagination. “What closes them down is the approach taken.”

Parents have a terrible habit of inadvertently trampling on children’s creativity through hasty judgments, intolerance or interference. Artists working with children identify the three big barriers to art at home as:

Mess: the house-proud don’t want paint all over the kitchen table or clay trodden into the carpets.

Time: frenzied lifestyles allow little space for open-ended art sessions.

Fear: parents feel inadequate and don’t know where to start.

For parents, a first step is to recognise the barriers they put between children and art. After that, what else should they be doing at home to allow children, from birth onwards, to express their artistic side?

Don’t use colouring-in books for a start – well at least, not for art. It’s a key message Bortoli would like to get across, not just to parents but teachers at preschools and primary schools.

“The thing of staying within the line is good, but it is a fine motor skill,” she explains. “Don’t confuse that with art.”

When an “art” session consists of colouring in a giraffe, children see the outline they have been presented with as the only way of drawing it. “Much better to say ‘you draw your own giraffe and colour it in whatever way you want’.”

She works with The Ark, the children’s cultural centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar. This summer they organised art workshops where parents were invited to stay and work with their children, rather than dropping and running.

“It was beautiful, very moving,” says Bortoli, who will be leading children’s art workshops at this weekend’s Art Source in the RDS in Dublin. She thinks that, often, what stops parents doing art with children is the belief that there is a “right way” of doing it, and they don’t know what that is.

Either they won’t get involved at all or they interfere too much, she says, whereas the best idea is to sit down and let the child guide you. “Let them lead and if they are stuck or don’t know what to do, just gently help them out.”

Allowing the child to lead can be difficult, acknowledges Orla Kenny, a visual artist and the creative director of Kids Own, a publishing partnership in Sligo. But it is about getting to know your own children – what they are interested in, how they learn things and how they explore.

“It is not about producing a lovely picture to hang on the wall; it is about valuing the journey of exploring,” she stresses.

Don’t let the feeling that you have no artistic flair yourself stop you encouraging creativity in your children.

“You play yourself,” Kenny points out. “You don’t have all the answers – in fact not having the answers is better because then you are exploring with your child. It is really about going on a journey with your child – then it is exciting and it is not time bound, there is no stress.

She thinks art in primary school can sometimes be too prescriptive – “Thirty of the same fish in the window. I don’t know what the purpose is, or what the children get out of making the same fish. They are missing an opportunity.”

Baby steps

For preschool children it is all about being allowed to explore the tactile qualities of materials such as paint, clay, paper and fabrics, says visual artist Maree Hensey. She is currently working with toddlers and their parents in a pilot cross-Border initiative, “Being and Belonging”, run by Kids Own.

She encourages parents to dedicate a time, when there is no music, television or anything else on, and get down on the floor with the toddler. Don’t overwhelm the child with too many different materials, rather introduce one or two at a time.

Parents can themselves benefit from being open to the uninhibited freedom and earthiness of the child, says Hensey. It is not about making things – “just let them squeeze and pinch and prod”.

For that age group it is all about rhythm and repetition, she suggests. “If you give them the space, shapes that are meaningful to the child will emerge.”

It is always, no matter what age the child, about the material, what happens with it and the process, she adds. “Never think the end result – that is the killer in all of it, the expectation of having something at the end of it.”

Italian-born Bortoli, who moved to Ireland in 1985 and has a 22-year-old daughter, is always sorry to see self-criticism seeping into older children and putting them off art. Instead of regarding art as a way of expressing themselves, they start to fret about not being “good enough”, which is usually tied in with the general idea of what “good” art is.

After 100 years of avant-garde we still want a cat to look exactly the way it is, remarks Bortoli, who always brings examples of both abstract and realistic art to her workshops.

“Don’t close the channels of creativity in your children,” she warns. “What is important for them is to express themselves.” If they become convinced they are no good, it is very hard to turn that around.

“There are children and adults who are very good at expressing themselves with colour and paint but not so good at painting, so I try to keep the two separate,” says Bortoli.

Technique is a contentious issue, she explains. She prefers to let children and adults express themselves first and then waits for them to ask for help with technique when they are ready.

Ideally, parents would make lots of time for doing art with children at home, she adds. But, while it is not always possible to sit down with a child, you should at least make sure there is always plenty of paper and art materials available.

Bortoli adds: “I remember parents asking me does my child paint on the wall and I’d say, not if I leave paper around!”

They are getting crayons  but nothing else:

Whether or not you are comfortable doing art with your children in the home, they will benefit from working alongside professional artists and art teachers.There are many options out there, including free community events and workshops at art galleries, as well as private classes.

Art is not promoted as an after-school activity, says Gillian Blaney Shorte, founder of Artzone, which runs classes in more than 40 venues in Dublin and Co Kildare. She and other staff members all trained at the National College of Art and Design as art teachers.

“Our biggest struggle is to create an awareness of art,” she says. “It is not in our culture.”

She believes that, in general, children are not getting the chance to do much art at home. “They are getting crayons but nothing else.”

The biggest mistake parents make, she suggests, is thinking young children aren’t able to do it because of their age – “they are well able to do it”.

Blaney Shorte, a mother of three children aged 19, 11 and seven, identifies parental phobia about children and scissors as one obstacle to creative art. She sees children at the classes who struggle to cut out a circle because they are not used to scissors and urges parents to teach their offspring how to use children’s scissors themselves from an early age.

Artzone takes children aged from five upwards. The most important thing is that the children enjoy going to the classes, says Blaney Shorte, as they cater for all levels. Artzone also runs an “ask the art teacher” email service on its website and welcomes queries from parents unsure of what to do with their children or what materials to buy.

Various organisations and local authorities run visual art events for children in the community. Fingal County Council’s arts office, which has an established programme for older children and teenagers, is involved in its first project for under-fives, Now We are Ready to Start, at Farmleigh House.

The office was “inundated” with requests for places on this programme, which has two more Saturday sessions to go, says deputy arts officer Sarah O’Neill. Its annual arts calendar includes children’s workshops with professional artists to celebrate National Drawing Day each May.

Check out art galleries for children’s events too. The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin hosts at least one event geared towards children each week and there are more during school holidays. The National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny has hands-on workshops on the last Saturday of each month.

For more information;;;; SHIELA WAYMAN

Art by age: What you can do


Simple steps

Keep it simple – it is all about responding to what the child is interested in, says Orla Kenny of Kids Own. For instance if a baby is looking at light coming in the window, extend that experience by introducing mirrors.

Work the senses

Start with the senses – touch and smell – encouraging them to handle different materials. At age two, “tearing is where it’s at”, she comments – exploring textures and making collages from materials in and outside the house.

Build confidence

If they have been introduced to paint, clay and other materials from an early age, by age three they will be confident in using them to express themselves.


Create an art box

They should be getting more adept at handling tools such as pencils, paint brushes, crayons and scissors. Keep these in a big art box in the home, along with materials such as paint, pastel crayons, fabrics, potter’s clay, glue, Sellotape, masking tape and lots of recyclables, including cardboard boxes and newspapers.

Quality materials

Look for good quality paint – Maree Hensy recommends gouache paint – and provide generous sized paper (rolls of wallpaper lining are great for unfettered art


Don’t push too hard

This is the critical age when inhibitions set in and only those who really enjoy art and think they are good at it will continue. “There is no point in pushing them if they are not interested,” advises Jole Bortoli. But keep opportunities open, she suggests: “If they have had a positive experience they might continue.” If they are clearly interested, support them by supplying materials and discussing their work.

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