Boston Children’s Museum’s Art Studio is one of my favorite places – and that’s good, because I spend a lot of time there. For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve assisted our Arts Program Educator in program preparation and planning, carrying out workshops, and doing my part to help keep the Studio a place of healthy self-expression. My love of this work has inspired a new undertaking: the pursuit of a Master of Education degree in Elementary Education, with a particular emphasis on the creative arts in learning. Each month, I’ll reflect about an element of my graduate schooling and my job here at BCM through the Museum’s Power of Play blog. For the month of February, I’d like to talk about something I learned in a recent class, on the subject of appropriately supporting a child’s creative development.
Taking each of my daily encounters to heart, I learn so much through simple observation and quick conversations with our visitors. With this experiential education in addition to my formal schooling, I’m beginning to understand just how heavy my feedback may weigh in a child’s mind, for better or for worse.
Properly encouraging creativity to flourish in children is a little bit trickier than you might think. While instructors, parents, and other primary figures in a child’s life generally have only the best intentions for their student or child’s creative development, there are certain discouraging behaviors that may occur unknowingly. Once we’re conscious of them, these behaviors – known as “creativity killers” (as identified by B.A. Hennessey and T.M. Amabile in 1992) – are easily avoided.
One of the most common behaviors I witness in the Art Studio is the habit of “surveillance” – more popularly known as “helicoptering,” or lingering over a child’s shoulder as they create, problem solve, or brainstorm. When children experience surveillance while using creative skills, they’re less likely to take risks, more likely to seek out approval in their choices, and may rely more heavily on grown-up guidance rather than self-direction. This is a difficult behavior to amend, because, of course, there’s a delicate balance between remaining engaged and available, and appearing aloof. A workable solution and great example of parental involvement that I’ve observed is to make art alongside your child. You remain available while also allowing them to continue making their own creative decisions.
“Evaluation” is a creativity killer that often follows surveillance. A child’s performance will be negatively impacted if they anticipate a critique of their abilities. Consider test anxiety in elementary students an example of evaluation. When there is more emphasis on the consequences of failure, children are less likely to embrace their accomplishments.
Rewards, though it seems counterintuitive, should also be carefully considered. Using rewards lessens the significance of the creative and problem solving processes, decreasing effort and motivating children to only complete a task in order to receive the resulting prize. Natural, intrinsic effort and motivation linked to the desire to succeed and create with passion will decline. Think of it this way: you decide that you can watch a movie if you finish a work assignment. You really want to watch this movie, and the assignment is the only thing standing in the way. Will you take the time to carefully plan out and complete the assignment, or will you rush through it to get the benefit of the reward? With children, the choice will likely be the latter.
Another “creativity killer” is competition, going hand-in-hand with pressure. Competition and pressure may lead to nervousness, uncertainty, and self-doubt in a child who leans toward introversion, or conversely, aggression and resentment in more outgoing personalities. As an example, there is a family with two siblings; both love art but only one is known as “the artist” of the family. The child who is not “the artist,” in spite of their love of the arts, will inevitably begin to doubt their artistic abilities, and may feel discouraged against future creative exploration.
Feeding a child’s creative environment is made easy with a few considerations on the parts of their grown-ups. Firstly, in art-making and other forms of brainstorming and problem solving, children need a certain degree of freedom. This includes the freedom to make choices and engage in self-guided learning, working to refine their own creative processes. Is a child making a magenta sky instead of a blue one in their landscape drawing, even though they know that the sky is generally blue? Consider that this may be the way they choose to represent their world before interjecting and making a correction.
Praise and compliments can be delivered in a constructive manner. Children take great pride in their artwork, and they expect the same level of enthusiasm to be reflected in their grown-ups. Research has found that instead of shorter, more generic compliments – “You’re so smart,” “You’re so talented,” “That looks great” – children respond better to more direct complimentary feedback. For example, “You worked really hard on that! I like the way you used those colors together.”
As adults in the lives of children, it’s our daily challenge to try to accommodate and encourage them to the best of our abilities. Positive experiences with creativity in childhood lead to creativity in adulthood. Personally, I’ve found that creative fulfillment leads to happiness. Meaningful interactions happen naturally, and through our own positive behaviors, we can yield the best possible results in a developing child’s mind.