When I started in my current position, I had a great idea for Valentine’s Day (that was quickly approaching). I work for a company that runs about 140 childcare centers and I proposed that those of us in the corporate office make cards for each center. I went to the store and bought a bunch of art supplies. I spread these on tables in the conference room and invited my coworkers to help me make 140 cards. I introduced the activity and I invited them to dive in and create. Instead of digging into the materials, I was surprised to see that no one moved; they all just looked at me, lost expressions on their faces.

After a minute one asked, “What do you want us to do?”.

“Make valentines,” I replied.

“What do you want them to look like?” asked another.

“Like valentines,” I replied.

“Do you have one to show us?” a perplexed voice interjected.

At that moment I had a disturbing revelation. This was a group of adults that were raised on project art. Without a model, they didn’t trust themselves to make anything of value. This realization filled me with sadness as I knew that my coworkers had not been born this way – instead, teachers and other adults had shaped their fear of coloring outside the lines.

If I had provided a group of young children with the same materials and invited them to make cards, they would have jumped into the process enthusiastically and cards would have emerged. The final product might not look like what we might view as a traditional valentine – but they would proudly show off their creation. But as children make their way through our education system that innate creative joy is slowly eroded out of them.

Each time a teacher says,

“wait, not like that”

           “make it like mine”

                     “I’ll show you”

                                “do it like this”

                                           “put that there”

“we are all making …”

A child hears, “yours is not good enough”.

We are a society that values innovation and creativity. Not only in our artists, but in most walks of life. We need doctors that go outside the lines to discover new medicines and treatments. We need engineers that question the status quo and seek out new solutions. We need teachers who value learning and discovery and look for new ways to inspire the next generation. When we all just agree to color inside the lines, eventually there will be no one left to design new lines. But, if you look at the way we educate young children, you would think that following directions and spitting back facts are the traits we value most in our citizens.  

If we are to educate to what we value, that means that in the early childhood classroom art is not a time of day scheduled in the daily routine. Art is an area in the classroom filled with interesting materials that children can use to express their inner selves. Art is a teacher that says things like, “I wonder what you can do with that?” Art is time for children to explore materials and to find new ways to use and combine them. Art is time to revisit and build on previous experiences. The creativity that we cultivate in the early years grows well beyond the canvas of art – it helps children develop skills to look beyond what exists and to instead focus on what might be.

Almost 8 years ago in that conference room I was slapped in the face by what happens when the focus is on product instead of process. We did get the cards made. I explained that I did not have a model and that in fact, I did not even have a mental model of what they might create. I encouraged them to use their creativity; to innovate, to follow their own ideas. And, after some prodding, they jumped into the art. Laughter and talk filled the room as my coworkers got lost in the creation process. After a couple hours we had 140 Valentine cards; each one unique – each reflective of the unique human being that made it. And that, my friends, is art.

What do you think? Engage with me and others in the ECE community on my social media outlets. You can also find more information about my book and available training sessions, on any of the following:

Facebook: Teacher as Gardener

LinkedIn: Michelle Salcedo

My book Uncover The Roots of Challenging Behavior can be purchased at Free Spirit Publishing or Amazon

Interested in hearing more? Consider bringing me in as a speaker for your next Professional Development event (you won’t regret it).

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