Fostering real creativity in your kids

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Do you ever agonize – just a little – while watching your kids do art? Whether it is playing an instrument or painting I think we all sometimes watch out of the corner of our eye. Or maybe we watch like a hawk.

Check out this painting.

I was so delighted when my child pulled out the paints last night instead of asking for her favorite TV show. “Excellent” I thought, secretly proud that my child had chosen the better path. But then I stuck my nosey self into her work. She did a beautiful blue wash on on her painting and a perfect white mysterious white moon in the centre. 

The next time I look I’m screaming inside, “What are those weird white lines you stuck all over your beautiful blue wash and moon?” 

I hold back my frustration but passively aggressively ask, “What is that a picture of??”. (Later I was reminded that I could have more gently asked, “Can you tell me about this picture?”)

Thank God I return to reading my books and articles and leave her be.

Do the stars ever align in the various things you are reading? I’m staring hard in the face of how I stifle creative ability in my kids in small ways. I’ve been reading the philosophy of Creative Ability Development suggested by our violin teacher Katie Avery. At the same time, I’ve been reading an article from the Charlotte Mason method Parent’s Review magazine called “The Approach to Art”, By K. Minn. This article is well over a hundred years old. 

These articles that span a century at least, one at the beginning, the other written in 1996, warn against the way we stifle creativity in our children and why creativity is so important (though like all qualities, varies in children to different degrees). In the Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development [in music] by Alice Kay Kanack, she paints this picture story from her past: 

“The first week I wrote a song and brought it to my lesson. [The teacher] did not criticize it. Instead he asked me to write four different harmonizations of the song so that we could choose the best one. For the remainder of the lesson he showed me scores by other composers and we listened to music.

For the next several weeks I brought in different harmonizations and arrangements of the same song. Each time, [the teacher] would ask me for more, and play me more music and show more scores by other composers. As the weeks went by I became more and more frustrated and found that I lived the piece less and less. I knew that it was better than when I started, but I also knew that it wasn’t having the power I wanted. 

Finally….it all came to a head. I was working late one night in a practice from and finally became so frustrated that I picked up the music, tore it up, and threw it away. Suddenly ideas and inspirations started flowing. It was the song but not the song. It was a completely new arrangement of the song, keeping the parts I liked best and replacing other parts with much better music.

I brought this song to my lesson and [my teacher] said ‘That’s it. The song is finished.’ I couldn’t believe it. How did he know? I told him what had a happened and he just smiled and put on some new music to listen to.”

This resonates with the Mason method, which discourages excessive praise, as well as criticism, coming from the teacher. It’s about encouraging the process and keeping the child on that creative process — being a guide, philosopher and friend. Notice how the teacher didn’t heap tremendous congratulations when the student finally found her song. He continued on the process. The student’s own satisfaction with her creative outcome was enough. 

CAD (The Creative Ability Development philosophy) pairs nicely with the Suzuki method we use. CAD proposes that good creative growth requires these ingredients:

1. Repetition of the question or problem needed a solution. Basically this is discipline and is the hardest part for most children. It means to keep painting and trying to get what is in your mind’s on eye onto the paper. With violin, it means practicing those scales so that you have the tools you need to compose or improvise a piece. 

2. Exposure to great examples of artistic beauty. For music this means listening to the Suzuki CD for the one millionth time or just listening to darn good music. Bach wasn’t only naturally gifted. He walked over 500 miles to study with the great Buxtehude organist. That’s basically good music on repeat in the 1600s. He studied the greats all through his early childhood.

3. No criticism during the creative process. This is a big no-no in the Charlotte Mason method. Never interrupt a child’s narration of what they just read. Don’t ask your child why they just inserted squiggly lines all over their beautiful painting. As hard as it may be. But is there a time for constructive criticism – perhaps. But not during the creative process. But it’s less criticism as showing another way.

The first two are easier for me to understand. Discipline. I get that. I am one of those people, Kay describes, who naturally has a higher ratio of analytical thought than creative thought. She says the ratio is usually 40:60 or 60:40 and occasionally 80:20 and 20:80. Mozart was likely 80:20 in favour of creative thought.

Regardless, this process is important for all natural inclinations. In hopes that my daughter is a creative genius I want to think she is the same as Mozart but she is likely 60:40 (similar to many others) in favour of creative juices over analytical juices. 

Exposure to great examples of artistic beauty. No problem. My house is basically an art gallery. My husband says if I put up any more art we are going to have to start charging an entry fee to subsidize all the frames I keep buying. 

In the mason method Parent’s Review article I am reading by Minn (suggested by The CMEC for our fall art instruction retreat), the author writes:

“Since this enjoyment in true works of art is so lively in little children, is it not infinitely more desirable that they should have about them, on their nursery walls and in their schoolrooms, reproductions of pictures that have passed the test of time rather than the pretty, mediocre pictures drawn for children that one so often sees?….She is able to recognize the essentials of composition and has gained a sense of significant form, which influences the choice of subject, the grouping and planning of her own paintings and studies, and which increases not only her appreciation of pictures, but of all forms of nature, architecture and machinery.“

Minn reminds us not to focus on just the utilitarian benefits of looking at good art or listening to good music:

“We do not seek to do more than prepare the children to enter into the infinite realm of art, with a firm basis of knowledge, by which they may appreciate and know the beautiful and the true, and to arouse in them the artistic intuition and creative abilities, which, in most of us, have been allowed to lie dormant…the six year old child should begin both to express himself and to appreciate, and his appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees and imagines.”

Minn concludes her article with the simple reminder:

“I should like to emphasize, once again, the necessity for encouraging freedom, spontaneity and joyousness by supplying the children with an abundance of good material and by refraining from the least suspicion of condemnation.”

Condemnation. Criticism. It’s that that third ingredient of the CAD method: no criticism during the creative process. Yikes. Guilty as charged. 
But surely, how can child learn to draw if not instructed. Minn explains the process by which a child can learn mainly on her own:

“Give the child large sheets of paper, paints and brushes, and he will cover them with the most delightful spontaneity, and often with a remarkable sense of colour and an astonishing feeling for design. Unhampered by technique, he fills the spaces happily, placing his figures with confidence. It is absolutely essential to build up this faith in his work, to foster this confidence, spontaneity and feeling for design throughout the early years, and especially through the most difficult years from ten to twelve or thirteen, when he begins to realize that his efforts lack reality.”

But she is unequivocally clear:

“We must not condemn or ridicule, nor in any way dishearten him or kill his joy ; his drawings are very real to him, and he very much resents our touching them at all. And here I should like to add that the less we work on a child’s drawings or models the better. Occasionally it is necessary to show the older ones how they can pull their work together and how to carry it a stage further; but by far the best method is to show them on another spare sheet of paper any suggestion or method in technique.

What genius! This is exactly what the music teacher did in the modern music example above. Instead of criticism, he just pulled out some really sublime music for the student to listen to. Over and over again.  This was enough to correct faults, push to creative heights. To inspire!

“The criticism of an original composition, particularly one in progress, is A very painful Experience because original music comes from the composer’s unique sensitivity to truth and beauty….If a teacher, parent, or fellow student criticizes a creator’s choices that person becomes creator by virtue of his criticism. That criticism is that person’s choice of the correct solution to the given creative problem.” (CAD)

So what is the teacher’s role in arts and crafts?

It is to provide all the exposure to beautiful examples as well as increase the child’s familiarity with “various tools and all kinds of materials, so that he may understand how to handle them with dexterity and to the best advantage” (Minn). For Mason, it is also about curating content to read and look at as well as handicraft work that is within the ability of the student, even if pushing to her to the edge of her ability. If it is beyond the scope of possibility the child will get frustrated, bored or have a meltdown.

And avoid comparison between children. I need to remember that my daughter and son may fit differently on the creative/analytical spectrum. The truth is most classical methods of education (Mason is different in significant ways from classical education) emphasize the analytical way of learning, and for a very creative child this means asking a left-handed child to do all her regular tasks with her left hand tied behind her back. It’s asking her to mainly rely on her left side (the analytical side) when the right side of her brain is her real strength.

Teachers and parents are not the only ones who do this. Children can do this to other children: “ Your drawing looks like a baby’s drawing!” We recently subscribed to a Waldorf online art instruction session that helps children evaluate each other’s art in a group environment. They taught instructors some better questions to ask when everyone has attempted a similar tree-themed piece of art (the results all look quite different):

“What season do you think this tree is living in?”
“Does this child’s tree look like it belongs in a forest or by itself?”
“Which tree looks like a storm is blowing through?”
“Which tree looks like the leaves are fresh rather than just at the end of the summer season?”

The journey to abundant and joyful creative and original expression is very simple. I find I complicate the matter. These two pieces of educational philosophy agree that it is:

Freedom of choice/freedom from criticism
+
Disciplined practice/repetition of making creative choices
= Creative ability.

SO….
To foster a creative thinker, speaker, writer:

Freedom to express in your own words the ideas that you find
+
Repeatedly reading or hearing new ideas
=A creative thinker (eventually either in writing or speaking or both)

To develop the creative artist:

Freedom to express your music or art in your own way
+
Repeated and un-rushed exposure to good music and art
=A creative artist

I love when worlds collide. I am thankful for these two methods with similar outlooks on education written at either side of a century.

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