Art at home – how I encourage my children’s creative expression

I am a teacher, mother of three children, an educational mentor, and a wife.

I have worked in the education sector for almost 20 years across various settings and roles. Over those two decades I have been exposed to plenty of debates and different schools of thought around what practices and approaches are best to support our young people to learn and thrive.

The use of stencils, colouring sheets and pre-cut materials in art experiences has been one of those ongoing topics up for debate amongst my colleagues throughout my career, however it wasn’t until recently when I took this debate home with me, as a mum, that I gained a whole new perspective.

The debate

After doing my own observations and undertaking my own research early in my career, I made the decision to not use structured art resources in my work. I believe, like many other teaching professionals, that providing children with stencils, colouring sheets and pre-cut materials in the early years is taking away the opportunity for children to develop schemas, limits individual expression, imagination, and children’s ability to communicate through the arts.

Art experiences which use pre-cut materials, or where a child is following instructions or trying to replicate an adult-made final product, are adult-led rather than children-led, and limit the child’s ability to use their own instincts regarding creativity, problem-solving and develop a positive disposition for learning. If their artwork doesn’t look like the ‘perfect design’ they feel that they are wrong, incapable or incompetent.

The impact on a child’s self-believe can continue into adulthood. I particularly like this poem from Helen E Buckley in exploring the impacts from a child’s perspective.

Becoming a mum

When I became a mum, I realised I needed to stop and consider what opportunities I was going to provide for my children to engage in art at home. From the birth of our first child, my husband and I ensured our children had access to open-ended art materials to explore and create and would always encourage our children to give something a try, rather than create it for them.

Rebecca with her three children

We never had any issue with encouraging any of our children to engage in art, with each of them instinctively and passionately wanting to draw all the time, from a very early age. They would create illustrations and portraits with such skill and detail that I was in awe and often thought, I bet I didn’t draw that well at that age (me with my own self-doubt right there).

I truly believed that all my children felt confident in their own ability to be creative and engage in artistic expression.

Putting our at-home art approach to the test

While working with a group of Early Childhood Teachers at G8 Education, the debate around the benefit of stencils and structured art materials arose, and I decided to conduct my own action research about the use of stencils, colouring sheets and pre-cut materials with my own children.

What I discovered by conducting this research still saddens and shocks me.

I presented my three children, aged 12, 10 and 5 at the time with a choice of open-ended art materials, pre-cut materials and some colouring in sheets. All my children opted for the pre-cut materials as their first choice.

While this choice surprised me, it was their reasoning behind their choice which troubled me more… both as a mum and teacher. Upon completion of their artwork I asked each of them why they chose the pre-cut materials. All three, in their own way, articulated to me that the pre-cut option meant they would be less likely to fail and be judged by others, but still allowed them to be creative.

Despite the best efforts of my husband and I, this result showed that all of my children exhibited self-doubt in their own artistic ability.

So what can families do to encourage self-belief and creativity in their children?

All this left me with many questions floating through my head.

Most pressing was that I knew my children had had plenty of exposure to open-ended art experiences at home, so where had this self-doubt and reliance on more guided art projects come from?

I think the most important thing we can do as parents is ensure we provide our children with provocations and open-ended art materials and experiences as much as possible, and advocate for this to happen in education environments and in other social environments they may encounter. Every creative opportunity we provide can have a positive impact on the learning dispositions and self-esteem of our children.

I know that many of you are probably thinking: We are just so busy, and it is so much easier to purchase a colouring in book. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had that thought too, but it can be just as easy, and cheaper, to buy some paper and pens for our children to use.

Provocations like animals, plants, people, beautiful scenery and architecture are all around us in our environments and in the photos we might have on our phones. It really doesn’t have to take much time at all.

For those days when we might have some extra time, providing a variety of art materials (paints, pens, pencils, clay, collage materials – the list is endless) to foster your child’s creativity and problem-solving will benefit them in so many other foundational areas of learning as well.

“Freedom of expression in art leads to creative expression in other areas as well. It is an essential foundation for reading, writing, mathematics and scientific reasoning”. McLean (2009, p.1).

If you would like to read more on this topic, please see some further resources below.

References and Resources

Buckley, H.E. (n.d.). The Little Boy.

Early Years Careers. (2016.) Why are stencils detrimental to children’s development? Early Years Careers. 

McGregor, B. (2010). Teacher Stories; Where is the PLAY in worksheets, colouring-in, art templates, phonics programs, sight words and early readers?, Educating Young Children – Learning and teaching in the early childhood years Vol 16, No 1, 2010.

McLean, C. (2009). What’s wrong with colouring books? INTERACTION Spring 2009 issue.

Schirrmacher, R. (2006). Inviting Creativity: The Teacher’s Role in Art, Community Play Things.