One winter break years ago, my artist aunt signed us up for a dress-up competition at the local Equestrian show. We were called The Bucking Clown Act (you can decide why). As usual, my aunt went all in. There was far more doing than buying, so we created many things to complete our vibrant outfits and decorate our pony. One of those accessories was woolen pompoms.
My aunt cut out a cardboard template and showed me how to wind the wool, tie it off, and cut it to make pompoms. I was tasked with creating a specific number in a particular size and certain colors.
I remember enjoying learning how to make the pompoms because that was new to me. And it felt good to meet all my aunt’s requirements. The task was laid out, I accomplished it, and she gave her approval.
A few years later, as a teenager struggling with depression, I returned to visit my aunt’s farm for a change of scenery and nature time. She left me to my own devices for the first few days and chatted to me when I was up for it. One day, she cleared a space for me in her artist’s studio, laid out large sheets of white paper, and gave me an easel and paints. The rest was up to me. There was nothing I had to do, and I couldn’t get it wrong—what a relief.
Why All Art Making Is Not Created Equal
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re providing creative experiences for your children when you tell them exactly how to make the cookies, buy them paint-by-numbers templates, or show them how to create paper flowers just like the one you made as an example.
You’re not entirely wrong. There is some creativity involved, and your children are creating something. However, there are restraints, rules, and clear outcomes that define the success or failure of the project. There’s also not much room for exploration and personal expression.
These types of projects are examples of product art. It’s not bad, and there’s no need to shun it. Product art has its place and is very practical for things like birthday parties, road trips, or as a novelty experience. At the same time, parents and caregivers need to be aware of what product art lacks. Children must also have exposure to process art projects, which brings a therapeutic and life-skill-building angle that product art can’t match.
Engaging in Process Art
- Process art is immersive, non-linear, and expressive. It’s about the journey.
- Product art is structured, contained, and goal-oriented. It’s about the destination.
It’s essential to give your child opportunities to spend time on the journey because that’s where the self-development gold lies. Process art supports rich learning because of its open-ended nature. Your child gets to explore, express, experiment, imagine, and they cannot get it wrong. Whatever they create is as it should be.
Imagine your daughter in front of a large blank page, armed with paint colors, glue, scissors, glitter, fabric off-cuts, leaves, and flowers. Anything is possible, and she’s free to choose her adventure.
She gets to explore how different textures, shapes, colors, and mediums work and don’t work, what is possible and what isn’t. There’s no failure, only new information. She gets to decide what colors appeal, how big or small she wants to go, and how she can express her inner world. There’s no mandate to fill; she can do as is natural for her.
Bring Process Art Into Your Home
You can’t go wrong with blank paper and paint, but here are some ideas for bringing in different elements, textures, challenges, and experiences:
1) Salt Painting
Materials: Table salt, cardboard, glue, water paints or diluted food coloring, and plastic droppers.
Activity: Use the glue to draw on the cardboard. Pour salt over your glue design and tap off excess. Drop colors across your design, mix colors on your painting, or watch how the colors travel and blend because of the salt and the barriers created by it.
2) Clay Play
Materials: Home-made playdough, clay from the backyard if your soil contains it, or store-bought potter’s clay if you want to keep the objects made. Bring in other elements like buttons, pebbles, twigs, leaves, etc.
Activity: Get your hands dirty and create.
Materials: Small wood pieces from cut-offs and old furniture or toys (or wherever you can find pieces of wood and glue).
Activity: Get gluing and enjoy seeing never-before-seen structures coming to life.
4) Resist Art
Materials: White fabric, glue, and fabric paints. Or paper, wax crayons, and watercolors.
Activity: Resist art is any art that uses mediums that repel each other (like water and wax) to create specific effects. First, apply your glue or crayon, then paint over your canvas as you experiment with colors.
5) Outdoor nature mandalas
Materials: Flowers, leaves, stones, twigs, straw – whatever your child gathers.
Activity: Create a picture on the grass using everything that was gathered and leave it as a gift to nature.
While adults can set up most of these activities for children to do independently, family process art is an inclusive way to explore the unknown together and create as a team, with no required outcome. You can find inspiration in each other’s different methods and discuss what’s happening or what you’re discovering as you each create.
Your Role In Your Child’s Art Explorations
As a general rule, many parents struggle to mind their own business and allow their children to lead. Process art requires both. Choose to step back, get curious, and listen instead of taking over, advising, and critiquing.
- Set up an art station for the intended activity with everything they need and let them at it.
- Ensure it’s setup in a place where you’re comfortable with them making a mess so that your contagious anxiety (kids know) doesn’t affect their ability to relax into self-expression and flow.
- Ask open-ended questions to help your child explore deeper.
- Show interest by way of being playfully curious about what they’re choosing to do.
- Let them take the lead and guide you into their world.
- Allow children their reality by validating what they’re expressing and experiencing. If yellow is a sad color for your child, let it be. If they tell you they’ve made a face, and all you see is scribbles, resist asking, “what about eyes and a nose?”
Don’t Do This
- Give formal instructions.
- Show them what their creation should look like when they’re done.
- Fix, take over, or redo what they’ve made.
- Advise children on what they could do or shouldn’t have done.
- Comment and critique.
- Share your interpretation of what they’re doing or have made.
Positive Outcomes of No Required Outcome
Remember, the goal with process art is to set up a container for self-expression, exploration, and flow. We want to do this because free play allows children to develop self-regulation skills, critical thinking, emotional release, and creativity.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) cites the following benefits:
- Nurturing social and emotional health, reinforcing skills like relaxation, focus, self-esteem, and emotional sharing
- Building cognitive skills like comparison, prediction, planning and problem-solving
- Development of fine motor skills through painting, cutting, gluing
- Potentially helping to foster verbal expression and language skills if the child chooses to discuss their work
The Montessori approach supports process art because “creativity flourishes when it is pursued for its own enjoyment. This type of art is rich in concrete, developmentally appropriate skills like coordination, spatial reasoning, sensory exploration, cognitive development through planning, comparison and problem-solving, and a feeling of pride and success.”
Encouraging youngsters to start process art early and continue practicing it as they age makes sense. The practice is safe, supportive and sets children up to express their authentic selves unapologetically.
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top image Bárbara Fróes on Unsplash