By Christopher Byrne
There is a magnificently lyrical song in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” in which the mother of the artist Georges Seurat says that the two things that are important for the survival of culture are children and art.
Through art, children explore and express themselves and tap into what makes them unique and powerful as humans and individuals. At another point in the Sondheim musical, Georges says, “Look, I made a hat./Where there never was a hat.” That is a quintessential human experience, and what separates us from other species. We are inherently curious and creative. While other animals merely respond to their environments, we shape ours—for better or worse.
Art—and art-centered play—allows children to imagine things and then make them real. This contributes to all kinds of learning and education. The ability to imagine something contributes to language arts, math, science and every discipline of traditional education.
Art therapists report consistent results in helping children concentrate more effectively. Apparently, modeling with clay or a compound or drawing stimulates the release of chemicals in the system that helps kids concentrate. (Same thing with physical activity, which is why the decline of recess and gym classes is another tragic contemporary development.)
Virtually every parents knows the pride of a child when he or she presents a drawing made in school, a handprint in plaster or the much anticipated popsicle stick napkin holder.
Given all of this, and the awareness among educators about the importance of arts (including the visual arts, music, drama) to child development, it’s tragic to note that spending on such programs has dropped about 20 percent each year in the past several years, and schools are eliminating any arts programs in the school. According to reporting in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the National Endowment for the Arts contributes only 2 percent of the money needed to fund arts programs.
Money is a big consideration, but so is litigation. We have interviewed public school teachers, who have asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, who say that they are afraid that parents will sue over injuries in art class. Seriously. I’m at a loss to imagine what these are, short of pushing a classmate into a hot kiln. Still, another school very nearly cancelled its drama program because a mother threatened a suit when her daughter wasn’t cast in the lead. (An outcry from the rest of the parents quelled that particular donnybrook, but not before embittering a lot of parents and giving the junior high students unnecessary insight into the seamier side of the legal system.)
So, what’s a parent or caregiver to do?
Well, with younger kids, up through perhaps 4th grade, create a space in your home—and time—for this kind of play. Fortunately, there are wonderful items on the market, and most of them are very affordable.
A roll of butcher paper and a box of crayons or paints can do just the same as an art class. (Just let the kids go.) Crayola, of course, has classic crayons in all sorts of configurations, but they also have things like paints and markers that emphasize no mess. We love their Color Explosion items that let kids reveal pictures, but complement these with classic, open-ended supplies where the only thing the child starts with is a crayon and an idea. We love the 150-piece telescoping Crayon Tower. (By the way, our survey of moms told us that they like the Crayola markers best because of the richness of the color and kids like how they draw.)
As for manipulative play, the classic compounds are still the best. Play-Doh has been around since 1956. There are all kinds of sets that inspire creativity and let kids work with different shaping tools to create all kinds of works of art. Younger kids may be more satisfied with the tools that let them create recognizable shapes. For some reason, Play-Doh sets that make food tend to be among the most popular. (Maybe because kids like food?)
The new Play-Doh Burger Builder combines guided creativity with open-ended play and is ideal for ages 3 and up. Oh, and if you think your little artist is a mega-talent waiting to happen, or just a creative kid, you can enter their creations in the Ready-Go-Play-Doh Contest and win a $5,000 playroom makeover for you and $5,000 for your school.
The reality is that not every child is going to be a talented artist just waiting to be discovered. In fact, much of what you’re going to see is going to be a mess. But
what you will see is engagement and expression, and those are very important. Helping children to reflect the world around them and their own imaginations is what this is all about.
It’s not about creating a masterpiece; it’s about opening the imagination.