Art with Young Children

Arts and Crafts. That phrase probably revives memories of elementary school classrooms or summer camp. Being asked to wind yarn around Popsicle sticks glued together, or to paint a picture of the outdoors. More often than not cookie-cutter crafts and art projects would be produced, taken home to smiles from mom and dad and then eventually thrown away. Unless you are my mom, who apparently has boxes full of old items ready to be gifted back to my hands and out of her house. Why did we and do we continue to engage children in arts and crafts? The purpose surely cannot be so that can mass produce animal masks and dream catchers.

Early in my career as an educator I began thorough research into this topic and came across the phrase, “Process, not Product.” Put simply, this means your child’s process of creating the piece of art, or the craft is more meaningful and educational than the finished product. Isn’t that interesting? I thought it was. As a trained actor and musician the purpose of the finished product was to create something recognizable and enjoyable for the audience. What would “42nd Street” be without flashy costumes and tap shoes? Or what about a Mozart symphony where all the violins were flat. But then I thought about this further. Each performance of a piece, even with the same group of performers is never exactly the same. When a theatrical production is done by different directors, actors and producers it becomes it’s own entity, different from all that came before and will come after.

Then it made sense. As an actor learning my lines or my notes were only a part of the piece. Each show I have been in has taught me new words to add to my lexicon, a new technique or behinds the scene trick. With each show, I have learned something new through the process of creating the production.

So What’s the Process?

Open-ended art is a process of creating which allows free-range while creating. You create with what is available to you and possibly with no clear destination in mind. Open-ended art supplies are now common in a preschool or kindergarten classroom, including paper, markers, crayons, scissors, glue, stickers, stamps, paint, sequins etc. Children are free to create throughout the day. This type of art center can be easily made at home. Open-ended art allows children to use their imagination to explore and create without it having to be something. Young children who engage in art often don’t know what they are creating and will usually not decide if ever until they are completed.

What Are They Learning?

  • Problem Solving
  • Creative Expression
  • Critical Thinking
  • Mathematical and Spatial Reasoning
  • Science Skills

At Home

Our house is a well-spring of supplies and yours is too! Recyclables are some of the best items you can use and kids adore them! All of those empty cereal and snack boxes, catalogs you toss away, junk mail all can be used in open-ended art. If you are like me and believe an Amazon Delivery Away Keeps the Urge to Raid Target Away, save the boxes and let them use those! My youngest son has created rather elaborate forts of late out of boxes with just scissors and markers and my older son created airplanes and boats with empty 2-liter bottles, egg cartons, and cardboard. Consider collecting buttons, fabric scraps, string, twine, Popsicle sticks. If you can save it, they will use it.

Language Please!


At times our child’s art leaves us thinking… what is that?! Instead of asking your child, “What is that?” replace it with, “Can you tell me about what you made?” When we ask a child what their art is we immediately imply we can’t recognize it, aka, it’s not good. When you ask them about it you provide the opportunity for an open ended answer. Often when young children are engaged in art they don’t even know what they are making, so asking them what it is puts them on the spot, which is an uncomfortable position for children and adults alike! Follow up with further open-ended questions which will promote language skills and critical thinking. Some suggestions are

  • Can you tell me more about this blue line you drew?
  • I see you drew triangles, can you count them?
  • Why did you choose to use red and purple?
  • How does your drawing make you feel?

Accept the Mess


This can be the hardest part, but it should become our mantra to ensure our kids feel the freedom to create. This doesn’t mean we allow them to trash the kitchen with paint and glitter, but messes that occur as part of the natural process when making art are OK. Help your child build a sense of independence and responsibility by teaching them in clean up process. Breathe easy, go mediate in the next room is mess bothers you and allow the mess to happen, but make sure clean up is a group effort!

So grab the glue sticks and glitter because it’s time to get messy!

It’s OK to be scared, I am too.

I was recently researching a writing project, and I came across the term Re-Entry Panic Syndrome. I had not heard of this, and as I read, I began to relate to the feelings being characterized by the syndrome. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge created this name, and it addresses anxiety pertaining to concerns of re-entering the workplace. Dr. Capanna-Hodge is a mental health expert based out of Connecticut. She describes the syndrome as follows, “… it is when feelings of panic come over you like a wave and you can’t leave your home, or you have to return to work or school. You are afraid of leaving your cozy quarantine abode because you don’t want to get sick or feel unsafe.” I totally get that. It is not that I don’t want to be out in public, and I miss my students terribly, but there is a sense of worry and fear about what will happen if I go out?

Being “blessed” with diagnosed anxiety, it made sense to me that I would exhibit some of the symptoms related to Re-Entry Syndrome. I had already been feeling this dread of going back to the world. I am an introvert by nature, and because of that, I have not found quarantine to be as challenging as many others. That, unlike having anxiety, indeed, has been a blessing. We had a COVID-19 related scare in my house recently, just when everything is supposed to be dying down and becoming safer. Thankfully, the test results came back negative. Still, the fact remains, coronavirus is very much alive and thriving in parts of this country, so why would I want to go out?

Add to that, I have young children. And while I understand completely that deaths related to COVID-19 are substantial to the adult side, why take the risk? I do not personally believe I suffer from this syndrome. People I know and love have been working this whole time or have returned to work, but I am decidedly worried and cautious. I would be able to return to work without adverse psychological effects but currently, my children have no one to watch them and nowhere to go. Three of the four summer camps I enrolled my older son in this summer have been canceled, and I have no option for my younger son. It’s not exactly like I can leave a six-year-old boy and nine-year-old boy home during the day… I am sure nothing bad would happen. Oh yeah, it’s also illegal. In the words of Olaf, “This is fine.”

Like anxiety and panic disorders, those who have Re-Entry Panic Syndrome may have shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, difficulty sleeping, mood fluctuation, and irritability. However, the unique symptom is becoming upset, stressed, and worrisome when someone close to them re-enters and goes back to work. If you believe you are suffering from these symptoms, there are many steps you can take to help set your mind at ease. Use disinfectant wipes if you travel via public transportation or in a carpool. Wear your mask as much as you like, even in places it is not required. If it makes you feel mentally secure, then wear it. As we’ve been told all long, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth, and face. A key point is to remember is germs on electronics. Frequently clean your phone, mouse, TV remote, keypad, etc. If wearing gloves makes you feel safe, then do that too, but please keep in mind wearing gloves and a mask are not a fail-safe prevention system. Gloves serve little to no purpose unless you are taking them off each time you touch something and then wash your hands immediately. When wearing gloves as soon as you touch a surface, any germs that were on that surface are now on your gloves. So guess what? The next thing you touch now has those same germs. I have worked in early childhood for fourteen years; trust me, gloves are not a magical intervention. Please wash your hands.

If you feel you need to talk to someone or may require professional help, you can go to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America or the ADAA’s website. It offers resources and a directory if you want to search for treatment in your area. Providers offer video and/or phone sessions. You can also reach out to the SAMHSA’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-622-4357. Anxiety Anonymous is another resource if you want to reach out and talk to others. They are currently holding daily sessions to which you can call in and participate.

Re-entry panic syndrome, depression, general anxiety, whatever the case may be, it is OK to seek help. The recent situations in America have made us all feel uneasy, broken, confused, angry, and more. To quote my favorite musical, “Into the Woods,” No one is alone. If you know of someone to whom this post may be of value to, please pass it along and share it. For more information on Re-Entry Syndrome, please visit Dr. Capanna-Hodge’s website here.

Your Kid Won’t Starve: The Chicken Nugget Battle

Photo Credit Patrick Fore

                Your kid will not starve themselves, I promise.  Parents concerned about their child’s eating habits is probably the number one concern I have heard in my 14 years of teaching early childhood.  Parents surveyed once their children are older reflect that worrying about what their child ate was among the top three things on which they wish they focused less. 

Photo Credit Louis Hansel
Photo Credit Toa Heftiba

                As adults, we have this lovely ability to eat emotionally.  Got a new job?  Let’s celebrate with tacos and margaritas until we’re so stuffed we can’t even move.  Your boyfriend broke up with you?  You have the right to gorge yourself on chocolate cake and ice cream.  Have your children stressed you to the point of no return?  Time to break out the Girl Scout cookies and wine.  It’s what we do.  Happy, Sad, Stressed we reward or comfort ourselves with food.  Children do not have that emotional attachment to food yet; therefore, we don’t need to worry about them over or under eating.  They eat when they are hungry.  That’s it. 

Photo Credit Sanjay Kumar

               

Now, don’t get me wrong, children can most definitely learn poor eating habits, and when we, as adults, use food as a constant reward or punishment, we are sowing the seeds of emotional eating. Food should be food.  Food can be fun and engaging, but it is food, something our body needs to survive.  If your child is presented with multiple options consistently, they will be more likely to try new things.  When we, as parents, worry that Billy doesn’t like anything other than chicken nuggets and fruit snacks, and hence only feed him that, we are depriving him of the opportunity to grow emotionally and physically.   I have seen it so often; a child brings the same lunch every day because mom or dad believes their child will go hungry unless they send the same five things known to be approved by their 4-year-old.  Guess what?  They won’t.  If your child refuses to eat the food given to them, yes, they may be a little hungry.   But they will remember what it feels like, that maybe they were a little grumpy or tired and after a few times of that feeling they will eat.  They will not starve.  They are not biologically nor evolutionary designed to allows themselves to.

Photo Credit Paul Hanoaka

                Here is where the fun science stuff comes in!  Metaphorically raise your hand if you have a picky eater at home… right, most of us have or do.  I have one now, and I know the struggle.  Now, what if I told you there is an evolutionary-based reason for this, would you feel better?  Young children, specifically between the ages of 3-6, are designed to be picky eaters, so they don’t poison themselves.  Back in the early human days of hunting and gathering, young children were often left unattended.  They would wander and play with other kids, and to make sure the human race didn’t kill itself off, evolution made young children extremely wary of unknown foods.  Hence, the creation of the modern-day picky eater.

                No one likes to see their child upset, but when we regularly give in to the whining and demands and make them mac and cheese for the 4th straight night in a row, we are allowing them to be in control, and we’re the adults, that’s kind of our job.  I get it, I’ve been there, I’ve capitulated too, it’s human.   But the key is to make giving in the exception, not the rule.  I had the battle of breakfast myself today.  My nine-year-old wanted frozen french toast sticks with syrup and powdered sugar.  I am okay with that; he’s a mostly healthy and adventurous eater.  The problem was, he wanted to take that sticky and messy meal to sit in the basement and watch TV.  I said no.  I explained that the meal was too messy to eat down there, and the tirade began.  I don’t trust him, and I never let him do anything, I am so unfair.  I calmly stated, again, why he was not allowed to eat such a messy meal over the carpeted floor and said what would be unfair is not to allow him to eat at all.  He stormed away, saying that since I wouldn’t let him eat, he was going to the basement.  Not what I said, kid, but okay.

Photo Credit Joshua Coleman

                Fifteen minutes later, he contritely came upstairs and politely asked if he could have breakfast.  See, it works.   I didn’t enjoy it, it raised my stress levels, and I had yet to imbibe the delicious smelling coffee sitting out on our coffee bar calling to me.  But, he was used to my consistency and knew it was a losing battle to push.  My younger one could live on fruit and candy, and he’d be happy.  That’s not sustainable, of course, but he is in the picky phase.  So I keep the house stocked with the healthy things I know he likes: oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, grilled chicken, cheese, and granola bars.  I also make new and non-favorites regularly and place them on his plate.  When dealing with a picky eater, you should always make sure they have at least one thing on their plate that you know they like.  That way they are guaranteed to eat something.  Then consistently and methodically keep trying the unliked foods and encouraging one bite.  That’s it—one bite. 

                Don’t ever force them to finish the whole plate; this is another way to create an unhealthy relationship with food.  If they say they are full, then they are full.  They will not starve themselves.  If you served them their usual portion of chicken nuggets and they say they are not hungry, okay.   Since you know your child likes chicken nuggets, let them know if they are hungry later, they will be having the nuggets before they have something else.   I currently have 2/3 of a requested hot dog sitting in limbo. 

Photo Credit D. Hanelle

                In the end, you know your child best, and you have to do what you feel is right for your kid.  When parents come to me with this concern, I impart a cliff notes version of the above, and I ask them to speak to their pediatrician.  If your child’s doctor is not concerned with their eating habits or weight, then realistically, neither should you.  We all want happy, healthy children, and concern about their nutrition is valid.

Photo Credit Elevate

Food should be enjoyable. We should certainly find times to celebrate our triumphs are share our sorrows over a meal. A staple in every major holiday is the food. So celebrate the diverse options we have in this world. Enjoy the night our with friend’s just because. I simply ask you to consider the science behind children and their eating and the benefits of creating a healthy relationship between your child and food as young as you can. You will make it through, and they won’t starve.  Promise.