On Being with Our Children and their Art

Written by Alison McQueen, MA, LPC- Executive Director of Aspenroots Counseling,  Art Therapist, and Mom

Young children love working with art materials, and there is so much happening as they experiment with creative processes.  As parents we have the honor of supporting and nourishing their imaginations as well as their physical and emotional well-being through engagement with art materials.  Fortunately my mindfulness meditation practices have continually taught me to slow down and let go of any attachment to a particular outcome, and my art therapy training has taught me to really value the process of working with materials (versus the product). As a facilitator of therapeutic art groups for toddlers, I am continually invited to explore mindfulness-based art processes with the children.  They are teaching me a number of valuable lessons related to trust, exploration, letting go, and slowing down.  
Letting go of adult agendas, and letting children lead
When I set out a child's sketchbook and box of markers, I may have the expectation that she will open the box and draw something.  If I let go of this agenda and let her lead, this is what happens.  She keeps the box closed and slides it all over the table, listening to the scraping sounds it makes as it rubs against the surface of the table.  She shakes it like a rattle and says 'Shake!'  She picks it up and drops it, she takes all the markers out and puts them all back in.  She rolls the markers underneath her hands.  She takes the lids off and on, off and on.  And then she draws.  If my primary interest is in what she draws, or is in that she draws at all,  I miss everything else that happens.  I miss out on her and her process.  There is a whole array of physical, cognitive, social and relational skills at play and being developed during art time.  Even in a short art session with children, any and all of the following things are happening-- trying, planning, deciding, experimenting, making "mistakes", experiencing amazement, awe and beauty, seeing, touching, smelling (hopefully not tasting!), getting frustrated and practicing frustration tolerance, mastering skills and gaining confidence, learning to trust ourselves and others, and learning about personal and shared space... and all of these things may happen before the child even makes a mark on the page.  

A very rich experience begins to unfold as she starts to draw, as well.  There are big loose swooping scribbles, there are tight fast scribbles, there's pounding and dot-making, there's musical tapping with the 'wrong' end of the marker onto the paper, and all of this is fun and meaningful play for her.  As parents it's so important that we pay close attention to the particulars of a child's art experience.  This is a vital way of attuning with our children and letting them know that we care about them and their world.  Particularly when children start going to school, their schedules and activities become very regimented and they have little choice over most things about their lives.  In art, though, they can make all of the choices.  They get to experiment with being in charge, being responsible for outcomes, and in that process they can learn to trust their ideas and decisions.  Practices like these lead to increased confidence, better decision making, and a healthier sense of self throughout life.  
Quick tip: Have art materials handy for emotional regulation
I recommend getting kids their own sketchbook to work in, even as young as age one, so that they begin to develop a relationship with their work and with their creative process.  Art-making can become a calming self-regulatory activity for young ones, and kids can guide themselves out of stressed and activated emotional states with simple paper and markers.  It can also be great to offer stickers, glue sticks, and magazine pictures.  Dry materials such as these can all fit into a box that you keep handy and reach for when kids need an energy shift and parents need a break.  Early on, I made materials like these available for my own daughter and by the time she was eighteen months old she was able to ask for art supplies when she got fussy and more often than not the materials, along with my attunement in using them with her, helped her calm down.  Try this out for seven days in a row and let me know what you discover!