When I first graduated from art school, I worked as an educational assistant at a public art gallery. In addition to making papier-mache with 6-year olds on Saturday mornings, I drove to multiple elementary schools with a mug of coffee in my hands, and a box of art supplies in my car.
On any given weekday, I could be found teaching 5th graders how to paint landscapes, showing 4th graders how to make masks, and walking 3rd graders through the construction of clay mobiles.
During those caffeine-fueled years, I stood in awe of my supervisor. Her name was Judith and she was the most skilled art educator I have ever met. Jude had a warm smile and an infectious laugh, and she could command the attention of any classroom, no matter how rowdy the students.
Children absolutely adored her.
One of the most wonderful ways she would transition into an art activity was to have the kids join her in a conversation. With a boatload of enthusiasm, she would invite them to go on an adventure. A discussion would ensue as Jude would explain to the students that they were in charge of their own travel plans.
First, they would decide how they would be traveling. Would it be by bus, train, plane, pigeon, or magic carpet? Giggles would erupt. Then, she would ask them to think about where their journey would take them (outer space, under the sea, the pizza shop?). Finally, she would inquire as to who they might meet when they arrived at their destination (a friend, a werewolf, a robot?).
By the time all was said and done, the kids couldn't wait to dig out their supplies and start creating. It was a hit every, single, time.
I've always loved open-ended art activities like this because it proves how just a few simple suggestions can pave the way for so much individual creativity.
In fact, I called on my experiences with Jude when writing What Can I Draw Today? Daily Drawing Prompts for Young Artists, an “alternative” drawing book for 8 to 12-year-olds, featuring lots of spaces - left intentionally blank - for children to share their ideas.
Instead of showing kids exactly what to draw and how to draw it, this book encourages them to draw what’s inside their hearts and minds. All of this is done with the help of the themed prompts which are little nudges, small ideas, and tiny sparks designed to help young people jumpstart their creativity. It’s all about providing invitations for children to slow down, wonder, imagine, and build, with no wrong answers.
Here’s the thing. When kids are afraid to fail, they become frozen and unable to try anything but the known and predictable. It's a pattern that will be carried with them throughout their lives.
Isn’t that a shame?
Making art should provide children with room to experiment, learn, and grow. But if the projects they are presented with always have too many restrictions (draw this here, use this color there), then a fear of failure can start to sneak up and smother whatever creativity might be lurking within.
This is why it is so important to give kids opportunities to work on open-ended projects, where no two results will be the same.
Don't get me wrong, foolproof, step-by-step arts and crafts can give children a huge confidence boost. But if every moment is directed, and every project is focused on making someone else's version of a "perfect", share-worthy product, then creativity will wane, mistakes won't happen, and kids will become frozen.
Open-ended drawing prompts can help children to get past the fear of doing something the "wrong" way and instead focus on finding their own way, one tiny spark at a time.