Art Experiences

I am pretty gung-ho about recycling, conserving resources and generally saving the planet. I am also a passionate artist and educator. Sometimes I find these ideals in conflict with each other. I utilize natural elements such as sticks, rocks and sand in creating art projects. I find ways to make art out of recyclables and items that people give away or throw away such as fabric scraps and packing peanuts. However, in order to embrace all that art has to offer, I need to buy things. Often things that are not environmentally conscientious, like paint, foam sheets and wood. And I need to throw things away, sometimes lots of things – paper that has paint on it, various tough to clean containers, unusable or broken supplies. I feel a bit guilty about generating more trash at my job than at my house.

However, it is all in the name of learning. Especially when you are creating with young children, there is a lot of waste. They are not adept at conserving and we should not limit their resources. We need to provide our children a large variety and quantity of materials to give them the freedom they need to experiment and therefore learn.

We have emphasized Earth Day issues with our preschoolers all week, and many of us do this all year long. Today being Earth Day, we put together a fun set of activities to celebrate.

Nature Bugs – the children had a handful of clay to use as the basis for their bug. On the table were items from nature such as rocks, sticks, acorns, a variety of colored beans, various types of seed pods and spent flowers. There were no googly eyes, pipe cleaners or plastic beads. The kids had a blast! Did their creations look like bugs? Many did not, but the point is that they created using only natural materials that were also very interesting to work with.

I Love Earth tee shirts – I have some reservations about painting a t-shirt in celebration of Earth Day because first, consumerism is not much of a way to celebrate anything, and second, by purchasing t-shirts we are consuming cotton, the second-most pesticide sprayed crop in the world (the first being corn).  However, it turned out that creating our t-shirts was a great way to promote awareness. I placed foam letters that spelled “I <heart> Earth” on the shirt and had the kids place wood shapes of flowers and butterflies around it. Then together we sprayed on fabric paint diluted with water. The children took the stencils off and loved the resulting white shapes! They were really proud of their creations and enjoyed wearing them all day.

Shoe Garden – Parents brought in shoes that were worn out or too small and the children put soil in them, planted seeds and watered them. A great lesson in recycling and reusing items in new ways. The shoes looked very inviting placed in a circle around a large tree on the playground and hopefully soon they will start sprouting.

The personal lesson I took away from today is that the best we can do is much more than doing nothing at all. I help teach a new generation important lessons about our environment all year long. I give children opportunities to create with natural materials. I am not going to be fanatical about recycling every glue container. I am not going to limit my students to one piece of paper each in the name of conservation. When I step back and look at the big picture, I feel great about the efforts I am making to raise awareness and connect with our Earth. What are you doing?

Four mornings a week, I teach art to small children ages 2-5. I actually teach exploration, self-confidence, creative thinking, problem solving, cooperation, patience, persistence, pride in your work, adventure, positivity and so much more. The idea being that children this age do not have the cognitive ability to understand, say, a lesson on perspective in art, however they do have the ability to learn that trying new things, although it can be a bit scary, can also turn out to be a lot of fun (and a lot of learning, but they don’t know that part!). When you are little, your job is to figure out how to navigate your world. You don’t have much experience so many things are new to you. How do you find things out? You try them! Our jobs as teachers and parents are to provide small children with as many opportunities as possible to absorb the world around them.

Science has shown us that children’s brains grow most rapidly from birth to age 5. Millions of synapses and connections are being made daily. The more children experience, the more connections they gain. As we age, the connections we don’t use slowly fall away. This begins at the shockingly young age of 6! (Yikes, do I have any brain connections left?!) The conclusion being that when you are very young is when you learn the most.

One of the important things I want to teach youngsters is to try something new. The only way to figure something out is to try it. Some children are inherently adventurous and will touch or try most anything. However, more and more, I have children who are afraid. Afraid of touching something that looks sticky, messy or “gross”. Afraid of trying something that they think might be too hard for them to do. Giving up after a single poke of clay or a few seconds of trying to build a sculpture. Some children are just more cautious than others, some learn quickly from their parents or caregivers not to make a mess and some learn early that failure is a huge disappointment (the subject of a future post).

I am here to say, “Push past your fears children! It’s OK!”

If they learn to push past their fears now, they will not only learn more presently, but carry this confidence into other areas of their lives as they mature. They will try new foods, try playing new sports, try learning a new language or subject, try new social strategies, try playing an instrument, try new technologies, try new careers. In short, be an interesting and successful person.

When I was a child, my backyard had an area that was just for playing in the dirt. I spent many happy hours there making mudpies, building stick towns and creating adventures for my plastic toys. Sometimes with other kids, sometimes alone. Nobody cared if I got dirty, least of all me. In retrospect I see that all this play was actually a lot of learning. In fact, play is a child’s work.

Every Friday at my school, I set up an activity for the children to do outside on the playground. It is optional; if a child wants to try it, great, if they just want to go down the slide a million times instead, that’s fine too. Yesterday I set out a dozen trays of mud. Yes, dirt plus water. I also placed plastic spoons and cups on each tray so children could try it out without much touching at first, and so they would have some props to use the mud with.

Many children loved this new sensory experience. They reveled in the cool, thick feeling on their hands, they drew in the mud with their fingers, they filled the cups to make chocolate ice cream and put sticks in the mud to make trees. Some children came over, saw the mud and said, “yuck, that’s gross!” My cheery response was, “the grosser, the better!” Some of those same children returned a few minutes later to poke around in the mud for a bit.

I have seen enormous transformations in children. By the last half of the school year, children who wouldn’t try are trying. Children who wouldn’t touch are touching. Children are experimenting and experiencing all their wonderful world has to offer. We adults can learn a lot from small children.

It’s that time of year when everyone is cleaning. Yard sales abound. There’s a lot more stuff out for bulk trash week. When Spring arrives, we just want to declutter. Even I (kind of) want to do it!

I’ve never been very good at cleaning, organizing, filing or getting rid of stuff. A creative mind often doesn’t want to focus on left brain activities. However I do really like to be able to find things when I need them, not have things spill out at me when I open a closet and live in a reasonably sanitary environment. I try to keep these likes in mind while attempting to create order in my life, home and studio.

For a few months now I have been reading about the trend towards minimalism. Most people who are attracted to this lifestyle concept want to have less stuff to store and clean. They want to lead a simpler, less stressed life by engaging in calming, uncluttered surroundings. I personally like the idea of simplifying my life; who couldn’t use a bit of space, both in our cabinets and in our consciousness? One of the most well known minimalist bloggers, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits fame, defines minimalism as eliminating the unnecessary to make room for the important. In theory this sounds great. Get rid of stuff you don’t love. Live with stuff you really love or really need. Get rid of commitments you don’t want to do. Say yes when it matters.

I LOVE art supplies. And I have a lot of them. I love shopping for art supplies, even though I hate shopping. I keep a lot of stuff just in case I need it. But this appears to go against all that minimalism espouses. How can I gain all the advantages of peace, harmony and organizational bliss while keeping all my stuff? Can artists be minimalists? Is there even a way to apply the principles of minimalism to art supplies?

I am going through all my supplies and evaluating how often I use them, which I think will give me an idea how important that item is. I have found a lot of things other people may not even consider art supplies, but when you teach creativity, everything is game! We make prints from bubble wrap and rope, we paint with hair combs and cotton balls and we make sculptures from toilet paper rolls and old machine parts. It’s going to be tough for me to throw out anything I think I could ever possibly use.

So far I haven’t had much trouble getting rid of several bags of clothes, bikes my kids outgrew years ago and dozens of extra cups cluttering up the kitchen cabinets. So I am on a roll of sorts. But art supplies seem sacred to me, I feel like I need them all. They’re art. They’re creative potential just waiting to be shaped. I just know a project will come along where I will want all those styrofoam balls. None of my art supplies seem unnecessary.

Maybe I will just organize it all into pretty containers. Maybe I will just get rid of a few really old things. Maybe I will scale back and get rid of half of the toilet paper rolls, glitter containers and paper scraps. It’s a conundrum, and something I will continue to consider.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about patience, probably because I find myself needing more of it, (especially with my two teenagers!). As with parenting, when it comes to creating, patience is how you get things done – little by little. You can’t create anything of value, whether it be a healthy and happy child, a fantastic painting or a great project at work without a lot of patience. I think it is human nature to want to accomplish things quickly, thus the proliferation of fast weight loss plans and get rich quick schemes. But we need to remind ourselves that quick fixes are rarely real fixes. Anything important, anything meaningful, anything big, takes time and therefore patience to work for that something for all of that time.

So then, what’s the payoff? My daughter is an actor, is in a lot of plays and needs to be at a lot of play rehearsals. Dozens of hours of rehearsals for a few performances and then it’s gone forever. Why would she do that? The answer is in the experience. Rehearsing plays gives her satisfaction and meaning. She would not want some magical being to come down, tap her head and all of a sudden she would know all the lines perfectly and become an instant expert at being her character. No, she wants the experience of doing it, even if it is tough at times. This is her way of creating.

Creating a piece of art, even in the broadest definition of art, can be difficult. It’s not always an enjoyable experience, but it is always a learning experience. As we grow in our abilities, discover our passions and try new things, we are bound to make mistakes, come up against walls and take a few steps backwards. And that is great because that is how we learn, by trial and error. I think having patience with ourselves is even harder than being patient with others.

However, the vast majority of the time you will spend creating is incredibly enjoyable and uplifting. This is why we do it. Creating feeds our minds and our souls. It keeps us sane, satisfied and happy. It fills us with pride.

Creating takes patience. But in that patience lies the experience. Does Lance Armstrong want a helicopter to fly him to the finish line? Does Wolfgang Puck want a gourmet meal to magically appear in his saute pan? Of course not, because they have the patience and they revel in the experience.

Enjoy the journey of life. There is no rush to get to the end.

As an artist, I had been under the impression that art means doing artwork – painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. Okay, maybe we can include writing music and poetry. However, reading the work of Seth Godin, author of a dozen books including “Linchpin” and a top notch blogger, changed my mind. Godin proposes that an artist is someone who does work that matters. Work that you would sacrifice for. An artist is someone who does “emotional work”.  They put their heart and soul into whatever they are doing. It doesn’t matter if you are the maintenance person who gladly fixes things that aren’t on today’s request form, the manager who makes connections between employees, the entrepreneur who finds innovative ways to work or the company president who truly leads. If you go above and beyond because you want to, because you love doing what you do, you are an artist and your work is art.

The truly amazing thing is this can be all of us. Every one of us is capable of doing something important that we can put ourselves into. Something brilliant that only you can do in your own way. Godin believes it’s our choice. And I agree.

Art. Crafts. Arts and crafts. What’s the difference? In my opinion, lots. Art is an act of creating something personal, something that emanates from your heart, your feelings, your soul, your experiences. The result can be a final product like a painting or sculpture, or it can be a sketch, an idea or something you end up throwing away. Craft is a project where you follow instructions to create an end result to keep or give as a gift. There is some amount of creativity and personalization in crafting and it can certainly come from your heart. Both of these processes are valid ways to learn and create.

Many people like to do crafts because it is comforting to have a set of written instructions to follow or at least to use as a starting point or basis. From there you can put in as much creativity as you feel comfortable with. There is a lot of value in following a set of instructions; be it in cooking a recipe, knitting a scarf or making a necklace. The world is full of instances where you should definitely follow the instructions. It is important to teach children to follow instructions also, not because we want to raise a generation of robots, but because this is life skill that, with experience, they will learn to use in the pertinent situations.

Alternately, there are others who dislike the constraints of instructions, especially when it comes to creative projects. In fact these people often purposely look for opportunities to break the rules, not because they are rebellious or immature, but because it stretches their creativity. It frees your mind to experiment with limitless possibilities. There is a lot of value in learning to “think out of the box”. Creative thinking and innovation has given us thousands of important inventions and breakthroughs. This is the kind of thought process that powers our changing technological world of today. Learning to stretch our creative thinking in order to solve problems big and small is an essential life skill as well. If children are raised to be curious, to question the status quo and brainstorm solutions, they will be well equipped to be successful, happy adults.

A few friends of mine frequent a painting place where you make a preplanned painting in one night. Although this paint by number type of art is not for me, I am glad that people go, paint, have a good time and take home something they are proud of. Since the vast majority of adults never paint, this is a great way to introduce them to the joys of painting and doing art in general. I am also glad we have many painting studios where people can paint what they want to and explore their creativity further.

Clearly there is something for everyone and when it comes to art, that is the way it should be. Go where you want to go, create what you want to create, and experience art on your own terms.

Art is a process. It is a way of looking at things and putting them together. Both children and adults learn best by doing. Choose any subject and think about how much you learn by reading about it. How much do you remember after listening to someone talk about it? Now think about how much more you understand through the experience of doing it yourself.

1. Creating art promotes innovation and originality. In today’s constantly changing technological world, creative thinking and innovation are needed to survive. Creative people are often the most successful business people.

2. Art is a safe outlet for self expression as there is no right and wrong in the creative process.

3. Practicing art teaches you to form mental images to solve problems and improves spatial reasoning skills. Consider the skills of a surgeon, architect and scientist. The ability to conceptualize solutions is an important skill in everyday life.

4. According to The College Board, children who create art score an average of 103 points higher on standardized tests. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reason is because they are so much more proficient at problem solving, complex reasoning, analytical and spatial skills.

5. Creating promotes careful observation and reflection and an eye for detail. Observation leads to curiosity and the pull to learn. Reflecting on what you have learned is especially important in careers involving writing and science.

6. Art creates a global attitude, an appreciation and understanding of the world. Becoming aware of diverse cultures and viewpoints is especially important in today’s connected world.

7. The creative process strengthens brainstorming and critical thinking skills. There is more than one solution to almost every problem. Art promotes the essential right brain skills of synthesis, evaluation and interpretation.

8. Creating gives us pride in our work and positive self esteem. Working on longer term projects involves practicing setting goals and instills the value of delayed gratification.

9. Creating art teaches you how to focus. In our world of multitasking, learning to slow down and focus on one activity is a valuable skill. There are many times in our lives when we need a laser-sharp focus.

10. Handling many types of art materials improves manual dexterity and fine motor skills. This is especially important in young children as good hand skills are essential for learning to write. Studies with adults have shown that moving your hands in a variety of directions helps counter age related pains and improves hand strength.

Experiencing art is for everyone. The enormous benefits are indisputable. You don’t have to be “good” at art in order to reap the benefits. You just have to try it and experience it. It’s the process, the doing, that is important, not the end result. Using your creative skills will truly enhance your life.

Hi! I'm Susan Stein and of my many passions in life,
two of my biggest are art and children. In the process of teaching children art, I also teach them problem solving, brainstorming, inventive thinking, originality, working with others, hand eye coordination, and so much more. It doesn't matter if you're good at drawing or not, everyone will benefit from experiencing art.

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