Flowering Creativity

I had set out an art project for a group of pre-schoolers that pleased me: green construction paper, circles of colored tissue paper that could be bunched into flowers, darker green paint for leaves and stems. I did a sample to indicate the possibilities, then invited the children in--and did my best to keep my mouth shut.

One little boy enthusiastically covered his green paper with green paint. A little girl reached right for the scissors that I'd used to cut the circles, and set to work demolishing her paper. A third child lavishly smeared on paint, stuck flat tissue paper circles on top, then put on more paint and more tissue paper. Only two of them--the older ones--paid attention to my model, and produced their own recognizable flower gardens. All the children, however, poured themselves into the project with enthusiasm and were very pleased with their work.

It was a useful reminder. As adults, we seem so wedded to the concept of "product". As soon as we see the materials of an art project laid out, we're already mentally fastening the result on our refrigerator door. And most of us are shameless in trying to encourage, advise or assist the children to produce something that will "look like art" as it hangs there.

Yet most children of two or three or four couldn't care less about the product. They are consumed with interest in the process. Can you cover an entire piece of paper with paint? Can you cover that with another layer, maybe of a different color? What does it feel like to paint with glue? Will paint stick things together just as well? Is there a limit to the number of tissue paper circles you can glue on top of each other? And how do scissors work, anyway?

These are all pretty interesting questions, when you come to think of them. In one way, they are pure scientific investigation, a process that the very young model so well. In another way, this open exploration of materials is one of the basic elements of the creative process, and the mastery of the tools is a necessary first step. But, with our adult attention so fixed on the refrigerator door, it's hard to notice the value of this exploratory process.

As I was thinking about all this, I was reminded of how we learn to talk, and of how many children go through a "babbling" stage. It's a wonderful time of open, delighted experimentation with the elements of speech. If we were disappointed with them at this stage, not hearing recognizable words, and if all our attention to their babbling was directed toward trying to get them to produce sentences, a very important process would be short-circuited. Undoubtedly they would learn to talk, but something creative and self-initiating, something that delighted in the process for its own sake, would be lost.

I still like my original conception as I laid out the materials for the art project. And I still think my tissue paper flower garden would be the most aesthetically pleasing addition to the refrigerator door. But, on a deeper level, I'm delighted that the children felt free to ignore the suggested product entirely, that they had the space and permission to focus all their energies on their own creative exploration of the world.