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Is Your Child's Creativity Being Stifled at Preschool? A Teacher Says "Yes!"

Preschool craft projects look great on bulletin boards but do nothing to stimulate a child's imagination and initiative.

Preschool craft projects look great on bulletin boards but do nothing to stimulate a child's imagination and initiative.

Is Your Child's Preschool Stifling Creativity?

  • Is your child given the opportunity to paint at an easel each day?
  • Is there a section of the classroom with crayons, markers, colored pencils, and paper where youngsters can draw whatever they want?
  • Are there art activities that kids can do solely for their own pleasure, not because a teacher tells them that they must?
  • Does the teacher encourage students to talk about their art: what it conveys, how they felt while creating it, and how they went about making it?
  • Do the children feel ownership of their art? Are they proud of it? Does it reflect their ingenuity and originality, not the teacher's?

If answering yes to these questions, pat yourself on the back! You chose one of the rare preschools today that promotes self-expression and empowerment through art. Unfortunately, most are now obsessed with cutesy craft projects that crush creativity but earn oohs and aahs from misguided parents.

5 Ways That Preschools Stifle Kids' Creativity

1. Doing teacher-directed art lessons

2. Prioritizing product over process

3. Not making art an empowering experience

4. Downplaying the value of open-ended art

5. Emphasizing craft projects

1. Doing Teacher-Directed Art Lessons

When my son was in preschool, his teacher would introduce a notable artist to the class each month such as Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, or Henri Matisse. Then, she would show the children in a step-by-step manner how to make something that mirrored that master artist's unique style. Parents were enthralled that their kids were being exposed to famous artists at such a young age. They were beyond impressed that their little ones were producing something worthy of being framed and hung in their homes. In their minds, it was something to brag about and they did.

As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, though, I had my reservations. I knew this was a prime example of a push-down curriculum. I felt sad that our young children's imaginations, independence, and initiative were being compromised before they were ever cultivated. For Pete's sake, they were just 4 and 5-year-olds who hadn't even touched on their own unique talents as creative beings and now they were required to imitate someone else. It felt wrong, but it seemed like I was the only one troubled by it.

What Is a Push-Down Curriculum?

A push-down curriculum forces children to learn as much as possible as early as possible so they perform well on standardized tests. Because of the push-down curriculum, art activities that were once commonplace in preschool and kindergarten such as painting, drawing, coloring, and creating with clay have been greatly reduced or even eliminated. Teachers now feel pressured to present structured lessons, not provide hands-on experiences.

2. Prioritizing Product Over Process

It turns out, though, that I'm not alone in my concern. Many experts in early childhood education are also worried about how art is being taught at preschools today. Lisa Murphy, the author of The Ooey Gooey Handbook: Identifying and Creating Child-Centered Environments, fears that youngsters are no longer in control of their artistic vision. Instead, their teachers dictate what they should make and how they should make it. Everyone's project winds up looking the same. Sadly, she says, the finished product is too often considered more important than the process of getting there.

In her outstanding book, Murphy details dozens of fun hands-on activities that kids can do at home. When it comes to preschool art, she strongly believes that adults should act as facilitators, not instigators. In other words, they shouldn't tell young children when, what, or how to create. Instead, they should provide the materials, the space, and the opportunities. Then, they should stand back and let the kids be in charge.

In this powerful video, Lisa Murphy argues that the process of making art should be celebrated and a child's creations should be respected, not altered.

3. Not Making Art an Empowering Experience

Although parents grumble about the push-down curriculum in our schools, they seem sadly resigned to it. They lament that what's now expected of kindergartners was once taught in first or second grade and what's now expected of preschoolers was once taught in kindergarten or first grade. Yet, they hesitate to speak up, advocate for kids, and demand developmentally appropriate practices.

The push-down curriculum is heartbreaking for young learners in all subjects but especially in arts education. Little kids need to experience making art as both empowering and joyful. They need to express their thoughts and feelings through their creations because they lack the vocabulary to do so verbally. They need to experience doing art as something that makes them happy, relaxed, and proud of themselves.

Yet, at many preschools today, this isn't happening. Open-ended art, once the bedrock of early childhood education, has now been replaced by teacher-directed craft projects. Sadly, many educators and parents aren't even aware that there's a difference between the two, let alone why one is far more beneficial than the other.

What Is Open-Ended Art?

Open-ended art activities (coloring, drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpting with clay) promote a child's imagination, initiative, and independence. They're the opposite of the preschool craft projects we typically see today: the tree made from a youngster's hand print, the alligator made from an egg carton, and a bunny made from cotton balls. While these projects are adorable, they're taught in a robotic step-by-step fashion so they all look the same and promote little creativity.

This video does a fantastic job of explaining the difference between open-ended art (process) and teacher-directed craft projects (product).

4. Downplaying the Value of Open-Ended Art

Only a small percentage of youngsters will grow up and use their artistic talents to make a living. This economic reality has led to the push-down approach in art's education and has resulted in fewer opportunities for children to enjoy creative pursuits. However, in an increasingly hectic and stressful world, kids need to know now more than ever the innumerable ways that open-ended art enhances their overall well-being:

  • It lets young children express themselves and build their language skills. When they're asked questions about their art, they practice communicating, expand their vocabularies, and learn to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
  • It allows kids to take the initiative and be risk-takers, creating something unique that reflects who they are. It challenges them to be adventurous, exploring new techniques and using diverse materials.
  • The process of making open-ended art is soothing and promotes good mental health. This is especially critical today as we see climbing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among children and teens.
  • It improves fine motor skills. Whether they're coloring, painting, or squeezing clay, kids are strengthening the muscles in their fingers and hands. This is a critical step in preparing them to write, cut with scissors, and tie their shoes when starting kindergarten.
  • It allows youngsters to live in the moment, concentrating on what they're creating. The goal is for kids to enjoy the creative process and, therefore, turn to it throughout their lives to relieve stress and find pleasure.
  • Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor and early childhood advocate who wrote the marvelous book, Taking Back Childhood. She says that kids benefit cognitively and psychologically from having long blocks of uninterrupted time to explore art supplies such as paints, crayons, colored pencils, chalk, markers, clay, and collage stuff. She writes, “with open-ended materials children can work on concepts at their developmental level, bring their own narratives to the materials, and make just about anything they want or need.”

What Are Teacher-Directed Craft Projects?

They have largely replaced open-ended art activities at today's preschools. Educators create a sample and then demonstrate to the class how to duplicate it in a step-by step manner. There's little imagination and initiative involved in the process and everyone's project winds up looking the same. While these projects look impressive on bulletin boards, they don't benefit students. There's no originality involved and the process is robotic, not creative.

5. Emphasizing Craft Projects

While open-ended art is extremely beneficial for kids, it's also time-consuming and messy. It requires set-up and clean-up. Today, many early childhood educators don't have teaching assistants or parents to help with these tasks so it's simply not feasible to do them.

Moreover, some parents don't see the value in open-ended art and think it's just a waste of time. They'd rather have their kids engaged in activities that prepare them academically for kindergarten. Here are more reasons why teacher-directed craft projects now reign supreme:

  • Preschool teachers need neat and tidy projects for bulletin boards. Parents praise these eye-catching displays to the high heavens, oohing and aahing about how magnificent they look.
  • Teacher-directed craft projects have become a goodwill offering from teachers to parents, leaving children largely out of the equation. Educators do projects for numerous occasions throughout the year: Grandparent's Day, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Groundhog's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and so on. Moms and dads appreciate it because they have decorations to display in their homes and gifts to present to family members.
  • Most preschool teachers have no background in arts education and simply learn on the job. They get over-the-top craft project ideas from Pinterest but have no overall philosophy on teaching art.
  • Some preschool teachers don't appreciate that kids need to move through developmental stages as they grow as artists. First, they need to learn about themselves and their bodies. That's when hands-on activities such as finger-painting and sculpting with clay are highly suitable. As they get a little older, kids become curious about their families, pets, and homes. That's when drawing pictures and painting at the easel let them express their thoughts, feelings, and fears about their ever-expanding world. Next, they start noticing their neighborhood and community. That's when going on a nature walk and collecting leaves, acorns, and twigs to make a collage is ideal. While teaching about famous artists like Rembrandt and Monet is fantastic for elementary school children, it's largely meaningless for preschoolers. They're in what Piaget called the preoperational stage of cognitive development and are very egocentric.
Painting is open-ended art at its best because it lets kids express themselves.

Painting is open-ended art at its best because it lets kids express themselves.

What do you think?

Questions & Answers

Question: My daughter's preschool is all teacher-directed craft projects that they put into a portfolio. It shows little originality, and doesn't even look like my daughter's art. How should I address this with the teacher?

Answer: Sadly, your daughter's preschool is doing what many others do today. They've co-opted art portfolios from elementary schools who've co-opted them from high schools who've co-opted them from art schools. They did this because parents get easily impressed by portfolios, thinking they sound “grown up” and “sophisticated” and will give their child an early edge. Art portfolios, though, aren't developmentally appropriate and have no place during this time when children should be doing open-ended art at preschool.

Young children, exploring materials and techniques for the first time, need teachers who recognize that process is far more important than the product. Open-ended art at preschool—drawing, coloring, painting, printmaking, sculpting, and collage making—need to rule supreme while teacher directed craft projects should be minimized or even eliminated. Having high-quality art projects to place in portfolios so parents can ooh and aah at them at the end of the year destroys children's drive to express themselves through art.

When considering early education opportunities, parents should look for those that celebrate open-ended art at preschool. There should be easels (inside and outside), crayons, colored pencils, markers, and collage materials that are readily accessible, time throughout the day to create, and play-dough for children to pound, roll, and mold. When I visit preschools for my job, I love to see “creation stations.” These are a corner of the classroom set aside for kids to make sculptures from recycled materials: cardboard boxes, packing peanuts, straws, bottle caps, plastic utensils, etc. This is preschool art at its best as it promotes initiative and imagination.

If your daughter's preschool does not emphasize open-ended art, you have a tough battle in front of you. Unfortunately, many preschools today are uptight places that see their primary function as preparing kids for kindergarten. With that narrow mindset, creative expression gets put on the back-burner.

I'd suggest you talk to your daughter's teacher and let her know how much you value open-ended art at preschool (this is probably something she rarely hears). Tell her why you see it as important. Ask her how more can be incorporated in the school day. Most preschool teachers have no background in arts education and just pick it up as they go. Your questions and concerns will get her thinking about her philosophy on art education and, hopefully, get her to see the immense value of open-ended art at preschool.

Good luck. I admire you for recognizing how important art is for young children. As we see more mental health issues appear in children and teens (depression, anxiety, suicide, narcissism, a lack of empathy), it's important we realize that this increase corresponds to the decline of play and creativity at preschool, kindergarten, and at home. Too many parents see art as frivolous—something that will never lead to a job—but they're way off base!

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on August 24, 2019:

I think all primary classrooms should have easels that get used on a regular basis. Nowadays, when I visit elementary schools, the easels are stuffed in a storage closet and haven't been used in years, not even in kindergarten! It makes me so sad and parents don't seem to care.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 23, 2019:

I'm so happy you address such issues as early creativity. I used to bring art lessons to classrooms and was expected to make something the teachers could show off to the parents. My way out was to present something that required two parts because the first part was just painting without any direction. The second part was to take the paper and create little gift boxes out of the painted paper. Many of the children were so used to having directed instructions that they didn't know what to do when I told them to paint anything using any colors. I had to bring the paint and brushes because the classroom was not equipped with such materials. Sad. Often my class was the only creative art they had all year!



McKenna Meyers (author) on March 17, 2018:

Thanks so much, Venkatachari. I think creativity in art and all areas will make a comeback as we realize what a valuable skill it is for our careers and our overall psychological well-being. I hope young children in India aren't enduring the push-down curriculum like kids are here. It's so sad and the rates of depression and anxiety among youngsters are increasing. When you wrote that your wife had to "fight" for the right for kids of be creative, I could really relate. It's a real battle today to let kids be kids -- playing, pretending, exploring, and creating.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on March 16, 2018:

A worthy message to all teachers and parents. McKenna, I appreciate your concern for the kids and the killing of their creativity by our educational systems. My wife also used to fight with teachers towards this lack of encouragement and neglect of the children's creative abilities. I totally agree with your reasons and hope that people will realize their folly in due course.

Thank you for bringing up this awareness to all.

McKenna Meyers (author) on March 16, 2018:

So true, Bill. I've been thinking about teachers a lot recently and all we expect of them. Now, we want them to have a gun at school, save the day, and be the big hero. I think people have no idea how busy teachers are during the day and how their minds are crammed with a 1001 things to do. When I taught kindergarten at an inner-city school, I literally didn't have time to go to the bathroom. At the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I needed to be scraped off the floor with a spatula. Individuals give lip service to teachers, saying how much they're respected, but our actions as a society show we don't really appreciate them

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 16, 2018:

I was a teacher, and I will say this without an ounce of shame...great teachers are worth their weight in gold. They are the ones who give their students the freedom to think and create.