When I was supervising student teachers during my Ph.D. program, I often walked past hallways that were filled with children’s “artwork.” In the winter, there were rows of snowmen. At Valentine’s Day, there would be hearts. At Easter, bunnies and eggs tended to dominate.

The one thing all these rows of “artwork” had in common was their similarity. Every snowman had three circles, one black hat, a broom, exactly three buttons, and a carrot for a nose. Every heart was the same exact shape. Every heart was red. Every valentine had a white lacy background. In most cases, especially in the younger classrooms, either a teacher or adult volunteer had cut out the shapes beforehand. The children had been given a very specific model and told exactly how to make their creation.

This may have been a lot of fun. It probably impressed the parents with the creativity found in the school system. It might have helped the children develop valuable fine motor skills, such as cutting with scissors and pasting. It might have helped the children learn how to follow directions.

It was not art.

When parents or professionals focus on the product, especially when they have a very specific product in mind, this is not art. Art is a means of personal expression. True art can barely be defined and never done in a pre-packaged, pre-defined manner. True art is much more about process.

One way to encourage artistic expression in very young children is to give them a cookie sheet and have them squirt shaving cream all over it. Then give them some finger paints and invite them to pour them all over the shaving cream and swirl the colors around to their hearts’ content. When it is all over, the shaving cream is washed off, the product is disposed of, and there is nothing left to show anyone. This is art in its purest form.

To encourage the development of real artistic expression in your children, I believe there is a two-step process that can be intertwined and taught at the same time. First, there is art appreciation...getting to know, recognize, and enjoy the work of other artists. The better the quality of the art they get to know, the more likely their own work will exhibit a high quality of work. The second step is to simply provide a lot of materials, suitable for the ages and ability levels of the children, and step back and let them work.

In our home, we always had an “art center.” This was simply a cabinet that had some counter space, a couple of drawers, and some storage space underneath. We also had a bulletin board on the wall behind the center. In order to encourage them to learn about great art and artists, I would always get a book about that topic from the library and put it on the countertop. I always tried to get one that had a very inviting cover, with an interesting work of art on it. Examples were a book on “Impressionism,” a book about Vincent Van Gogh with a picture of his Sunflowers on the cover, a book about Renaissance art, or one about Modern Art, with a painting by Jackson Pollack on the front.

Sometimes I would pull these books down and look at them with the children; sometimes I would actually initiate a month-long “study” of a particular type of art or a particular artist. Most of the time, though, the book just sat there, looking down on the children as they did their own artwork. Whichever way the children learned, through studying specific topics or simply through osmosis, each of them has developed a love of art and a basic knowledge of the various epochs and artists. One of them actually wound up getting an art history degree!

As far as the “real art” that the children did themselves, the majority of it simply happened. I made it clear early on that they were all allowed to do whatever art they wanted whenever the spirit moved them, as long as they participated in the cleanup later on. Once in a while, I’d take something out and start on it myself. I remember taking an old mustard bottle, putting some wire on one end to fashion a neck, and then covering it with papier-mâché. All of the children eventually got involved. That was a really messy project, but we wound up with a fantastic-looking dinosaur! Another time I started making a mosaic myself...using colored paper cut in small pieces. When I first started the project, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but it wound up being a very colorful snake, climbing up a tree. True art isn’t always planned...sometimes it takes on a life of its own.