Yesterday was one of those Saturdays. My nine year old was bored, so his inclination was to flip-flop from computer to tv and back again. Enter parental intervention: imposed outside time (which was only moderately successful due to bad allergies) and a no more screen time for the rest of the afternoon! policy, which as you can imagine, was met with a less than enthusiastic response. It wasn’t pretty, and I came darn close to caving in the face of the relentless “but there’s nothing to do” protests. Then, out of the blue, a beautiful thing happened. He asked “Do we have any clay?” which was just about the best question a kid could ask this particular mama at this particular moment. And yes, yes I did happen to have a 25 lb. bag of it laying around, just waiting to be summoned…
What transpired during the next hour or so was a lovely combination of contented “play” with the clay–rolling, cutting, shaping, forming, moistening, squishing, smoothing, slicing, dicing, destroying, rebuilding, etc., etc. There was independent exploration, as well as genuine mother-son bonding, as he asked me to form the clay around his hand and forearm, and we experienced the physical connection involved in this process, a soothing sensory experience for both of us.
So, to the point of this post:
Often times, children’s interest in art materials is sensory, kinesthetic, and expressive, which is counter to the adult notion of art as primarily an asthetic pursuit. And this inclination persists beyond early childhood (where we typically hear talk about the imperative for process over product focused art). Especially in our achievement-driven culture, children need opportunities to just “be” with materials and not feel the need to perform to a certain standard or outcome. Time and again, I have seen this play out in my classes for toddlers, when an older sibling tags along for a visit to the class. Often they are the most enthusiastic participants in our process-oriented art projects, revelling in the opportunity to finger paint, or slosh liquid watercolors, or delve up to their elbows in the sensory media tray. This “hunger” for these types of activities tells us that they probably are not getting enough of this sort of thing in their daily lives. And some children need this sort of thing more than others.
So next time your school aged child is eager to “mess around” with materials, don’t be too quick to ask “What are you going to make?” And don’t get caught up in whether what they are doing looks particularly attractive. They may just need a chance to roll up their sleeves and play without any particular end result in mind. You may find, as I did yesterday, that time to explore and get messy can completely turn around your child’s mood and the tone for the rest of the day!
P.S. You might consider giving it a try yourself too!