let’s talk about art

so, your kid made some art. now what? as most of us caregivers know, there’s the clean-up and the figuring out clever ways to display and/or store the art. true. in my pre-mommy role as an art therapist (to which i plan to return once kindergarten allows me the time,) i learned that the art-making part is just one part of the creative process. of course there is contemplation of what to make, preparing for what to make, making it, and then there is also another very important step in the creative process, which is unfolding meaning from the image. this is a HUGE topic in the art therapy world with a scope that’s way too broad and sometimes esoteric for a blog like this one, so i will try to extract and provide here just a few useful suggestions that parents, teachers, or caregivers of little ones can use when engaging in art with our small friends. i should note that these tips are most applicable to art-making that comes out of free play or free drawing/sculpting time… not so much the highly directive crafting projects.

influential art therapist, janie rhyne, once said that form leads to content, which is to say that the images that any artist (aka: your child) makes contain the stories, emotions, intellect, and world view of the artist. don’t miss out on the rich opportunity to engage in uncovering the gems embedded in the lines, shapes, and colors that come forth from your child’s imagination. not only will you learn something, but this step in the process often makes the unconscious conscious for the artist — or to speak plainly, it can help your child’s idea to come full-circle and be integrated into his or her everyday life.

here are some respectful ways to approach talking about your child’s art-making and art product:

during art-making, be an active observer by assisting as a “third hand” when the artist might need help. for example, using scissors to cut something a child may be unable to cut or getting a fresh glass of water to rinse used paintbrushes, etc. also, while your child engages in the art-making process, you can support this by reflecting back only what you see. you can reflect verbally (“i see yellow lines across the top of your page”), non-verbally (mirroring the child’s affect or posture) or graphically (making art alongside the child copying the child’s artistic “handwriting” -so to speak- as a way to communicate: “i am paying attention to you.”)

once the art product is complete, approach the image with a humble curiosity, never assuming that you know more than the artist knows about what it is or what it means. i often describe the respectful way of talking about art to be the opposite of a dream-decoder book. you know, the books that say “if you dreamt of a pig, you are greedy or stubborn.” nonsense. art symbols, just like dream symbols, are unique to the artist. for one kid, a pig might be the scary boar he saw at a state fair. for another kid, a pig could mean the sweet, soft, cuddly friend he hugs when he goes to sleep at night. (sure, there are symbols that arise that reflect the collective unconscious, etc etc, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

"this guy is sad because mommy said he can't drive the car" (car in brown, upper left)

to keep this objective attitude, you can try to visualize the art object as a separate entity that has entered the room, and engage in conversation with your child about it. for example, ask your child the simple question, “what do you see?” to begin. trust the artist’s words about their own art. if you have a younger child who may not have the ability to describe the art, you can plainly tell about what you see. be careful not to interpret what the image “must be” or what it “looks like to [you]” or what it means. just describe the lines, shapes and colors that you see with your eye. by describing the image, meaning comes. (again, form leads to content.) so, now your conversation may lead into a story from the child about what s/he drew, who is in the picture, what is he doing, what is happening, what is he feeling, why is he feeling this way, etc…

another fun approach is to dialog with the art itself. kids are great at pretend and imagination, so suspend any adult self-consciousness and your disbelief and go for it with them. “if the duck that you drew could talk, what would he say to us?” (only after child has identified that her picture is, in fact, a duck.) then you, your kid, and the duck can have a full-on conversation. stay within the metaphor, behind the safe veil of play. allow the meaning to unfold organically. you don’t need to translate the play into what it must really mean in the life of the child, at least not out loud. this sort of imaginal dialog with art allows the art piece to be projected upon or acted upon by the child, which can often externalize the child’s internal world (and get out feelings s/he may be harboring.) try to curb your own inclinations to change, brighten, or smooth over content that may seem angry or violent or negative to you — art is a safe playground. art provides an opportunity for sublimation of the darker side of being human, and for a child to be able to do this through art is a sign of health. if the child seems to be looking for a way to ameliorate a darker situation in his or her own art, you can certainly follow his/her lead and provide assistance in changing and moving the story. even when helping with this, be sure to allow space for the child to exercise internal resources to arrive at his or her own unique solution and make choices.

the mean yeti

when looking at someone else’s art, always check in with your own biases and opinions. if we were acting as a child-centered art or play therapist, the rule would be not to criticize or (get ready for it) praise the art or the behavior. as a mom, it’s hard not to say, “that’s a beautiful flower you drew, sweetie!” but honestly, as supportive and nurturing as that statement is, it doesn’t provide the type of positive reinforcement that the examples above on how to talk about the art can give to your child.

above all, be authentic. be yourself. art making and art talk shouldn’t take you outside of your role as mommy (or daddy, teacher, grandma, babysitter, or whoever you may be to the child.) your child depends on your voice, your context, and your consistency. coloring with your kid at home every day isn’t art therapy, so there are no hard and fast rules. these are merely suggestions for ways you and your child might get more out of making art together, and suggestions for what to do when the art is complete and how to learn from it. if you want more info on art therapy or recommended reading along these lines, you can check out my professional web site’s art therapy page or feel free to contact me with questions.

being witnessed and feeling seen are huge confidence-builders for any human being, especially our little friends who are forming their sense of self in relationship to the world. the art process allows cargivers a really concrete way to give children the affirmation they need.

"mommy, i drew a jellyfish!!!"


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  • Thank you so much for this fantastic post! The more I read about ways to respond to our children’s art the more things I wish I had done differently, but it is so important to have tools for nurturing a child’s creativity in this way. I will definitely include this post in my web roundup this week!

  • jen

    thank you so much, kelly!

  • yadi

    way to go Jen!! This is a great blog on how to interact with children and their creativity side in a manner that is respectful to their art. –Yadi

  • I really enjoyed reading this post and got a lot out of it. I teach preschool kids and still find after almost 10 years of teaching that the first things that automatically pop into my head are things like “great work”. Its great to read about how important it is to respond in a way that is respectful to the child and to their work.

  • Oh, I love the idea of asking what the character in the picture would say! What an excellent way to get the ‘story’ from the picture.