Yesterday, Katarina Vlasic dropped by to show me a carload of 12″ x 24″ paintings by her 7- and 8-year-old second grade students. Katarina is a popular art teacher who divides her time between two schools. “In this series we studied Marc Chagall,” she said. “The kids loved the strangeness and weirdness. Chagall stimulated their imagination — gave them permission to play.”
The paintings were on their way to an exhibition in a public gallery.
“At this age, kids have few inhibitions and they’re not so critical,” she said. “With their strong personalities, mistakes become a positive part of the process. Even autistic kids settle right in and concentrate. And shy kids love it because they get a few moments to shine.” I made my standard remarks that the great teachers ought to be knighted. We talked of our mutual interest in the creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who pioneered the concept of “flow.” He defined flow as the ability of some people to get into the groove and be one with their art.
Katarina and I compared notes — what I’d observed in adults, and what she knew first hand by working with children. We agreed that creative people may sometimes be hyperactive and that they’re not always turned on. In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot to recharge their batteries. I had visions of art rooms of yore where the only sound was the quiet burble of flow.
Recent research has found many creative people to be simultaneously extroverted and introverted, while most humans, according to studies, tend to be one or the other. Both Katarina and I had also noticed that many creative individuals show evidence of both.
As the children’s paintings at the bottom of the letter show, pretty well all are what you could call “creative.” It’s my theory that we’re all born creative, but we just have it somehow knocked out of us. The questions are, how do young children so easily fall into “flow,” and why do adults so easily fall out of it?
PS: “At that age we kind of catch them in a golden period before they lose it.” (Katarina Vlasic)
Esoterica: I was once invited to talk and demo before a mixed group of students, some in grade 3 and others in grade 11. After my presentation, the kids went to their own classrooms, where they were asked to bash out a painting in one sitting. Needless to say, the younger kids filled their canvases, used bright colours and pretty well completed their work. The older ones, for the most part, did something or other in the middle of the canvas, were not particularly daring with their colours or compositions, and didn’t finish. After lunch when it was my turn to diplomatically crit all the work, the older ones were sullen with folded arms while the younger ones were whooping it up. I stand by my position on knighthood.
Katarina Vlasic’s Grade Two art class
The work of seven and eight year olds, before inhibition and peer pressure sets in, shows remarkable imagination and variety.
Appetite for learning
by Cathy Stanley, Melbourne, Australia
I was reminded of my time as a teacher in a Montessori classroom where it is common to see children making decisions about their work, what work they pursue and when. There is a busy hum as the children explore abstract concepts with concrete materials. They have an appetite for learning and seek work that is increasingly challenging. They work independently or in small groups. There is a vibration of harmony and a love of learning.
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Encouraging creativity in school
by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada
Our School Board has changed directions in terms of creativity and it is valued. We have looked at other methods for dealing with order. Children who are disruptive usually are very intelligent and are quickly done with the learning and looking for more. We have a one-to-one computer program in our Board and have special assignments for these children when they have completed their given tasks. There is an approach called “Inquiry Based Learning” that is coming on-line and you will hear more about it. Other children are hyper-active and for these, too, we have solutions that are other than drug-based. The ‘Engine Room’ is a special classroom that has been equipped with apparatus that the children can use to burn off their excess energy. Children are encouraged to excuse themselves to go and use the Engine Room as they feel they need it. They return to class when they have burned off what they don’t need. Oddly, children with slow metabolisms also use the Engine Room to get their adrenal going and they become more alert. To put a final note on it, creativity is one of the measures that is on the children’s report card. We feel it is important.
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From great abandon to great hesitancy
by Marjorie Moeser, Toronto, ON, Canada
I taught visual art for 10 years in the school system, grades 9 to what was then OAL/grade 13. Upon retiring from the school system, I taught Saturday art classes to two groups of students. One group was 6 – 8 years old; the other group was 9 – 12 years old. In every instance the youngest students painted with great abandon! They were fearless, imaginative and full of bravado. I remember one little six-year-old, so excited about discovering colours underneath the layer of India ink in the exercise known as ‘black magic.’ He turned to me and in total innocence asked, “Where did you ever learn to do this?” Another 7-year-old decided, after my teaching basic colour mixing, to paint her piece all red and then paint black all over the red. On trying to coax her into using colours other than black, she unabashedly shook her head and did it her way!
In contrast, the older students, while still inquisitive about what they could do with paints, were less exuberant than the younger ones. These 9- to 12-year-olds were more hesitant, wanting to do what they thought I wanted to see them do. Now, these children were not being graded, but they were more self-conscious about how their efforts would be viewed both by me and by their peers.
At the high school level, students, for the most part, are motivated by getting a good grade and to some extent by being better, at the very least, and being as good as their peers. As we age, we seem to lose that innocence that enabled us to be free spirits, to be unafraid to experiment, to be totally excited to see the next mark in the painting. With age comes sophistication guarded with hesitancy, too much logic, and fear of making a mistake.
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by Jeanne Roberts, Concord, CA, USA
I taught grades 1 through 3 for 20 years. I was “the art teacher” in our school. Other teachers said they couldn’t teach art because they couldn’t do art. I am the artist that I am, and I always believed that kids are the most inspirational artists there are. My own house has framed work my kids did “for mommy” when they were little, and later, actually when they were not so little. I think that when kids are blessed with a teacher who lets them do art when they are little, their chances are much greater at being able to enjoy doing art, than kids who don’t get that exposure. I did have an art teacher in grade school, and we did have to do the picture exactly like hers ~ now we call that “directed art” ~ but for me it taught me some stuff I didn’t yet know, and I put it to good use later. When in my teaching career, we did art, usually once every week. Sometimes we did “directed art” and I would tell the kids that I was going to teach them something special, and they could use it for their own purposes later on. For example, we learned about Vincent Van Gogh ~ (We learned about a number of famous artists in my room!) and we did our own version of Starry Night… the kids loved it and many parents reported that their child made many more copies at home.
Uninhibited desire to be creative
by Rebecca Stebbins, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I appreciate your comments regarding younger children and their lack of inhibition when it comes to creating art. I teach art to children from kindergarten through 8th grade. One of my goals is to give kids the skills they need to continue creating, to help their abilities keep pace with their vision so they don’t get too frustrated; and to help them hold on to that uninhibited desire to be creative, enjoy the process, and be pleased with the product (without being overly self-critical). It is a joy to experience the process of learning and creating art in the earlier years, but it’s not easy as they get older and lose patience with themselves (and some ultimately give up). So many adults I know have the attitude that you either “have it” or you don’t, and they pass that idea on to the kids, just like “I’m no good at math.” But I firmly believe everyone has the capacity to benefit from art instruction and can learn to be good at art if they choose. I have the good fortune to teach in a small private school that believes in the arts because, here in California, many public schools have little to no arts education at all, and with 30 or more kids in a classroom it’s a challenge at best. It makes me sad for those children, the adults they will become, and our society at large.
Teaching tool to create flow
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
I am most interested in “flow.” When I led groups of school children at a local museum, we would do art exercises together. What I found was, as the kids got older, negative self-talk would appear and the all-too-common self-critic appeared and grew. It took enormous effort on my part to contradict these forces. Interestingly, I noticed that this showed up at an earlier age in girls than boys. I believe that eventually these critical voices smash innate creativity. “I can’t” becomes the acceptable phrase and it spreads like wild fire!
Fast forward several years to the past year when I had trouble with my own inner critical step sister who wanted so very hard to interrupt my flow. I had a deep personal loss and I was determined that it wouldn’t interrupt the making of my art, but it did. Then one day I was looking at art on the internet trying to get the juices flowing and found this tiny little art form called Zentangle. Completed on 3.5 inch square cards, it looked manageable to me, so I began by creating this art on my front porch looking over the garden at the end of a teaching day. Well, this really helped me to get back in the flow, and now I use it sometimes to warm up or to help me get unstuck, or if I am too wound up. It helped me so much that I learned how to teach it, as not only an art form but as a meditation and life tool. I feel honored to have found a way to teach people how to create flow in their lives, which in turn also helps them to relax and grow.
Kudos to your friend, Katarina who is fighting the dark forces of anti-flow in children. It gives me hope for the future.
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by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I really enjoyed your letter and sharing with you the paintings of grade two children. It’s awe inspiring and I am sure Marc Chagall would have been proud of these students who have not lost their ability to play. As a teacher for something like thirty five years, spanning age ranges from grade one to upper high school level, I was always surprised by the way the younger children had no inhibitions and always produced their own vision of what they had explored in their short lives. How does perspective change as children mature? I think the older children evaluate art and their peer group by adult standards of what constitutes a good work. By grade seven a lot of the students are becoming so aware of the peer pressure and what constitutes an ability to draw what is popular rock and rap heroes. I was very aware of this particular situation when I brought some of my paintings into my school and watched the reaction of the younger children to abstract pieces. They didn’t judge when asked their favourites, by realism they seem to just go with the flow and they chatted easily, led by their teacher. The older students were not so willing in the discussions, not so sure of the abstract work. I do think that so much of what we teach, as educators, is this approach to painting. Lots of art history enhances the programs. Open-minded approach to all kinds of art and just loving to be, as a teacher, instrumental in passing this information along to students.
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Not much fun
by Carole W King, Lake Toxaway, NC, USA
Seeing the paintings of the 7-8 year olds makes me think that the very things you teach inhibit my own creativity. People used to tell me they loved my work, and bought it. Then I was widowed and decided I could devote full time to it. I want to become really good — a master at what I do. What I’m discovering from all these workshops, online courses, etc. I can’t be a “good” artist until I’ve mastered grey mixtures from all the various complementaries, perspective drawing, painting different textures, brushwork vs. glazing, color values and temperature… and on and on and on and on and on. What I’m told I must learn, like through your Best of the Best… is downright intimidating! And not much fun.
(RG note) Thanks, Carole. A roughly made bench serves the same purpose as an elegant Hepplewhite chair and has its own beauty. But how wonderful that the learned hands of humankind can fabricate something that has real craft and hard-won beauty. “Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” (Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).
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The value of making mistakes
by Kristina Maus, Paisley, ON, Canada
As a recently retired middle school art teacher, I’ve seen many older students inhibited by the fear of mistakes. It was the largest obstacle I faced in the art classroom, building confidence and encouraging an acceptance of failure. The beginning of the fear came usually when the student was told, by someone that they respected, that their artwork was wrong. If the student responded with, “Well, if I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all,” then trouble was on the horizon. As a teacher with a lesson to impart, I worked to be diplomatic and encouraging with the kids, so that a constructive comment was not interpreted as one that was disapproving. Tricky tightrope, but totally doable. Many had to be reintroduced to the playfulness of drawing and painting through experiences that were not assessed and could not be “wrong,” strictly for confidence building. I had to figure out where my students were so that the next step was within their reach.
Mistakes are so important. I shared my own mistakes with them frequently (I make many so I had a good selection) in the hope that they would learn that failure is necessary for growth. Most of the success people have comes from hard work and perseverance, which is in everybody’s toolkit. There were many rewarding moments in that art classroom when kids discovered that the process was enjoyable and the product was acceptable and valued. I loved Csikszentmihalyi’s book.
He identified that flow, that “in the zone” feeling, comes from setting challenges that are above what we are comfortable with, but not too far above our achievable goals. It’s that step into the unknown that adds excitement to the process. The struggle with new learning makes the achievement more noteworthy. When we break through and “get it,” well, we need to celebrate before going on to the next thing.
Enjoy the past comments below for The decline of ‘flow’…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Anita Slevin of New Jersey, USA, who wrote, “I’d just like to congratulate Ms. Vlasic on her extraordinary teaching skills. Yes, it is true that children at this age are more open to let their creativity flow, but it also takes an exceptional teacher to set the atmosphere and provide the background and inspiration so her students can achieve these wonderful results. These are not copies of Chagall but are inspired by an understanding of his work. Fabulous!”
(RG note) Thanks Anita. And thanks also to the over two hundred who wrote to say something similar. Ms. Vlasic received many direct notes as well. Congratulations, Katarina… you’re the tops in what everyone recognizes is a tough job. Several writers mentioned a valuable video on Ted.org where Sir Ken Robinson talks of creativity in the classroom.
“It is 20 minutes well worth watching as he uses humour to get his point across. When children arrive at kindergarten they are at the 95% self-confidence level, but when they leave high school their self-confidence level probably matches their age.”