Kids Art: How to Crush a Child’s Creativity

A little boy went to first grade. He listened while the teacher taught about Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, but when she told the class that Art was next, he became excited. The little boy had been drawing all sorts of things at home, and was actually very gifted and way past his years with his abilities.

The teacher said they were all going to draw a flower, but everyone would have to wait until all the papers were passed out before they started. Since he sat in the second row, he got his paper before the rest of the class and was so excited he forgot the teacher said to wait. He got out his crayons and began drawing. The little boy was was well on his way to drawing a gorgeous rose in full bloom on a long stem when the teacher looked over and saw that he was not following her instructions.

This particular teacher did not tolerate children not following instructions. She walked over to the little boy and without even looking at his drawing, picked it up, gave him a blank piece of paper, and told him to wait for the rest of the class. As she passed the trash can, she threw the drawing in. The little boy was crushed and honestly did not understand why the teacher threw away his drawing or, for that matter, what he did wrong at all.

The teacher then went to the chalkboard and step-by-step walked the class through drawing a simple, child-like flower. For each step, she told them what color to use and how to draw the line. When they were done, the teacher picked up the drawings and hung them on the wall. The little boy looked at each one and could barely tell his apart from the others.

Never again did the little boy draw a gorgeous rose, or anything else original for that matter. He had learned well to follow the teacher’s instructions and to do exactly what the teacher did.

{I came across a copy of this story in files I had kept from when I was teaching, I am unsure of the original source.}

This story illustrates a number of other important considerations for parents and educators when working with children and art materials;

  • Children must feel secure, safe and comfortable with the adult and any other children involved in the creative experience, knowing their ideas and feelings will be accepted and respected.
  • As art is an expression of feelings, experiences, ideas or thoughts, it cannot be produced without first feeling, thinking or experiencing.The boy in the story obviously had both rich, meaningful drawing experiences and could also recall his feelings, thoughts and actual experiences of flowers to choose a rose and draw it in such detail.
  • Meaningful experiences that motivate children to produce art should include active elements. For example, a child who has been walking in the rain and jumped in puddles will be more motivated to represent this experience creatively than a child who has just looked at rain in a book.

For more about drawing with children (plus painting, sculpting, printmaking and much more), check out my book, Time to Create: Hands On Explorations in Process Art for Young Children.Time to Create | Christie Burnett

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  1. Great points Christie. I have a 8yo son who is an "unconfident artist". Or I should say he was – until we recently went to the Salvadore Dali exhibition at NGV. While the day wasn't a success as an outing, since then he has been freely drawing (without prompting from me) and not following any "rules". His pictures are quite abstract, which he would never have thought to do, or perhaps thought was allowed, before. It's wonderful to see and a something I hadn't considered when planning our visit to the gallery.

  2. Well, that bought tears to my eyes – having been the mother of children who all had different gifts – some musical, some literary, some with the ability to think laterally, one with the ability to do complex mathematic equations in his head – I have seen them crushed in various ways by comments or actions by teachers.

    I have been to parent/teacher meetings and used my 'speaking to a teacher' voice (sorry that is something my kids say I have) and argued the point until I am blue in the face.

    I am not knocking teachers – they as a whole have one of the hardest professions, they are under resourced, teach to overcrowded classrooms (no teacher should have to teach to any more than 20 children at one time) and most do an outstanding job.

    But there are those who should not be teachers, their pride, the insecurity when teaching a gifted child (or even a child who pushes the envelope) means that they can not put aside their own feelings to truly encourage and nurture. Or maybe they are just worn out from years of teaching under the conditions that State schools provide. But the education system should access teachers on a regular basis and actually listen to parents.

    Sorry didn't mean to get on my soapbox, but what I will say is that Christie was one of the best teachers that any child could ever have – I have seen her passion for her students and how much of herself she put into each and every year. I wish she had been the teacher of my children.

  3. Gosh how awful! This is why I just let Kez draw and see what she does. I sometimes show her how to draw something by drawing a small version but I like her versions much better! I think creativity needs guidance but the child really needs to be free to express themselves.

  4. mum space says:

    Great post Christie. Great tips. I like the verbal support idea instead of influencing their ideas by drawing something yourself.
    I am learning all over again how crushing school can be at times with our son in his first year. Our kids love to draw, it's the first thing they do when they get up most mornings. We are very lucky that our son has a great Kindergarten teacher who praises them for being innovative and encourages their imagination. Sandra x

  5. Busy Brissy Mum says:

    So true Christie. I can recall a time in art class at school when I felt crushed because the teacher said she didn't like the colours I chose however also remember thinking that it was my picture, not hers. (I was in high school)

    How many beautiful pieces of artwork do our children create when they are encouraged to be expressive themselves! I take great joy in seeing my little artist at work. This week she was drawing whales and camels…next week it might be something completely different.

    Great blog!

  6. Marla McLean, Atelierista says:

    Thoughtful Post. I am an Atelierista at a reggio inspired public school and am struck by the "canned" and mass produced methods teachers so often are marketed and pressured to use. Emergent curricilum and thoughtful community fly in the face of this.

  7. I share a version of this story with my Early Childhood Education high school classes. It always makes them sad and hopefully cognizant of how their words and comments affect the children in our preschool.

  8. My daughter is recently six and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome earlier this year. When she was about 3 she decided she couldn’t draw what in her head, so thus she would not draw, at all. She refused all tools: crayons, felts, paints, etc. She just would not do it and instead took herself to the costumes or sand box.

    It was very difficult to explain to other parents at play group and she would demand a picture with all the elements she was willing to describe. So, I began drawing for her and telling her the steps of how I was doing it. First the head, now some ears, some hair and some eyes. Oh, what makes a tiger special? Some spots! I got so, so many bad remarks and comments about it but I persevered on and slowly began asking her to join me. She didn’t start drawing again until she turned 5.

    We again battled this phenomena with writing. Because her writing didn’t look like my printing or what was in the books, she just refused, flat out, to write. This was a huge block, especially at school, with a teacher who refused to listen.

    Once we got the AS diagnosis, people were more willing to listen. But what really helped was showing her different fonts that people create and how everyone has their own personal handwriting style.

    Finally the light bulb clicked on and we’re slowly starting to work on getting her to print.

    I don’t think it’s an error of an institution but more than the institution is failing to realize our under 6s are quite vulnerable to their praise, criticism and actions and our special learners require a bit more thought.

  9. That is such a sad story of the little boy.. I do *hope* that it didn’t really happen, but that it served as an illustration… but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did!!


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