Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thwarting the Creativity Thwarters

A couple of weeks ago, I was coloring with E and Z in the fire truck coloring books a friend had given them. As I filled a fire fighter's pants leg with red crayon, E asked me, "You color in lines?" "Um, yeah, I'm coloring in the lines," I said. "Where'd you hear about coloring in the lines?" At daycare, he said. I started swirling my crayon in spirals, rebelliously overlapping the lines. "Sposed you not scribble," Z said. "It's OK to scribble," I replied. "See? It's fun." I started using crazy colors, making faces purple and arms orange. When I started coloring with a black crayon, Z said, "Sposed you not use black. Can't see lines."

Oh, god. I knew that our daycare was not the most enlightened place on earth, based on the "girls play with the kitchen, boys play with the cars" incident last month. I also knew that their "crafts" were more geared toward making something pretty to hang on the wall than letting kids explore their own creativity. When M went there one day a week when he was three, while also attending Montessori school two mornings a week, I knew he did not choose his own crayons because everything came home in seasonally-appropriate colors, not just orange which was the only color he used at home at the time. Also pictures were cut out exactly along the outlines and the cotton balls were glued only exactly where Santa's beard should be. But I didn't realize it was this bad...I mean really, why should three year olds color in the lines? Why are there lines at all?

When M complained about going to Montessori school, I asked why he didn't like it and the only coherent answer I ever got was once he said, "Miss N makes me color pictures that are already drawn." And it was true that Miss N, the assistant teacher who was there in the mornings when the children arrived, handed out very (in my opinion) un-Montessori worksheets, probably in an attempt to keep all hell from breaking loose before the teacher arrived. "So turn it over and color on the back," I advised, hoping it would be a philosophy he carried well into public school. And it has--he comes home regularly with spelling lists and math papers that have wars scribbled all over the back.

I remember once in second grade, we had a substitute teacher and had to color a Halloween picture. The picture consisted of three witches around a big cauldron in front of a big full moon. When I finished coloring and went to hand in the picture, I was told to go back and color the moon. "But the moon's white," I protested. "Color it yellow," the sub told me. And I did, against everything I knew about moons. I wish I had been smart-assey enough to color the moon purple or blue or red or chartreuse. The fact that this incident still bothers me so much 28 years later tells you something about the way these seemingly benign events erode a child's creativity.

So yeah, it's a big deal to me that my three year olds are being told to "color in the lines." F*ck the lines! But do I broach this subject with the daycare provider? Is it only certain teachers (I can guess which one) that have this draconian approach to art? I haven't decided what to do on that front, but in the meantime, I'm redoubling my efforts to increase our at-home no-holds-barred creative time. When I decided to not go through the trouble and expense of sending E and Z to a preschool other than the one offered at our daycare (I may be reassessing this decision), I reasoned that I would use my at-home time with them as a sort of home-school preschool...but had not so far done much organized activity toward that end...mostly our home days consist of me trying to clean the house faster than they mess it up and a little more afternoon TV than I think is healthy.

So last week I got out the Creative Family book I mentioned a while back, and we made some homemade glue, painted it on paper and stuck bits of beans and macaroni and noodles to the glue. Then I mixed up some of the ridiculously expensive Stockmar water colors I bought when I was feeling in a Waldorfy mood a couple of years ago, and we folded our paintings in half to make Rorschach butterflies.

Then I found on my shelf a book called The Playgroup Handbook, which was published in 1974 (but appears to have been updated), and which I picked up at this restaurant in northern Connecticut called Food and Books (I think) where I stopped on my way to a meeting several years ago, and which serves a decent portobella mushroom sandwich and hands out a free used book with every meal. I never did anything with it (I think I was a little turned off by the number of Styrofoam-based craft projects), but as I flipped through it the other night, I was impressed by the way it was organized (by month), with activities in several categories, including arts and crafts, cooking, music, woodworking, exercise, etc. I also love how it has this 1970s sensibility of using things on hand--it includes two recipes for paste (because Elmer's glue is "expensive"), as well as recipes for play dough and finger paint.

I've decided to try at least one activity a week out of the book...not sure how long that will last, but we got off to a good start this weekend, making "smell" pictures (paint glue on paper and sprinkle on spices--we used ginger, cardamom, paprika and basil, yum) and tiny terrariums in baby food jars (I knew I saved those for a reason) using moss we gathered on our Sunday morning stomp. Next week (if I get energetic) we'll make jingle mittens--felt mittens with jingle bells sewn on and holiday images glued on.

Once I had a teacher who said, "We are all born infinitely creative...then society stomps it out of us" (or something along those lines). Can our home-based creative time actually counter-balance the spirit-stomping coloring in the lines taking place at daycare? I think they still have a lot of spirit--Sunday I went down to the basement to check on Z and found him jumping with the most delighted abandon on a big sheet of bubble wrap from C's new computer--the energy and joy that radiated from that little leaping body stopped me in my tracks as a nearly reprimanded him for destroying the bubble wrap; instead I turned around and went upstairs, leaving him to pop pop pop.


  1. Oy! Just had this conversation with my E's teacher. She said he was scribbling and not focusing on his art. If either of those are true or bad, it's because they've stomped out the joy he used to have at painting when he was in preschool up through kindergarten.

    I wish I was confident in my own craftitude. I applaud your work with the twins. Good on you, Mama.

  2. This is a wonderful post. I feel it. I try so hard to keep up with home time for these things and end up always slipping so that it is very, very spotty.

  3. I hear Harry Chapin lyrics coming on. You have to know "Flowers are Red." If not-- you can see a tape of him playing it back in the day on YouTube

  4. oh, yes. coloring in the lines. a classic. i had to stay in from recess in pre-school because i didn't color in the lines. i still remember that huge, boring, red apple and the coloring of it being so tedious that my hand hurt. and i remember the sting of tears as i was told to stay in and re-do it as all the other kids went out to play. and i am sure i heard that message countless times throughout the rest of my formal schooling - in a variety of ways.
    but you know, my mom was so upset by that incident and she spent a great deal of time modeling all sorts of creative ways to approach school and work and art and life that challenged this notion. and that is what i ended up taking with me and internalizing - so i can't imagine that you have anything to worry about with your boys! you are doing an incredible job.


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