How to engage children in conversation about creative endeavors

Talking to children about what they have created can make a difference.

Ask open-ended questions about artwork to encourage children to talk about what they are doing.
Ask open-ended questions about artwork to encourage children to talk about what they are doing.

Jill’s daughter and son are drawing at the kitchen table while she fixes dinner. While the pasta is boiling, she leans over to look at their work so far. Jill’s daughter says, “Look, Mom!” and Jill says “What is it?”

Often, when adults view a child’s art work, we are tempted to try to identify the subject right from the start. It is natural for people to try to understand what we are seeing and, sometimes, our brains jump to a conclusion. If we see a circle with lines radiating from it, we often think it’s a sun. When talking with our young children, this can be problematic because adults sometime misinterpret the child’s intent.

One reason for this is, of course, young children do not have the small muscle control it takes to reproduce their ideas exactly as they envision them. They may have a picture of their dog in their mind, but they are not able to draw an accurate picture of a dog or even something dog-like. Another reason our guesses go wide is the young artist may not be intentional; that is, they may not have an idea in mind when they sit down to draw or paint. They may just be playing with whatever type of material (paint, watercolors, clay, Legos, etc.) they are using—just exploring how to use it. The lines and squiggles are not meant to be an interpretation of anything.

In “Creativity Development in Early Childhood: The Role of Educations,” Doirann O’Connor writes, “Children’s creative outputs should not be subjected to judgement by adults, but instead viewed as a developmental process of creativity-building rather than an end result production process that requires comment.” So, in general, it’s better not to guess at all.

What can we say that shows we are interested in our child’s work and want to encourage more exploration? Michigan State University Extension recommends a few strategies that are appropriate.

If we want to make a comment, we can choose remarks that describe what we see without making a judgement or an interpretation. Remarks based on what we have observed on the paper or how your child is working help support the child by showing we care about what they are doing. Simply saying, “That looks interesting,” lets them know you are paying attention.

We can also comment on simple aspects of the work. For example, we can say something about how they are using color, such as, “You are putting red spots on your paper.” Or, we could comment on shapes in the drawing, such as, “You made wavy lines here.” These are judgement-neutral comments that bring a particular aspect of the work to the attention of the artist. They invite the child to reflect on their work and perhaps elaborate. When children put their thoughts into words, it helps them think about their thinking (metacognition).

Another suggestion that works is to ask the artist/child an open-ended question that lets them talk about what they are doing. Since open-ended questions have no right-or-wrong answer, the adult is not imposing their opinions on the child’s work. Questions such as, “What can you tell me about the things you’re doing?” “How did you do that?” “What would happen if…? “What were you thinking about when you did this?”

There are also “challenge” questions you can pose, such as, “Is there anything else you could do?” and “What are some different things you could try?” Challenge questions offer benefits such as inspiring a child artist to go beyond what they were originally thinking. These conversations can also scaffold higher order thinking and doing skills. Higher order of creative thinking involves complexity and elaboration.

Creativity at all levels should be encouraged by parents, according to “9 Ways to Support Your Child’s Creativity” by PsychCentral. When we allow children the time to create, as well as the opportunity and space to engage in creative explorations, we help them develop problem-solving skills and innovative thinking. These skills help them learn to process experiences in their life. Supporting conversations about creative work builds on creativity.

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