Sunday, September 25, 2011

Excellence vs. Perfection

When I am teaching art, I feel that the most frustrating students, second only to the completely apathetic, are the perfectionists.  It is difficult to be creative when you fear falling short of perfection.   Taking risks and pushing the envelope are such an essential part of the creative process.   Yet our society driven by test scores and GPA’s can quickly quench the creative spirit. 
I remember learning to throw on a potter’s wheel in college.  One teacher challenged me by asking the question, “How can you know how far you can push a pot if you never have one that falls down?”  Anyone who has tried to throw a pot knows that gravity works against you constantly as you try to defy it and keep the soft clay suspended in the air until it can be fired.   You can’t know where that point is unless you have pushed past it and the clay has fallen down. 
I have led students in mural painting projects (and let me tell you painting a permanent, large scale wall in a public place for the first time can be a daunting task).  What if it doesn’t come out right?  Being afraid that you won’t do a perfect job can cripple the creative spirit.  My motto for my art club as they painted the nurse’s office at the school where I worked was, “You can always paint over it.” Taking that pressure off helped free my students to take the risk and plunge into a new exciting project. 
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we should surrender into being imperfect and thus become lazy.  But what if we shift the goal from striving to be perfect to striving for excellence?  How much more would we enjoy the process of making something if we weren’t trying to make it “perfectly”?  How much more successful would we be?
I wonder how I can help my son become someone who strives for excellence rather than one who is paralyzed by striving to be perfect.  Sometimes I think about this as he plays on his train table (actually he would correct me if I said “plays” instead of “works” on his train table).  He comes up with some crazy ideas as he balances blocks higher and higher.  He’ll try putting the roundhouse on stilts and then parking train cars underneath.  Sometimes the tracks don’t line up and he has to take them down and try a new solution.  Oftentimes it would be easier if I would jump in and build it for him.  But would that teach him that he couldn’t do it perfectly so he shouldn’t bother to try?  There is an article in the September issue of Parents magazine about inspiring creativity.  Leslie Garisto Pfaff writes, “Problem-solving is an essential aspect of creative thinking, which is why you need to step back and let your child find the answers.”  Rather than jumping in and rescuing them she suggests asking open-ended questions that will spark solutions.
I read a book called “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  One scenario describes a child painting a picture and the teacher looks at it and gushes about how that is the best picture she’s ever seen.  Scientific research finds that comments like that don’t encourage the child by providing positive reinforcement, but actually stunt the child’s creativity by making her think she has peaked at this early age.  If that was the best, where does she go from here?  This makes me consider how I compliment my child, being more specific about how thoughtfully he’s chosen his colors or, as they suggest in the book, how well he kept his markings on the paper and off the table.  Rather than tell him he did a perfect job I encourage the work he did and the thought he put into it.  Teaching him to be creative, and strive for excellence rather than strive for perfection. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making Things With and For My Kids

I am an artist.  Now that I am a mother of two creative little souls I devote much of my creative energy into making things with and for my kids.
The year following my first child’s birth I found ways to continue my art making.  I threw pottery in my garage during naptimes and hired teens from my church to play with him while I glazed.  I painted murals with my son strapped to me in a baby carrier.  He loved grabbing my brushes and watching each colorful brush stroke.  I tried trimming pots once with him in a carrier on my back.  No, that did not work, but I’m not sorry I tried it. 
When my second child was born I decided ceramics just wasn’t working.  Clay required too much attention and so I turned to my sewing machine and paint brush instead.  They were much less messy and I could work in little creative spurts while my boys napped and played nearby. 
I designed and made a fabric playhouse for my son’s first birthday.  He also got a toy kitchen from his grandparents which got me thinking about making play food.  I had worked at a children’s museum the year prior to his birth, so I pulled from that experience along with a textile sculpture class I’d taken in college.   I took actual food and dissected it, making patterns from it and shrinking it to fit my miniature chef and his kitchen.  My husband would come home from a long day at work and I would present him with the product of my day, “Tah dah!  Miniature paella!  Complete with little shrimp and rice made from embroidery floss.  Check out how it fits in the little frying pan!”
The time I had spent making manipulative activities at the museum combined with watching my little ones play and interact with their toys got me really thinking about toys.  Many toys on the store shelves could “play” just fine on their own without a child doing a thing.  I was hungry to find toys that were only as good as the imagination of the child playing with them.  Joan Almon founding director of the Alliance for Childhood says “A good toy is 95% child and 5% toy.”   I couldn’t agree more.  I gravitated towards simple wooden toys.   Toys like blocks and wooden train sets that could be set up and changed and become anything the kids wanted them to become.  I wanted toys that were a catalyst for their imaginations not simply things that entertained them. 
I also wanted them to learn things in a way that they enjoyed so much that they didn’t even notice that they were learning.  When designing my playhouse I brainstormed with a friend of mine, who also happens to be a teacher, I wanted to paint trees on the playhouse with apples you could pick.  Why not make them out of different colors and have matching colored barrels for the kids to sort them?  I had a barn on one side of the playhouse with a basket of a dozen eggs that you could hide and then the kids could find them and collect them.  Why not write numbers on the eggs and have the kids put them in numerical order?  Each idea that became fleshed out with multiple ways to play and learn was so exciting to me.  I couldn’t wait to make the sketches in my sketch book into real tangible objects and start playing with my boys! 
So that’s how I got started and now I hope to share some of my ideas and start some conversations about other ways that parents can encourage their little ones.  By creating opportunities for play that foster creative thinking and problem solving, we as parents can have a positive impact on the next generation.