How can we create art without art materials? In this activity, inspired by the book What If... by Samantha Berger, kids explore this question and put their problem-solving skills to the test as they create art using only the objects they can find in their outdoor spaces.
Watch the read-aloud of What If... by Samantha Berger. Invite your child to share what they noticed about the story. What materials did the main character use to create art? What was your child’s favorite way that the main character created art? Then, ask, “Should we go outside and create some art together, too?”
Once you have arrived in your outdoor space, notice aloud that you forgot to bring paint, markers, paper, etc. How can we create art without art materials? What could your child use instead? Welcome any ideas your child shares about what materials to collect or how to use them to create art. Search around your outdoor space together for materials you could use for your creation.
Support the creative process:
While kids create with their materials, remain available to help them if they ask, but let them do as much as they can. As adults, it can be tempting to focus on an end product or on making art that looks a particular way. For kids, the more immersed they are in the process, the more joyful and engaging the experience will be. To support this, find moments to compliment their focus and invite them to talk about their choices in colors and materials rather than asking what they made or suggesting that it looks like something specific.
Need ideas? If you need a creative spark, try out one or more of these ideas together:
Make a nature display: Arrange colorful nature treasures into a design on the ground or create a 3-dimensional sculpture with rocks, wood and other found objects. Kids can also use mud to stick nature objects together as they build their designs.
Draw in dirt: Use a stick to carve shapes and designs into the dirt. Experiment with sticks of different widths. Add water to the soil to see how this changes the appearance of the shapes on the earth. Decorate your outline by placing nature treasures along the lines of the design.
Paint with water: Find a puddle or bring water outside with you and dribble water on dry soil or pavement to make a design. Use leaves and sticks as paint brushes to “paint” the water on. Wait a bit to see how the design changes as the water evaporates from the painting surface. Then, paint again!
Mud stamps: Dip leaves and other objects into mud and stamp them on pavement to make different shapes. Make handprint (or footprint) art with mud or water.
Shadow play: Have kids find their shadows, then give time to play around to see how their shadows move and behave. Note: shadows are larger and more pronounced at the start or end of the day, so morning or late afternoon are ideal. Join other shadows to make a shape (circle, heart, square, triangle, etc) or cool designs. Arrange sticks, branches, leaves and other natural props around your shadow to help make your shadow transform too.
Want more ideas like this?
For more ways to help kids activate their flexible thinking, creativity and problem solving skills, try our "What Can You Do With a Big Orange Splot?" DIY. Use the read-aloud of The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater as a jumping off point, then invite kids to turn a big orange splot printable sheet into something wonderful! Visit the DIY here!
Why is this activity great for kids?
You may have heard the phrase “it’s the process, not the product that matters,” and when it comes to kids’ art-making, that couldn’t be more true. When kids direct the creative process and make their own choices about what materials to use and how to use them, play is more joyful and tends to last longer, because it’s open-ended and kids feel in control. When kids are invited to create using only the objects they can find around them, they are developing flexible thinking and problem-solving skills. Using objects from nature in their art also activates the senses, supports observation skills and helps kids tune in to the colors and textures of nature.
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By creativity, we mean the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen. So, to help kids develop creativity, we parents need to nurture kids' imaginations and give them lots of chances to design, test, redesign and implement their ideas.
"Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, without creativity, we don't think our kids will live a full life.
On a more practical level, it's also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.
Although years from the art studio or design lab, little kids can learn to think and act creatively if you give them time and the right practice.
What is Imagination?
Imagination is defined in many ways, but one we like is, "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality." This is no small task to little kids, and yet young childhood is a time in which imagination is developed more than any other. How does imagination develop in childhood? Through an increasingly sophisticated life of make believe.
We all likely have a sense of what we mean by make believe or good old "pretend play." How do experts define it, though? To some, there are different types of make believe that vary in sophistication and make pretend play different than other types of play. For example, kids may use objects to represent something else (e.g. a block becomes a cell phone). Or, they may start to give an object certain properties (e.g. a doll is asleep or a tree is on fire!). Still yet, they may themselves take on the properties of someone or something else.
From there, pretend play evolves into acting out scenarios or stories, those getting increasingly intricate as imagination develops. As kids' pretend play grows more sophisticated, these stories come to involve not only the creative use of objects, but multiple perspectives (e.g. good and bad guys in the same story), and/or the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions (e.g. I am sad, but then become happy after I save the village from certain doom).
Why does it matter?
An ever growing body of research substantiates the many benefits of pretend play including the enhanced development of: language and communication skills; self-control and empathy; flexible and abstract thinking; and creativity. These are the skills that will help kids balance emotions, form healthy relationships, work effectively on teams, stay focused in school, be successful at various jobs and solve the problems of an increasingly complicated world. An individual's creativity in particular, both requires and is limited by her imagination.
What are Problem Solving Skills?
When we talk about problem solving, we mean the ability to solve a problem in which the solution is not obvious and in which the possible paths to solution are many. To solve such problems, kids will need two things. First, they’ll need the self confidence and comfort to both attempt to find and persist in finding a solution. The only way to develop this is to be given the chance to struggle with ambiguous situations or open-ended problems. We parents are all guilty, from time to time, of helping kids avoid struggle or swooping in to alleviate frustration when our kid encounters challenge. The goal is actually to do the opposite whenever possible. As long as the problem is not too difficult to understand or challenging to solve, even young kids can get comfortable with the feeling of not knowing the solution and fall in love with the joy of finding a solution to a problem.
Kids also need strategies to attack problems with which they are faced. If adults are able to work with kids to solve problems “as a team” but in such a way that the children feel and act “in charge” of the decisions, adults can actually teach foundation problem solving skills and strategies through modeling. For example, when you solve a problem together, kids get practice with key parts of the process like brainstorming, testing ideas, revision and solution. It’s also pretty easy to model how to use simple strategies like trial and error or breaking a problem down into smaller parts. Although children age 1 to 7 should not be expected to name, catalog or identify when to use a particular problem solving strategy, they are able to form habits and repeat approaches once those habits or approaches have become familiar. The more problems they solve, the better they know and can use these methods.
Why does it matter?
“The highest ranked skills for students entering the workforce were not facts and basic skills; they were applied skills that enable workers to use the knowledge and basic skills they have acquired” (Source: Are They Really Ready for Work? Conference Board 2006).
Although it seems a long way to go before our young children are hitting the job market, the ability to solve challenging, ambiguous problems has already been identified as a critical skill for success in the 21st Century. With advances in technology, finding information has never been easier. However, knowing how to interpret a problem and use available information to devise a solution still needs to be learned. And, we fear that the classrooms of today are neither designed nor incentivized to teach these skills effectively. In most schools, so much time is spent learning discrete skills, that applied skills like problem solving are wildly underemphasized. In a world that demands it, it is increasingly necessary that children learn and practice these skills outside of school.
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?