Friday, October 8, 2010

Budding Artists

"How do you encourage a creative, artistic spirit in your baby, toddler or young child?"

This question is posed by the Cotton Babies staff as part of a contest to win a whole set of their new "artist series" of bumgenius cloth diapers, and as a Montessori mama with a passion for the arts, I couldn't resist the question. In fact, I'm totally tickled that the question is one that I probably would have considered posting about anyway!

Encouraging a creative spirit in your child is as simple as creating a beautiful space for your child from the earliest stages of infancy. Maria Montessori often mentioned that we need to offer "the best for the smallest among us." I could not agree more with this sentiment, and this begins even in the first hours and days of life. While the popular mama culture is all about the crib and flashy/cartoony nursery "themes," the parent that hopes for a child with an appreciation for true beauty and an interest in the beauty of nature will forego these conventions of popular parenting culture. Beginning with a floor bed (as simple as a low mattress on the floor) gives your child freedom of vision into his world, unobscured by the lines of the crib bars. A developer of the Montessori infancy philosophy, Dr. Silvana Montanaro, comments in her book Understanding the Human Being: The Importance of the First Three Years of Life, that the perceptions of the child that are taken in through the bars of the crib will have to be wholly reformed later in life.

Vision is a fundamental element of an artistic spirit - to see and love the beauty around you. In the newborn's unobscured visual field on a play mat, parents can place a beautiful mobile constructed of simple geometric solids (spheres, cubes, plane geometric figures), starting with a black and white design, moving into a mobile that represents an element of color theory (the rainbow, primary colors, the gradation of a single color from light to dark). These very early introductions to color and form will leave a lasting impression in the absorbent mind of the newborn. In addition to mobiles, parents should hang carefully selected works of art at child level. While your eyebrows may initially raise at the idea of hanging a Monet print at ankle height, we have to consider as parents what we want our child to perceive as beauty. Certainly I would never design my home with all plastic decorations, or with neon flashing lights, or with loud garish noises playing at the touch of buttons covering every surface.

Despite our sensibilities as adults to beautiful colors, art, and music, the children's toy and decoration industry is dominated by jarring and garish colors, patterns, and music. We would never dream of designing our bedrooms as adults with Michael Scott's face plastered across every chair, blanket, pillowcase, curtain, and hanging picture, yet there is little hesitation to create for our daughter's a Barbie dream-land room or a Hot-Wheels mega-scape of a room for our sons. This criticism comes from the woman with a bright red couch, black and white striped rug, and bold modern art and guitars on her living room walls, and in no way am I saying that a child's room needs to be designed in all neutrals or without any toys in sight. I certainly have a love of boldness, but any designer will agree that in using bold or unexpected colors or forms it is imperative to be even more discerning about selection, groupings, and layout and extremely sensitive to moderation. So back to the ankle-height Monet: I read in a publication about early childhood art exposure, that a young adult discovered a photograph of himself in his nursery, and noticed on the wall a framed Indian batik print (or perhaps a moorish geometric design? I cannot remember exactly the style of the art). When he saw the art in the photo, he blurted out how much he has always loved that particular style of art, but that he never knew why because he didn't recall ever studying it or seeing it while growing up. That fleeting art print from his infant nursery left a lasting impression of beauty in his subconscious. I was also amazed early on in observing my son that he would concentrate for up to 20 minutes at a time looking at a black and white photograph of an animal, or he would study the patterns on a decorative cushion or furniture intently for prolonged periods of time (as a very young infant!). I always thought that concentration was something for students in law school, but it amazed me to discover that children can develop concentration from a shockingly young age. If there is a particular space that you spend extended periods of time with your child - maybe a chair where you always nurse, or a play-mat in the corner of your sewing room - this is an ideal space to enrich with a beautiful photograph or throw blanket. Give the child something beautiful to occupy her attention.

Though I've only hinted at it so far, the toys and materials we fill our child's world with leave a huge impression on the child's mentality about the world around him. The child who is offered ceramic dishes will have a sense of care and delicacy about the world, as opposed to the child who only uses spill-proof plastic dishes. The child who only plays with toys that serve to entertain will have a sense of needing entertainment from the world around him, whereas a child who plays with imaginative toys (blocks, puzzles, art supplies, etc) will approach the world with a sense of initiative and creativity. Returning to the concept of vision as a foundational element of developing creativity, if the child's visual field is cluttered (for instance, by a heap of toys in a bin or basket, or by a playroom lined wall-to-wall with toys), the impressions she takes in will be cluttered. The child with a limitless number of toys available or a pattern and decoration on every inch of nursery space will have a difficult time seeing the things around him: the visual "noise" of the space will distract him from focusing on any individual element, and create in his mind a framework of a chaotic world. Alternatively, offering a limited selection of toys neatly and individually displayed on shelves and a small number of carefully selected decorations, the child is given the opportunity to form an orderly and beautiful mental framework for the external world. This is not to say that a child should look at the same three pictures exclusively throughout her childhood, but rather that the parent's job is one of vigilance and constant attention to the child's interest. As such, the parent works to enrich the environment of the child by rotating artwork as interest wanes, or swapping out toys as the child demonstrates readiness for a new skill. As a chronically untidy person, I can say with confidence that keeping it simple in this way has made it astoundingly easy to maintain a clean room for my son who is 21 months old. When we first embarked on the parenting journey, I was certain that this would be my greatest challenge and greatest shortcoming as a parent... I can hardly keep my own clothes off of the bedroom floor, much less the astonishing amount of gear that comes with a baby! Surprisingly, this system of rotating toys and art makes the task of keeping Dominic's room clean one of the easiest tasks in our household! The "place for everything and everything in its place" mentality has helped us to keep Dominic's space beautiful (even though the rest of the house can get quite messy! I am no domestic goddess!!), and I am confident in Montessori's understanding that the child absorbs his surroundings and applies his impressions from early childhood (birth-6 years) to his experience throughout the rest of his life. He is a surprisingly orderly child and even helps us in maintaining the order in his space (puts his clothes away, returns his toys to their shelves, etc.).

In our family musical creativity is also hugely important, as my husband is a guitarist and we both LOVE music. I noticed pretty early on that "children's music" tends to be far from what I would consider appealing or beautiful. I tried out some CDs that take "real music" and recreate it in a "nursery appropriate" way, but found myself disappointed that all of the instrumental intricacy of the music was lost in the translation (even if it was AC/DC or Bob Marley). The music was turned into a series of electronic beepy sounds... as though it was being played on one of those fisher-price pianos or on a xylophone that was not quite in tune. Disappointed, we opted to just play the "real music," and I have to admit that while Dominic enjoys the classical music stations on our Pandora radio, he really gets a surge out of funk music and the beat of some of the more technical techno and metal is visible in his tiny body when it comes on those radio stations. We definitely want him to have an appreciation for the "classics," but it is so satisfying to see his taste emerging as we listen to our favorites at random on our internet radio. Already he can hear and identify some musical instruments, and his sense of rhythm sometimes amazes me as he spontaneously bursts into dance when we hear music over the loudspeakers at the zoo or in a restaurant. We also offer him an assortment of percussion instruments and let him strum Ryan's guitars when he seems interested. It has been challenging, but we are very cautious to remove batteries from any toys that play "music" that is not musically accurate or beautiful; even if "the Muffin Man" is a childhood staple, it is difficult for me to agree that he is learning anything about the beauty of music from a toy that squawks the "song" in a robotic voice to the sound of jingly beeps (eww.).

Developing a creative spirit is most dependent on the environment the child is absorbing on a daily basis. Looking at beautiful art, listening to beautiful music, experiencing rich and independent play with creative toys all deeply influence the child's interest in creating and his "eye" for beauty. I am sure it is clear that I have a pretty strong opinion on the matter, and I can attribute the strength of my opinion to the value I have in art and creativity. Without the arts we would live in a dull world, and I am hopeful that I might win a set of these cute "artist series" diapers to brighten the dull white cloth diaper wardrobe of my little budding artist/musician.

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