What's In a Picture?

Hedda SharapanI will never forget a lesson I learned when I was observing in a classroom. The children were to draw something they did over the wintry weekend, and most drew snowmen, sleds or snow-covered trees. 

But one girl’s picture was just a murky mixture of colors, and it looked like a mess. She taught me a lot that day when she explained that’s how her stomach felt when she was sick over the weekend. 

No wonder “Tell me about it” is the best thing we can say! Unless children tell us, we can’t know what they intended the picture to be – or even that it was intended to be a picture of “something.” Maybe they’re exploring swirls or colors -- or their mixed-up feelings about the new baby or moving. Creative art isn’t always “pretty,” and it doesn’t have to look like something real (or “nice”).

Creativity is one of the essential 21st Century Skills that people are talking about these days. Our society needs innovative thinkers and creative problem solvers, and we help build that foundation when we provide children with a wide range of art experience – and supportive responses. 

Creativity was at Fred Rogers’ core, as composer, script-writer and creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. All through the Neighborhood series he encouraged imagination, problem-solving and pretending. I recently came across a Neighborhood episode where he shared one of his favorite stories about art and creativity, and I thought you might appreciate it, too. 

Here are some ways we can build on Fred’s story in the video and support children’s creativity:

By providing opportunities

Let’s go beyond the traditional and give children the opportunity to use all kinds of materials in new ways. I’ve heard about teachers who offer unusual painting tools, such as flowers or sponges or even small pieces of carpet samples, like Eric Carle showed us on our program. What kinds of pictures would children make with bits of yarn?

Now and then you might want to take the art materials outside. What does the wind or clouds inspire them to do on a picture or in a song or dance? Some teachers set out yarn to weave into the chain link fence on the playground…or suggest mixing “soups” or “magic potions “ with bits of weeds or leaves in containers with water. 

By providing enough time

I was struck by something that our friend, Dr. Roberta Schomburg, said after her latest visit to Reggio Emilio. She talked about the value of leaving block buildings up, day after day, as long as the children want to use them. 

That’s encouraging them to become even more creative because they can add to their block structures, make them more elaborate over time (maybe even with craft materials) and be more likely to use them in rich dramatic play or in further investigation of scientific principles. Maybe we need signs that say “Please don’t clean this up today!

By providing supportive responses

When you say, “Tell me about it,” with genuine interest, you may learn some surprising things about the pictures – and about the children (what they are thinking or dealing with or feeling). You could also comment on the process – what they were doing, rather than what they were making. For example, you could say with interest or even curiosity, “I noticed you used only one color in your painting…or that you always make blue trees.” Then wait – maybe the child can tell you more. 

It’s just as important to help parents appreciate their child’s creativity. Tell parents what you noticed, too. And be sure to point out their child’s explanation that you’ve written or taped on the back of pictures. 


Creativity is, of course, much more than artwork. But through the art experiences you’re offering now in early childhood, you’re starting children off on a major 21st Century pathway, leading to a lifetime of creative thinking and creative problem-solving. 

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