What To Say Instead Of "What Is It?" When Kids Show You Their Artwork

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When little kids create a work of art -- say, a drawing or painting or pipe cleaner sculpture -- adults typically respond in two different ways. There's the effusive, "That's so beautiful! You're such an amazing artist! Let's hang this masterpiece on the wall!" Or there's the blank stare and the question: "What is it?"

Neither is very helpful for the young artist, educators say. Kids who are over-complimented often become stressed and anxious about maintaining a high level of praise, so they tend to only try things that are "safe." And constantly asking kids, "What is it?" enforces an idea that art has to be something concrete. (Jackson Pollock's mum and dad probably never asked him, "But where's the sun and the clouds and the grass?")

Instead, when talking about a kid's artwork, adults should focus on the process, not the product. Writes Linda Carson of Brilliant Star Magazine, "What you're trying to do is feed back their explorations to them -- being neither too critical nor too gushy -- and leave lots of room in the conversation for them to talk, too. What they think about their artwork is more important than what you or I think."

Here are some conversation starters from art educators:

  • "Try talking about individual aspects of the piece. 'What colours are in the picture?' Point them out. 'Look at that red.' 'Wow! That blue is bright!' 'Are there parts that are round? Square? Triangular?'" -- Sarah Teitel, an artist and art therapist in Toronto
  • "Acknowledge how hard (carefully, enthusiastically, long) they worked on their artwork." -- Jean Van't Hul, The Artful Parent
  • "'What title would you give this work?' Titles can offer a new dimension to a piece of art. Also, a title encourages your child to think about the main idea or concept of her work." -- Rachel Lynette, Minds in Bloom 
  • "Encourage the child to tell you a story to expand the creativity. -- Carolyn Mehlomakulu, Creativity in Therapy
  • "Ask the kids what they like about their work. This kind of conversation reinforces vocabulary and concepts and opens the door to conversation." -- Tobi Kibel Piatek, Inspiring Ideas
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Comments

    Or, you could ask them what it is, and listen to their story.

    I always just asked mine to describe it for me, tell me whats going on in the picture.

    "Oh, that's great, Tiffany! But I must remember to get you some brighter-coloured crayons."

    "Don't worry, mum. The use of primary colours would be a distraction from my message that kindergarten is basically a bootcamp for the mind and soul, preparing both for an arduous journey to an unknown destination that, when reached, will almost certainly be a disappointment when compared to the metaphorical glossy travel brochure that is life, selling a fantasy that the future is something to be enthusiastically anticipated, rather than feared, on the way to inevitable death."

    Jackson Pollock's mum and dad probably never asked him, "But where's the sun and the clouds and the grass?"

    This made me giggle.

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