Don’t box kids in

Children are naturally drawn to art – looking at it, questioning it and especially creating it. Parents are often scared of the mess such creation leaves in its colorful wake and shy away from art as an activity. (Or, like me, parents are hopeless with a paintbrush and don’t want to be seen as a fraud by their budding artist kids.)

But exposing your children to a creative life is as important as teaching them manners and the value of chores. Infusing their souls with the beauty of the world adds a depth of character and zest of inspiration that cannot be gained elsewhere. If creating their own art doesn’t interest them, helping them appreciate art created by other people is a lovely way to introduce them to a world of color, light and magic.

Portland-based artist Elizabeth Fraser, known for her whimsical pet portraits that are full of vibrancy and character, says getting kids engaged with art comes down to one essential factor: access.

girl coloring 1“I grew up with a humongous roll of drawing paper next to the telephone table. We got years of entertainment from that roll. We were always doodling and drawing,” Fraser says. “That is key, making sure kids have access to paper, paints, markers and crayons and encouraging them to use them. Art is a great escape for kids in this busy world. They can take time to get lost in their imaginations.”

If you are (still) shuddering at the thought of paint spatters on the family room carpet and marker smears on the walls, take the kids to Smudge Art Studio in Freeport or Sedona Creativity Center in Raymond. At these kid-friendly art studios, your mini-Matisse can create in a safe, fun and expressive environment (far away from your new white couch).

Kat Gillies teaches art at River School House in Yarmouth and runs the popular summer art program at Camp Soci, also in Yarmouth. Her tip to parents: Think outside the box. Literally.

Girl coloring 2“We need to get away from the boxes we live in, drive in and watch,” she says. “Maine has an extraordinary landscape to create in, with mountains, beaches, forests, rivers, lakes and islands not too far away from any of us. At Camp Soci, we spend the time honoring the space in our own ways. We make sculpture with marine clay, build shelters, animal habitats, fairy homes, weave, print with nature and found objects, make driftwood and shell totems, saltwater paint, cast found objects, have a race with mini birch sailboats. Most of these projects are child-led, meaning they had the seed of an idea and I helped develop it with them. It is important not to control the creative process too much as it diminishes some of this spirit.”

Your children are beings of nature. It is a shame that during this precious time of their lives, they may not get the access to the outside that we grew up enjoying. We are all busy, yes, but did you have children to save time?

Write on your list for next weekend: Art time. As Gillies suggests, romp through the woods looking for natural materials. Or take Fraser’s advice and head to the art store and let your kiddos pick out their own special paint set or markers.

Girls coloring together
Here in Maine, we are also fortunate that there are so many opportunities to visit world-class collections. The exhibition halls at Colby College in Waterville, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, the Farnsworth Art Museum and the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art, both in Rockland, house masterworks as well as rotating exhibits.

The Portland Museum of Art schedules several family events throughout the year to welcome children into the art world from a young age. To help parents make sure everyone in the family enjoys the visit, the museum has handouts with tips and guidance. Louisa Donelson, the museum’s associate educator for youth learning, has some advice of her own for parents: Relinquish control.

“I know that is hard but the rewards can be profound,” she says. “Let the children be the gallery guides. Allow them to choose the art they are drawn to rather than choosing it for them. It helps develop their interests, and when they have that freedom it will result in a more impactful museum experience.”

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