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The importance of fostering creativity
or, an interview with Bar Rucci from "The Creativity Project"
A Cup of Ambition is a weekly newsletter filled with thought-provoking essays, interviews, links, and reflections on all things related to working motherhood. If you’re new here, I hope you’ll subscribe by clicking on the button below.
I was an artsy, creative kid. I took various art classes, loved to write, and was always singing. Along the path to adulthood, many of these activities fell by the wayside for more “serious” and practical pursuits. One silver lining of the pandemic has been the reigniting of my own creative spark (which eventually led to the creation of this newsletter).
This return to creativity was born out of both necessity and panic. When the world locked down in March 2020, the age gap between my then-almost 2 and 5 year old felt insurmountable. I struggled with ways to entertain them without losing my own sanity. Art was one activity that interested all three of us.
Early on, I stumbled on Bar Rucci’s Instagram page and blog—and they were complete life-savers for me. Later that year, Bar and her business partner Shannon Merenstein, from Hatch in Pittsburgh, started The Creativity Project and I immediately subscribed.
Each month they send a guide (geared towards kids ages 3-8) centered around a big idea or theme that weaves together all of the offerings inside. The heart of these monthly guides are the daily art and play invitations that encourage children to use materials and tools in their own way and that inspire new ideas and ways of thinking. Also included in each guide is a diverse book list, creative snack ideas, mindfulness routines, academic curricular connections, an artist spotlight, printables, and a plethora of practical advice.
I reached out to Bar, a freelance graphic designer turned arts educator, activist and parent to three (now mostly grown) children. She was incredibly gracious and, though I usually try to make these newsletters brief, she had so many useful insights that I just couldn’t pare them down. Her work continues to inspire me and I hope it will inspire you, too. 🎨
JW: Tell us about the Creativity Project and why fostering creativity in childhood is so important.
BR: Process art and child-led play are so important for developing skills like creative and critical thinking, empathy and compassion, the ability to collaborate and communicate with others, and growing a positive sense of self.
Shannon and I believe that what children need more than anything in early childhood is a sense of autonomy and the feeling that they are trusted to make choices for themselves, and we know that these needs are naturally met during play and open-ended creativity. In this day and age, when kindergarten has become more like first grade, it’s more important than ever to give children the freedom and respect to explore their environment at their own pace, take risks, and engage in meaningful work.
JW: How can parents best support their kids’ creative development?
BR: We believe that it’s actually quite easy to support a child’s creative development by setting up these simple creative invitations using supplies that you already have on hand, and giving them the freedom to make their own choices, take risks, problem-solve, question, iterate, and wonder. Through all of this tinkering and messing about, they are discovering who they are and building those ever-more-important creative thinking skills.
Children do not make art for it to be “good”. I would say up until the age of 5, they don’t think about good or bad at all. They are merely testing materials and exploring all the ways they can use them in expressing themselves. Our instinct is to say “Good job” or “It’s beautiful.” But the problem with praise is that it can cause children to make things with adult approval in mind, and not simply to feed their own souls. And when an adult doesn’t praise, they might think they did something wrong.
It’s better to comment on some aspect of the piece or process, such as “I see you used five different colors,” or “You stacked your collage pieces so tall,” or “You worked so hard to squeeze that glue!” This is a much more authentic way to engage with your child, and will support their creative thinking skills and self-confidence.
JW: I learned about the concept of “process art” during the pandemic and found it to be such a helpful approach with my perfectionistic kid. Tell us about it.
BR: It’s so interesting you mentioned a perfectionist child. That is exactly how I came to know process art. My oldest was in a preschool where they had very prescriptive art projects, with a sample in the middle of the table for children to copy. This was really hard for her as a perfectionist because she noticed all the details and how it was supposed to look, but didn’t have the small motor skills to make it look the same.
I saw my child’s love of art dissipate at home and so I began setting out “invitations” after school to spark some joy. She loved getting messy and ripping paper, so for example I would put out a few paint colors and a big piece of paper with no agenda other than exploring paint. Or a pile of colored paper strips and a glue stick that she could tear and construct with. There were no instructions, and it was all her choice. She would just play around, without any end product in mind, exploring materials and building creative confidence. I didn’t realize at the time that this was called “process art”, I learned that a decade later when I started writing my blog.
JW: You have so many fantastic art ideas. Do you have any all-time favorite projects?
BR: I have over 400 art projects on my blog, ranging from the simplest, open-ended toddler ideas to the more in-depth craft projects for tweens and teens and everything in between. I love anything using cardboard and recyclables, activities that engage multi-ages, and projects that have a big “wow” factor, like printmaking and weaving.
If I had to choose one all-time fave, it would be any of the times I brought out a pile of shoeboxes along with a table of loose parts and invited children to make a box city. We hot glue the boxes together so it looks like an apartment building or a big house, and then the kids are free to embellish the rooms any way they choose. Projects like this can last days and even weeks and encourages so much innovation and imaginary play.
JW: Sick days and snow days can be especially tough on working parents. Do you have any suggestions for creative projects that could entertain kids independently during an hour-long work call?
BR: Yes, absolutely! Again, not to sound like a broken record, but the key in peaking children’s interest is giving them the supplies and trusting them to make whatever they want. This way, you don’t have to be involved at all. It’s good to set some simple rules, like supplies stay at the table, and maybe no tempera paint while you are not there (depending on age). Otherwise, just be intentional in setting out materials, and save some special supplies for when you have a longer meeting so they are excited by the novelty. Some greatest hits are:
1. A mailbox station with envelopes, cardstock, paper punches, stickers, markers, and a pretend cardboard mailbox with a slot. It’s an almost guaranteed hour, at least.
2. A clothespin / craft stick people-making station, with colored washi tape, markers, cloth squares, scissors, and a glue stick. Kids love making people, and if you pair it with a cardboard box they will find a way to make a house or a theatre to go with their people.
3. Or a simple watercolor station can be something that will keep a child’s interest for quite some time, especially if it’s a special supply that isn’t used as often. Give children a big piece of paper, or a pile of smaller pieces, and invite them to cover the whole page. You can also give them a pencil to draw with, some crayons, and scissors for extended exploration of supplies and techniques.
JW: What suggestions do you have for adults who are interested in tapping into their creative side?
BR: So often grown-ups think of themselves as not creative, and that’s probably because of a time in their childhood when a grown-up told them their work wasn’t good. But what is good? And why does good matter? This is something worth exploring as adults because it will help us to become more trusting of our own children’s creative endeavors.
I think adults can tap back into their own creativity by just exploring materials as a young child would. Use paint in an abstract way, mix colors, make marks, cut it up, collage on top. The point is to not make anything too precious, and just see how it feels. Maybe you love yarn, so glue together two sticks and make a God’s Eye. Maybe you love sculpture, so take some recyclables, scissors, and glue and build something abstract. Make nothing at all in particular, just experiment and find some joy in the process!
JW: I always appreciate the perspective of moms with older kids. Looking back, what are some of the most important lessons you learned about working motherhood?
BR: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned as a working mom is that our children don’t really need all that much from us. Through the generations, children’s needs haven’t changed. They still long for love, connection, and belonging, and those things don’t have to be complicated.
Simple traditions and rituals, like a trip to the library and time spent snuggled up reading, or getting out in nature and collecting leaves and sticks for art projects, or cooking together, dancing together, telling jokes, or playing sports together - anything that peaks your interest also - seem doable and easy so we often forget that this is really the key to a happy childhood. We don’t need to make their days amazing, we just need to show them that they are important to us and that we are available to listen and connect.
My children are now teens and young adults, so I can look back and realize that all those times I was working in my office during their childhood, and they were popping in to show me something they made or a new dance move, or to put on a little show, those were happy times and not times when I was ignoring them, which is what I thought and felt guilty about.
I have been lucky to work from home, so they have been able to come to my office whenever they need to connect, but they also know that I love what I do and my work is important to me, and somehow that also rubbed off on them. I did have to learn to live with a messy house - we all cleaned up once a day at bedtime - but it was worth it to be able to find that balance that we all look for. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. And that’s all they needed.
Must-have art supplies: We have a really great list of all the basic and best art supplies that we use for The Creativity Project, but I would add to that some fun specialty items that are great to bring on a trip or use for a special art day at home or in the classroom.
1. Sticky paper (also called contact paper or self-adhesive laminating paper) is a super fun and novel way to make collages. I’ve set this out with paper collage materials, natural materials, and even magazines that older kids can cut up and make into cool mood boards.
2. Coffee filters are really different to paint on because they are so absorbent. They work well with watercolor, and especially liquid watercolor (make sure to use a tray with paper towel underneath the coffee filter). The round shape also lends itself really well to cutting into snowflakes!
3. Sun print paper (also known as cyanotype paper) is always very successful and magical. You can collect natural specimens like flowers and leaves, or use small toys and alphabet letters to make gorgeous, graphic, blue prints.
4. And lastly, I love collecting wood pieces for sculptures or just to paint on. If your local high school has a woodshop, find the teacher's email and ask them if you can collect some of their scraps. I sand them down and keep them in a box. It’s awesome to have them handy for projects.
Glitter: yay or nay? I’m a little less yay on the glitter than I used to be, for environmental reasons, even though I do love the magic of a little sparkle. Colored rice (made by scooping white rice into a tupperware with a few drops of food coloring, then shaking it around, then drying it on some paper towel) and leftover yarn clippings, especially from trimmed pom-poms are great alternatives for extra pizzaz.
Where do you find your inspiration? Books, museums, podcasts, nature, Instagram. I’m inspired by my travels, too. I look at architecture, paint colors, signage, packaging, new trees and flowers. My eyes are always looking for shapes, patterns, and colors. I guess the question should be, what doesn’t inspire me? (That would be any place with fluorescent lighting which instantly makes me want to flee!)
Favorite family vacation spot? Our children have spent their entire childhood driving up the East Coast to the beaches in Rhode Island where their grandparents live. We love the big waves and the casual atmosphere. We also love Maine, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve always packed art supplies to bring with us to pair with beach finds like shells, rocks, sticks, and sand. Now that my kids are older, I pack some more involved art projects, like sun print paper or yarn for weaving. They don’t know it yet, but this summer we are going to do some family printmaking!
I want to cover what’s important to YOU. I welcome reader input in deciding what and who to write about. Email me at drjessicawilen [at] gmail [dot] com and put “newsletter idea” in the subject.