May 28, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The “A” in STEAM: Bring Out the Inner Artist in Kids


When I was little, I was told I could draw. I went on to study art in college. This may be why I feel no fear facilitating art activities in the library, while some of my extraordinarily creative and talented colleagues who teach coding or physics sometimes back away from art programs, perhaps because they don’t have a fixed outcome.

For decades, artists and art critics have debated what is defined as art versus craft (see, for example, Larry Shiner’s The Invention of Art: A Cultural History, University of Chicago, 2001). For this article’s purposes, crafts are activities with predetermined results, while art projects involve setting up supplies and creating a framework, without a singular goal. While I believe in the benefits of crafts at the library, I also believe in the power of open-ended art—and the skill of any open-minded librarian to facilitate it.

Librarians promote STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math—because these are important skills for young people. The “A” is as potent for learning as the other letters. As with all STEAM elements, effective learning comes from creating and connecting ideas, not rote re-creation. The best way to do this? Shift your arts framework toward play.

“Play is the work of childhood,” as psychologist Jean Piaget said. It’s also inherently connected to creativity. What is creativity exactly? According to a report from the Center for Childhood Creativity, it involves originality, usefulness, authenticity, and surprise.

There are many reasons to encourage creativity in kids, including research showing that 97 percent of employers believe it’s increasingly important in the workplace—and that it improves math and science test results among low-income students. Beyond that, however, creativity helps consolidate learning, promotes critical thinking and problem-solving, and can even make us happier. “It makes you more resilient, more vividly in the moment, and, at the same time, more connected to the world,” psychology professor Ruth Richards said in a 2009 Psychology Today article.

All of that aside, it’s incredibly fun to build creative community together. Kids being creative burst with pride; their enjoyment is infectious.

Then why are so many adults reluctant to engage in art? Eighty-five percent of adults have a shame-based moment from childhood that affected the direction of their lives, as Brené Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly (Gotham, 2012). Over half of those moments turned people away from creative endeavors, including visual arts and music.

We children’s librarians lift our voice in song because we know it’s important for early literacy, despite our off-key sounds. Kids don’t care—nor do they care if you can’t draw photo-realistically. They learn to disparage their creative efforts from adults. It’s important for us to shelve our anxiety—and foster creativity.

It’s also important to know how to talk to children about their art. Research shows that praising a child’s personality—“You’re a great artist!”—can promote helplessness, as kids become nervous about their performance and achieving something to earn adult approval.

Praising effort, on the other hand, or discussing their decision-making, can encourage risk-taking and self-expression, two key aspects of creativity. Simply complimenting color-mixing or how thick or thin a line is, reminding children of their progress in mastering different media, or asking about the most challenging part of their creative process all build self-confidence. It’s also been shown that telling kids to be creative with their assignments can help them shake preconceived notions of what their work is supposed to look like.

If children who visit us in our libraries can leave with a better sense of who they are, what incredible things they are capable of, and the power of their ideas, we are doing our jobs well.


    Women's History month.

Easy, open-ended art ideas


This is a one-hour program for older kids. At my library, we looked at images of the craziest hats I could find, and we discussed how they might be held together structurally. We studied pictures of buildings and bridges to make the engineering connection. I then put out a lot of different materials, including tissue paper, straws, toilet rolls, milk jugs, and buttons; gave the kids duct tape and glue; and situated myself in the corner with a glue gun. A fashion show culminated the session. This activity can be adapted for Halloween or a larger costume workshop.

Messy Mondays

Kids ages three and up were invited to get their hands—and clothes—messy during an hour-long art program. Activities included:

Patterns: Kids wrapped yarn around toilet paper rolls, milk jugs, and other items. Meanwhile, I put big sheets of paper on the floor and covered them with different colored paint. The kids then rolled, pushed, and smashed the objects on the sheets. The idea was to play with paint and different types of “brushes,” and we analyzed the shapes and patterns that resulted. For instance, the yarn-covered toilet rolls made wavy stripes when rolled—and squares and rectangles when pushed through the paint. Identifying shapes helped lay a foundation for math lessons.

Water play: I glued coffee filters to pieces of paper or to a huge sheet affixed to a wall, and handed out water droppers, watercolors, markers, and spray bottles. Kids drew, dripped on, sprayed, or painted the filters. Looking at the varying effects, we talked about chromatography, adhesion, and color theory.

3-D & 2-D: I gathered sticks, rocks, leaves, and other materials. Kids got small palettes of acrylic paint and brushes and went wild painting the 3-D items, which they could bring home. We discussed 2-D versus 3-D art.

Sound: I read Gary Golio’s Bird & Diz (Candlewick, 2015) aloud and played jazz while we talked about what kinds of sounds we heard. I handed out strips of colored paper and oil pastels, and the children drew what they heard.

Overall: I recommend any activity from Hervé Tullet’s Art Workshops for Children (Phaidon, 2015).

1611-stem-portrait_kidPortrait Workshops

I hosted these during Black and Women’s History months. Reading a children’s book about portraiture provides enough art theory to facilitate wonderful portrait creations. The goal is to guide kids’ use of the media. introduce them to the basic structure of the face, and help them learn visual literacy.

In groups of six to 10, kids created watercolor and pastel portraits in a two-hour session. After a quick lesson during which we studied pictures of faces, I asked them to think about what a face really looks like, considering things like where the eyes are positioned. We looked at portraits by artists including Frida Kahlo, Kehinde Wiley, Vincent van Gogh, and Alice Neel. Participants chose their subjects—famous women and/or African Americans—from a list I created. I handed out packets with biographical material, a photo of the subject, and a picture-book biography. This activity could be adapted to focus on important STEAM figures.

nowlain-lisa_contribLisa Nowlain, a youth librarian in Nevada County, CA, was formerly a children’s librarian at Darien (CT) Library.

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  1. Thanks for a great article! Messy Mondays is such a fabulous idea and I love how you connected STEM concepts with art. I feel really inspired to try some of these programs.

    • Lisa Nowlain says:

      Glad to hear it! I borrowed the name Messy Monday from the Madison WI library. Let me know how it works out!

  2. “Play is the work of childhood.” What a wonderful quote. I love this article. Children are natural artists, with a wonderful sense of composition. When they get into the 3rd or 4th grades, too many children become inhibited, and worry about “realism.” Art, above all, is freedom, pleasure, joy, and personal expression.