It began with a simple question from my oldest daughter, age 4 at the time: “Daddy, what is art?”
“Art,” I began, “is something that, well, let me think about that for a moment.”
What was art, indeed, I asked myself while continuing the mindless routine of a frantic preschool morning: load the dishwasher, supervise the brushing of teeth, check the backpack, and head out the door.
On the way to school, I muttered a few tidbits about art being a way humans change materials like clay or paint into beautiful objects. As with so many adult explanations of abstract concepts, however, the words only created a blank gaze on my daughter’s emotionless face in the rearview mirror.
Later that day we happened to do a craft project at the kitchen table that involved pouring sand of different colors through a funnel into empty plastic bottles. After you cap each bottle, a striking mixture of sand grains can be shaken into countless patterns. Little did I know this kitchen craft would make the abstract meaning of art concrete.
When my daughter started pouring layers of sand into the first bottle, her excitement grew quickly — I could tell by her tapping, rocking and shifting. Finally, she finished pouring the sand into the bottle, I put a cork on the top, and I showed her the result. Her energy uncorked like a bottle of champagne as she jumped from her chair and shouted: “ART! I made art!”
Joy bubbled over as she grabbed the bottle and rushed around the house to show it to my wife and her little sister, then just a year old. My wife mirrored her excitement and congratulated her, while my 1-year-old simply looked at her with a blank gaze on an emotionless face. But that did not dilute the magic for my oldest, and soon every measuring cup, empty water bottle, and piece of Tupperware became another canvas for her art.
Looking back, my daughter’s euphoric moment probably would not have happened in a different environment. Our family uses plenty of technology, but when our kids were very young my wife and I insisted on a screen-free kitchen and dining room to encourage creativity in both art and the art of conversation. Sitting around a table together for as many meals as possible is still the best way for a family to ensure quality time and communication. If dinner together is challenging, try lunch, breakfast or snack time.
Other ways to encourage creativity include having art supplies and quality books readily available throughout the house. You never know when the artistic spirit will move children. Also, make sure your kids see you read, and frame and display their best artwork. My favorite is a piece by my youngest daughter on our kitchen wall that features an aerial view of a square table with four shapes sitting around it. The symbolism speaks for itself.
Another suggestion for art promotion at home is to involve your children’s friends. On those rare days when I became a playdate “host with the most,” I would help the kids with all that sand art. My daughters’ friends often wanted to play with the sand or other art materials over the newest apps or video games, partly because they went home with a “favor.” A final way to involve friends might be to organize visits to places like museums, institutes and sculpture parks.
Whenever our family created sand art together, my wife and I made sure to think about the work of art both our children are, and to be grateful for them. As I watched the sand pour through the funnel, on the outside I often babbled in “parentese” about how each grain of sand has to take its turn trickling down the funnel, just like kids have to take turns with toys, drivers have to take turns at intersections, and speakers have to take turns in conversations.
But on the inside, I couldn’t help comparing the funnel to an hourglass and the grains of sand to the short but precious time parents have to savor the questions of growing children.