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Creative Development in Children

A woman and a young child coloring together with crayons at a table.
A woman and a young child coloring together with crayons at a table.

We are all well aware in our profession that development happens on a continuum and it’s not always linear. Some children skip crawling and go straight to walking, but they still have to be able to walk before they can get on a bike. Children need strong relationships, language interactions, and access to books before they can begin to read and write, but some children may start to recognize letters and put them together as words before others, even with the same access to these things. Children develop differently and at different speeds, that’s a fact. How does this continuum look for the development of creativity and art making?

If we want children to learn to crawl and walk, we give them floor time. If we want them to talk, we sing to them. If we want them to learn about math, we count their toes and talk to them about the shapes and colors of their blocks. But how do we foster creative development when it comes to making art? How do we prepare children? Are we doing it in ways that are effective and healthy for their development?

In the Montana Early Learning Standards, creative development falls under the domain of cognition. The subdomains that come before creative arts are “approaches to learning” and “reasoning and representational thought”. It’s important to note how these subdomains go hand in hand or even need to come before children begin to create art.

Check out the benchmarks for “Curiosity: Standard 4.1”. They include, “investigate how things move, ask simple questions, show interest in new activities, and study materials to see how they work” (Pg. 51). For “Initiative and self direction: Standard 4.2” benchmark F, we want children to be able to “approach tasks and activities with increased flexibility, imagination, and inventiveness” and benchmark E “begin to take a few risks and try new ways of doing things” (Pg. 52). Again, for “Persistence and Attentiveness: Standard 4.3” critical benchmarks for creative development include D, “explore objects by repeating and varying the approach” and F, “develop skills through repetitive practice.”

Young child painting one and off the piece of paper on the table.
Young child painting on and off the piece of paper on a table.

Think about a child who plays with a block for the first time. What is the first thing they might do? Probably put it in their mouth, possibly throw it, or maybe bang it against another object. Now consider a child who uses a marker for the first time. Imagine they try to taste it and are scolded. Next, they drop the marker on the floor and then experiment with dropping all the markers on the floor. Again, the child is scolded and told “okay all done with markers.” The next time the child uses a marker, they attempt to smash it down on the paper to make dots, or they do big huge lines that end up all over the table. The child is told, “we are gentle with markers, the markers have to stay on the paper.” What is the young child in this anecdote learning about markers? Perhaps that they are not much fun or that they don’t understand how they work and now might never learn.

What will happen if you give a group of children, a handful who have never used glue, an activity where they have to glue pieces together to make a product, say a reindeer? The majority of the children who have used glue may figure it out. Some of them might make the “perfect reindeer” just like the teachers. Others may experiment a little bit with antlers and eyes in wonky places and be happy with their result. But the children who have never used glue, what do you think they will do? If you guessed, squeeze and squeeze until they have a big giant glob of glue on top of their reindeer and nothing stuck on the top, you’re correct! Glue is absolutely something that has to be explored. “Dot, dot, not a lot” will not work on the children who have never used glue because (go back to the benchmarks listed above) they are curious, experimenting, imagining, repeating, and questioning. Before they even learn that glue holds paper together, they have to learn about how to squeeze it and probably how it feels and smells. Back to the children and the reindeer, the children who did a big glob of glue and didn’t make a reindeer will not have a product to hang on the wall like the others. They may feel sad or ashamed that they didn’t do as they were told. Imagine how this will affect this group of kids the next time they go to create art.

Two young children painting on and off the white paper on a table.
Two young children painting on and off the white paper on a table.

As hard and sometimes frustrating as it may be, we have to start seeing art and creative development in the same way that we do in other areas of development. We have to be able to let young children explore freely so that they continue to experiment with art and make things that they are proud of, that are important and beautiful to them. Before they begin to make this art, we’ve got to step back and take a breath knowing that our tables might get dirty, clothes might get painty, and hands might get colored. This is all part of the process; it’s needed and it’s important.


Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, a mama to a rambunctious toddler, and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.

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