Poems & Essays

18 Apr

Coloring Outside the Lines

General/Column 7 Responses

I used to keep all of the kids’ craft supplies out of reach. Then the children started to climb and open drawers and were just better at finding my hiding spots, so it seemed pointless. Now, the crayons, markers, scissors, glue sticks, and tape are within reach at all times. I love and hate this decision.

The floor to the playroom is barely visible through a rainbow of cut up pieces of construction paper, and most of the crayons have ended up in pieces.  My three-year-old daughter recently used every single Frozen sticker from the pack of 100 within fifteen minutes, half of which ended up on the table and on her stuffed animal.  Meanwhile, my five-year-old son taped together fifteen sheets of computer paper. But, something magical has also transpired. My kids have learned to be creative in a way that I could not possibly teach them. I simply provide the tools, and in their own way and in their own time, their imagination takes hold.

Now, I will occasionally guide them through activities (especially ones involving paint and glitter), and they certainly come home with enough teacher-guided projects from pre-school. But, more often than not when they have free time at home, they end up in the playroom surrounded by art supplies and endless possibilities.

My son likes to make “books.” This activity was originally inspired by the book Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk.  He sneaks into the office and confiscates the stapler and handfuls of printer paper. He then staples the pages together in what resembles a book and draws a letter on each page. He is so proud of this. Who am I kidding? So am I! He makes books; I love books! Also, the very idea that he was inspired by something he read makes my English teacher heart so very happy.

Another of his recent artistic endeavors involved nature. He unearthed a roll of tape from the junk drawer and taped about fifteen pieces of construction paper in a long line across the length of the playroom. We then went outside where he instructed me to help him gather leaves, sticks, and acorns.  After a brief mud puddle distraction, he returned inside and taped all of his treasures onto the paper, stamping his little muddy fingerprints next to each one. When I asked him what it was. He replied, “Autumn.”

My daughter loves to draw people right now. Stick figures with big, scary eyes. Each day more details appear on the elongated figures: eyelashes, hair, Band-Aids, fingers.  Sometimes they are different colors, representing the person she is trying to portray. My husband received a black and gold stick figure holding a football to comfort him from a recent Steelers loss. I was recently honored with a purple stick figure sporting a wobbly rectangle around its knees. “This is you.  Hanging out in your underwear,” she told me with a smile. Because, you know, I always hang out in my underwear around the kids!  In this case, I did feel it necessary to intervene by encouraging her to draw me a top and call it a swimsuit.

The list of their projects could go on. They aren’t always pretty, they don’t always make sense, but each and every one of their projects shows a unique thought process, not one contrived by me or by directions I found on Pinterest.

But, the other day there was an unfortunate incident with a purple marker and our carpet, only weeks after an unfortunate incident involving my daughter, scissors, and her hair. Then I walked into the playroom minutes before guests were to arrive and could not even see the floor with all of the crayons and paper and stickers. I started to question my relaxed approach to creativity and more importantly my storage methods.  Should I put the supplies out of sight?  Monitor more closely? Well, surely, I should at least enforce some sort of cleaning up policy!

As I scooped up papers from the floor, crumpled them, and threw them in the trashcan, my son entered the room and immediately started rescuing papers from the bin. Now, if you are a parent, you know I definitely did not have my head in the game here. You always, ALWAYS, must use stealth techniques to throw away kid art. This involves sneaking it to the outside trashcans at night or burying it under coffee grinds and banana peels in the kitchen trashcan. I know this. I was just frustrated.

“You can’t leave your work on the floor. If it’s on the floor, it will go in the trashcan,” I scolded.

My son started to defend some of his pieces. “But, Mom. This is for Dad. It’s his favorite color, green. And this is a castle. See, all of the things inside of it. And, Mom, this is a weather map. See, here is Pennsylvania.” He went on and on, and I felt worse and worse.  I had been careless with his treasures. Although I know I can’t keep all of the mountain of work he produces and have no desire to, he had caught me in the act of throwing away his prized possessions, his own creations. I certainly did not want to deter his creativity.

As a high school English teacher, I value creativity in the classroom. I encourage students to not only explore ideas with words but in other ways, as well. Some embrace this and create books, short stories, videos, art, or dramatic readings. These students are able to understand literature in a way more meaningful to them.  Others, cannot step outside the box. It isn’t just because of a lack of artistic talent. Believe me, I have seen some amazing stick figure projects! It is lack of originality. They simply cannot think of an idea on their own.  Many students are excellent at following specific step-by-step directions, but when asked to be original and come up with something new, they falter.

So, when my daughter’s preschool teacher tells me in a slightly disapproving tone, “She doesn’t like anyone to help her during craft time. She likes to do it all herself,” I smile. Yes. She does like to do it all herself. If she comes home with a penguin sporting googly eyes on the top of his head instead of the front, that is fine by me. In fact, I prefer it that way.

I am not only trying to instill the love of art and crafts into my children, but I am also trying to grow their imaginations.  I want them to become students, and then adults, who can create without directions, think of ideas on their own, and sometimes color outside of the lines.

Right now their finished project might not look like that cute picture I found on Pinterest, and my floor might never be clean of scraps of colored paper, but I am witnessing something special.  Without audience and without prompting, I see where a little bit of freedom takes them.  I see the magic they create. 


Sarah Clouser is a former high school English teacher and current stay-at-home mom. Instead of lesson plans and grading, she now stays busy chasing her two young kids around the house and writing. You can find some of her thoughts on parenting and children on her blog, onemilesmile.wordpress.com.

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  1. Monica

    April 18, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    I love that your son said, “Autumn” –and the freedom you created for your children to create.

    • Sarah Clouser

      April 20, 2016 at 11:50 pm

      Thanks, Monica! I was surprised when he said Autumn and take no credit for it, as I always call the season Fall! Thank goodness he can learn proper terms for things at preschool.

  2. Leslie Wibberley

    April 19, 2016 at 5:57 am

    Monica, this story was so wonderful. It brought back so many memories of when my girls were young. Our house was always filled with a variety of creative, “somethings.” Still is, actually. My girls each have a rubbermaid tub filled with their treasures. I told them they could each fill one tub, they had to decide what to keep and what to toss. I was too terrified to make that decision myself. lol.
    We still have those tubs, filled to overflowing and my girls are 20 and 23!
    Bravo for encouraging that freedom of expression.

    • Sarah Clouser

      April 20, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      Thank you so much, Leslie! We are currently being buried alive in pictures of butterflies and dinosaurs and princesses over here. Must invest in some Rubbermaid tubs!

  3. Susan Goldstein

    April 19, 2016 at 9:40 am

    I truly enjoyed this! A totally, completely 100% relatable story 🙂

  4. Ellen Austin-Li

    April 20, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    Love your essay! Sadly, it brings back memories from when my two boys were young. It was not that long ago in adult years (they are 19 & 15 now), but it is a lifetime for them. When I was in those years with them, it seemed like it would never end. I miss the mess. I miss that crape active fun!

    I never developed a good “throwing-away” system for past artwork. I still have a 2nd grade book project mobile hanging in the basement! It’s very difficult to acquire that “letting-go” behavior!


1 Pingback

  1. One Mile Smile

    April 18, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    […] stop by, Mothers Always Write to read my article Coloring Outside the Lines. I am so proud of this essay, and I am so honored to have it on this site.  While you are there, […]

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