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The Importance of Unstructured "Free Time" Art

6:00:00 AM

Pasta Dinner, from  a "Free Time" art student.

In our studio we try to keep the materials accessible to all artists so that they can fully express their own ideas within the context of a project. During our After School Art Club we reserve the last 20-30 min. of every class for creative free time. This is a time for the children to  express their own creative energies, and ideas. They are given access to various loose parts, drawing/painting materials, traditional and non-traditional craft supplies, and low temperature hot glue guns (with assistance as needed). They are encouraged to explore their own thoughts during this time. This unstructured time can look very random to the casual observer, but I believe it is fundamental in the development of their creative minds!
A sample of some of our supplies available for self expression.
Sometimes the projects that the children come up with are very representational, we can look at them and see the child's thinking like the pictures below. Some projects are beautiful, and we can imagine framing them or hanging them up on the wall to share...
A collection of some of the "Free Time" art projects from past students and guests to the studio.
Sometimes though, the art created by children tends to not look like much to the adult observer. However, to the child it is still an expression of their own ideas. If we take then time to honor their thoughts and creativity by showing interest in their projects, photographing them, asking them questions and so forth, then not only are we are showing the child that we value their creative minds but we are also gaining insight to the child. As a bonus, the child is encouraged to continue taking risks and thinking outside the box which is an important life skill!
A polar bear and penguin habitat created by two girls during their Free Time art session.

I hear so many adults say that they "don't have a creative bone in their body." I don't believe this is true! I believe that somewhere along the path to adulthood they began to believe this because, perhaps they did not create the gallery style art that society and schools and even parents tend to place value on. They began to attach their idea of creativity to only those highly finished professional types of art. But think about true creativity, the ability to risk a thought that differs ever so slightly, and perhaps to represent that thought in a meaningful way.

Some Benefits Of Creative Play

  • Children are able to express their own thoughts and feelings.
  • Children can begin to make sense of the world around them.
  • Creative play can help children deal with big emotions.
  • Creative play builds self esteem, their ideas are valid and important.
  • Creative play strengthens problem solving skills through experimentation, trial and error.
Wearable art created during "Free Time" allows the children to experiment and solve problems..."How can I make this stay up?" 

Sometimes what seems like a mess is actually big work...

Take for example this group of girls in the video below. These girls have been in a weekly class together for almost 2 years and have had ample opportunities to explore the materials together and independently. For the past month these three girls have been collaborating on a project together which they wanted to be a surprise...meaning they would not tell me what they were making! I had my suspensions that they did not really know themselves. Each week they would pull out supplies and paint or draw, or glue them together. At the end of class they would pile them all together in a big pile which quickly out grew my storage shelf! For a little over a month we would move this ever growing pile from corner to corner of the room. It became a tripping hazard, lol. Finally, I encouraged them to wrap up the project so that we could dismantle it. I was ready to have the floor space back and I could not see that this was really going anywhere in particular.  To me it seemed like unrelated piles of materials that just kept growing...Finally they put it all together and explained their work to us:

It was a Water Park! Every little detail was carefully planned and thought out. They worked together generating ideas, solving problems or disputes, and experimenting with possibilities! It was beautiful and amazing to see their plan come to fruition! 
So many times I was tempted to recycle all of these seemingly random parts, but something held me back. I am so glad that I followed my gut on this because these children really created something quite special. Along the way they also really  taught me the importance of allowing children the space to explore their own ideas.

So what did they gain from this project?

  • They developed problem solving skills.
  • They learned cooperation and compromise.
  • They took risks and experimented with how to express their thoughts.
  • They strengthened their critical thinking skills.
  • They followed an idea from conception to completion, follow through.
Though the finished project was not a traditional looking piece of finished art, ready for framing and showing off...it was so much more! It was theirs. I look forward to their next project which I am sure will begin soon. In fact I am clearing out a corner of the studio just for large project storage...


This child made a projector, and discovered that when she shined a light through it worked!

We can learn a lot about our children from these creative expressions if we pay attention. In the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood they focus on the 100 languages of children. How do children communicate their thoughts, desires, fears? How do they make sense of the world around them? The Reggio Approach uses art in their classrooms as a means of expression. I believe that older children and even adults can also use open ended visual expression to work out their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas...even if they don't consider themselves to be creative. ;) You don't have to be an "Artist" to use art for personal expression, and it is through this visual expression that we can often gain insight into our own thoughts and feelings. 

"Free Time" art from artists of all ages.
In our studio we offer various Open Studio sessions throughout the year that are open to all ages for creative exploration. We also offer a variety of classes for both children and adults that focus on visual self expression. Visit our online store to see our available classes for all ages!

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