All kinds of “art” activities are available for young children — spaghetti makers for modeling clay, coloring books, glitter glue, jewelry kits. How do you know whether an experience really promotes children’s creative thinking or just dulls the creative process? Here are a few questions to ask as you search for truly valuable art experiences.

Whose ideas are expressed?
True art materials are open-ended. Children figure out for themselves what to do with paints, markers or modeling clay, for example. On the other hand, stickers picture some stranger’s idea. Paint-by-number kits leave no room for the imagination. Coloring books and computer programs in which children color predrawn, stereotypic figures destroy children’s creative thinking. Children learn best when they feel and smell the materials as they express their own perceptions.

What’s important — product or process?
Any kit that directs children to make something that “looks just like the picture” fails the critical thinking test, too. Crafts made to match models frustrate children because the finished products all look alike! “Which one is mine?” they wonder. The less children do for themselves, the less they learn, in any area, not just art. Children benefit from exploring the possibilities with materials, not from copying someone else’s work.

Aesthetic or cute?
Most of us grew up with cute cartoon characters and worksheets to color. We soon drew birds in the air with a couple of wavy lines just like the coloring book picture. But how many of us really learned to appreciate the subtle use of color, or variations in line, or delicate shadow to capture the essence of what we see? If it’s cute, it probably has little or no learning value. Instead, surround your child with beauty and offer genuine artistic opportunities.

Consider these questions each time you select an art experience. Try not to fall for popular traps that dull children’s creativity. Instead, choose true art experiences that expand their horizons.