The lesson question

(Cross-posted at Gifted Exchange) At my 5-year-old’s annual check-up the other day, the doctor asked if he was taking any art or music classes. I mentioned that he quite likes to draw (my office paper and pens walk off with regular frequency; I later discover when hunting for them that he’s written and illustrated a book). She suggested that I enroll him in an art class at a local arts center.

I have to say, I am torn. I’ve been reading and writing about talent development for years. Many readers of this blog have children with prodigious math or music talents. Part of developing those talents has been exposing the children to adults who can help them learn how to get better, early on.

But I also suspect that most kid art classes for 5-year-olds will be about encouraging creativity, or telling him to draw certain things. And he doesn’t need grown-ups encouraging him to be creative or draw certain things. He draws whatever he wants right now and comes up with rather interesting ideas. He’s in the process of discovering the concept of perspective (“You can’t see my legs in this picture, mommy, because I’m behind the elephant”) and setting (“You can see I’m in Arizona because of the cactus.”) Right now he’s drawing because he loves it. I’m worried that turning it into something you do on Mondays at 4 will undermine this intrinsic motivation.

Yet, like I said, I’m torn. Classes might introduce him to other types of art (sculpture, painting) that we don’t do a lot of at home. How have you decided to enroll your children in classes or lessons? Do you think it was a good idea?

Map of Philadelphia and environs courtesy of Jasper

29 thoughts on “The lesson question

  1. The montessori I went to age 4-5 was owned by a couple of artists and staffed by art students. They taught real art– colors, light, perspective. I loved it– I loved any kind of learning at age 4-5. That’s the only real art instruction I’ve ever gotten other than in geometry. Consequently I am very good at drawing three dimensional geometrical figures, and I have a good color sense, but not much else. Oh, I can stipple and shade based on my 8th grade art class. Go stippling.
    When we were RAs at a technical university we had some fantastic artists… every single one had had years of art instruction, and real art instruction. They told me that it doesn’t take talent so much as instruction or practice.
    I would want my kids to learn the technical aspects of art if they were to do an outside art class.
    That said, we aren’t doing any extracurriculars because we’re lazy. He gets swimming in the summer and one of these days we’ll figure out piano lessons. Art is a low priority on our extras list.

  2. I love this question and look forward to reading others’ ideas. My son is only 2 and a half and every time he does a somersault, someone says, “you should really put him in gymnastics, he’d love it!” ditto for when swimming lessons when he’s splashing happily in a pool. I’m always tempted to reply, well, yeah, but he also loves everything to do with baggage carousels, should we sign him up for baby engineering classes?

    At his age, I’m not sure I care what he seems to have an early talent for or interest in, they’re just hardwired to explore and be generalists. What’s interesting about your son is that he’s now at an age where maybe he would want to specialize a little and learn a few tricks of the trade to improve his drawings. So I”m curious to hear more perspectives on this!

    1. baby engineering classes would *rock*

      re: talent and classes… I tend to think of classes as something you do (more of and earlier) when you *don’t* have a talent for something… sure some talented musicians and athletes etc. should be started young because that’s how those fields work, but for most stuff it seems like talent can be developed later without any loss (I am not an expert in this area though, other than having read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, so what do I know).

    2. “…they’re just hardwired to explore and be generalists.”

      My daughter, the once 3 year old Punky Brewster, is now a 24 year women with a love for fashion. When they show up, we really don’t know how childhood interests will play out.

      Initially, I didn’t support my daughter’s need to wear every color from the rainbow (what can I say, I was young too) but years later when she had an interest in modeling I was all in. As a parent, I thought, it just made sense.

      I don’t think waiting before you commit to putting him in class will hurt anything but when you see that it’s a part of who he is, I say, allow him to be around others that share that same passion.

    3. @Liz- we did swim lessons for both my older kids, but primarily for safety reasons. If they fell in a pool, I’d want them to be able to swim to the side. I saw that more in the “life skills” category than anything else.

      1. yes! I shouldn’t have mentioned swimming, since it’s about safety and definitely an exception to my ‘no specialization before age 5’ policy. Still haven’t started the lessons, but only because I’m lazy and reluctant to schedule our saturday mornings…

  3. Perhaps you could introduce Jasper to the idea of, say, a kid’s sculpture class on a visit to such to see if he expressed interest.

    My parents took a passive approach to extracurriculars. With the exception of swimming lessons, we didn’t get it until and unless we asked–and sometimes not even then! This has some obvious downsides. Sometimes exposure is all that’s needed to spark a keen and abiding interest, and for a small number of activities (e.g. sports like gymnastics), a late start precludes any meaningful involvement, not to mention the opportunity to excel. There were, however, lots of upsides. We had many leisurely summers and after-school hours during which we read and engaged in self-directed activities like playing school and library and (apparently) re-enacting “B” Cold War movies from the 80s like Red Dawn:-) It turns out that both my sister and I have, at different times, made a decent living writing about politics, so our chosen activities were a decent sign of what we were good at. Also, we tended to be very committed to formal extracurriculars that we did start opting into at around age 10. They were, after all, our choice. There’s certainly a lot to be said for introducing children to things they might like or insisting that they take piano lessons long enough to learn to read music. All kids are different and some might benefit from more nudging or structure. That said, my parents’ laissez-faire approach didn’t ruin my life, even though I can’t play an instrument and started gymnastics lessons too late (9–practically an old lady) to have any hope of bringing home an Olympic medal. I do, however, have an advanced degree and teach political science at a great school…so yay-rah unstructured playtime!

    1. @Sara – clearly it worked with you guys! On the athletic front, I’ve written in various places that while team work is great (as are fine and gross motor skills) I think that we’d be better off as a society if more kids spent time on sports they can do their whole life: running, swimming, biking and such. Not that many adults are going to play lacrosse that seriously, so it stops being something you can do to stay in shape.

      1. I dunno Laura, there’s a lot of adult hockey leagues out there. I wouldn’t dismiss team sports as a way to keep in shape as an adult.

        1. @Arden – perhaps just my “anecdata” observation of seeing former high school athletes who’ve not stayed in shape. There are, in fact, lots of adult sports leagues. But I don’t think on the whole they’re going to serve the function of getting all adults to do at least half an hour of aerobic activity on most days of the week (per the CDC).

          1. I do see adults playing sports (soccer, hockey) as a fun, social hobby. No, its not enough to keep in shape or get the CDC recommended activity but the people I know who do those sports ALSO run/yoga/swim/gym etc…—they are just athletic, active types. (FYI this is NOT me, I have no hand-eye or hand-foot coordination, so I run)
            Meaning, team sports can still be a worthwhile adult hobby & means to make friends, though not necessarily a path to lifelong fitness.

  4. We enroll our daughter (3yo) in stuff we can’t provide at home. She’s taken a Spanish class (not anymore now that her preschool is Spanish immersion), and we’ve consistently had her in Little Gym because of her gross motor delays. They have equipment, specific skills they teach, etc that we can’t provide as well at home.

    Right now she’s in a combo tap/ballet/gym class just to get that extra gross motor stuff.

    You could ask Jasper if he’s interested, and try to find a “real” art class for him? I know around Seattle there are some that start around age 4 and teach actual technique.

    1. @ARC – so I did wind up asking him and he said he really wanted to take a drawing class, because he loves to draw so much. I suggested painting or sculpture, and he said no, he really wanted to draw. So we’re looking into it!

  5. I have mine in Suzuki … I like the general idea of it but I don’t know if it is pushing too hard.. you don’t want to take the joy out of things… but language like music there is some of it that you have to be exposed to. If they are innately interested in it it is OK either way.

    1. I’m a violinist (not Suzuki trained) and both my kids play instruments, so I’ve ended up thinking a lot about Suzuki. For some people it seems to work very well and they love it. My kids were not those kids. My daughter hated Suzuki so much she almost quit the violin entirely. It was heartbreaking to see how much her attitude went downhill over a period of months. I still feel a little badly that I did not take her out of the class sooner.

      I think a lot of that experience had to do with a bad fit with the teacher, which can happen in any method. But still, I think there are good reasons why not all kids are ready for music instruction at ages ~3-7, and that the Suzuki method oversells the need for an early start.

      There is an American fiddler, Mark O’Connor, who has just introduced a fiddle instruction method for kids (and adult students), with more emphasis on creativity and improvisation than is there in Suzuki. He has published articles with the position that traditional instruction, including Suzuki, can stifle musical creativity, especially in young kids.

  6. My 7-year-old son is very interested in art as well. We keep a variety of art supplies at home and encourage him to create. One of our local art museums offers free activities one Saturday per month, and I try to take him to those. There is also a local art studio that offers some 2-hour painting classes, but not like an every Monday at 4 type thing. He is doing one tomorrow where he will paint a Halloween scene on canvas. I always struggle with the lessons/activities thing. How do you encourage without burning them out on something by age 8?

  7. I’m coming around to the opinion that if a “late” start really precludes meaningful involvement in an activity, there’s something wrong with that activity and it’s best avoided, if possible. You mention gymnastics, which I think is problematic for a host of reasons from eating disorders on up. There are studies demonstrating other negative effects of kids’ specialization in sports at early ages too, especially overuse injuries.

    A late start probably does preclude an Olympic medal or a career as a famous international violin soloist, but I think it is a really unfortunate trend in parenting these days that so many parents use those levels of achievement as yardsticks for success, or even as goals to shoot for. I think success at that level is only ever going to be achieved by outliers and exceptional individuals with drive that comes from within. Not every child can, or should have to, try to be one of those individuals.

    1. @Karen- it is funny, if you think about it, that we would be looking at international musical stardom as the goal. I mean, for some kids it could happen (and I’ve written about a few of them — and they are often really awesome, gifted kids) but for most of us, probably not. I was pondering the question of how I’d feel if Jasper wanted to be an artist professionally. Since I come at this from the perspective that it is possible to make a living in a creative field, I’d probably feel differently about it than some other members of my family would.

      1. I looked into art as a career when DH’s relative was considering it. So long as someone is willing to do corporate art, it isn’t such a bad option. Not a high earning field in general (only someone ambitious or lucky is going to make 6 figures), but there are worse options. (Like her current idea of being an architect… ouch.)

      2. I would think they would *always* be really awesome, gifted kids. But there are awesome kids who aren’t superstars too.

        On the violin website that I frequent and where I blog, the question of whether to pursue the violin as a career comes up over and over and over again, and the responses are kind of predictable–there’s the “follow your bliss” advice, which I think is unrealistic, and there are also people who are unnecessarily negative and make jokes like, “what’s the difference between a musician and a pizza?” (a pizza can feed a family of four).

        But I think most musicians who make a living at it have an entrepreneurial approach: they freelance, they take a lot of gigs like weddings, they are open to a wide variety of genres and not snobby about the kind of music they play, and they regard teaching music as a noble and worthwhile calling rather than a regrettable chore that pays the bills. I’d be very comfortable with my kids following a career in a creative field if they approached it that way. But if it was all shooting for the moon and stars and “bliss” and “passion,” not so much.

        1. @Karen- perhaps I need to write a post about artists as entrepreneurs. I do know several people making livings in creative fields, and it usually is something along those lines: a bit of teaching, some chunk of awesome creative work, some chunk of pay-the-bills work.

          1. It’s really a shame that the union/guilds for these kinds of entrepreneurs (and for small business owners in general) have, for the most part, stopped offering benefits. It is even harder to get health insurance than it used to be. Hopefully the ACA will make it easier!

  8. Well its a bit different that I am writing here as I am a father. Generally mothers have better understanding of their child. But I am posting what I think…….answer of your question is that its not difficult that how to enroll our children in classes of arts . I think the major fact is, in which art our children would get best result ? I also have 4 years kid . He is a bit shy. He dont talk frankly but the fact was he has interest in swimming.So as being a father it was mu duty to give him that opportunity. So here comes the big deal that where could my child accomodate easily so i thought iit would be better to admit him in a private swimming lesson.because i thought it would help my child in foolowing ways :

    1)Private One-on-One Instruction

    2)Avoiding Social Distress in Children

    3)Preventing Water Emergencies

    4)Expertly Trained & Certified Instructors

    1. I don’t know that mothers have a better understanding of their children. That is certainly not true in my house.

  9. We pretty much allowed our son to choose his extracurriculars from a young age, but we did swimming lessons from an even younger age, because we live in FL where there is water everywhere! He tried art, music lessons (three instruments), horse camp, and several different sports over the course of his childhood. Nothing has ever become a passion with him, but he has had plenty of opportunities to try different things. We would have supported him in a passion and made that clear to him, but he never found one he was willing to devote a lot of time to. Instead, I feel he’s a fairly well-rounded individual, and hopefully as he matures he will have a basis for pursuing any number of hobbies and interests.

  10. Really interesting post!

    Our 7yo son plays hockey which is a pretty all encompassing sport as he is on the ice 4x/week. He loves playing but should that stop we would never force the issue. As he gets older, we’ll consider adding another sport if he wants.

  11. I think there are a few factors to consider when deciding whether to sign up a 5YO for art classes. First of all, how full is his schedule right now? Last year, my DD who is 7 now, so was 6 at the time, finished a session of Musical Theatre class and was a bit burnt out with that, so we signed her up for an art class instead for 8 weeks. She didn’t really enjoy it all that much, and yet at home, like you describe with your son, she is constantly creating new projects and drawing and writing stories.
    This year she is in a different musical theatre class, (drama is another interest of hers) and Brownies, and that is more than enough, in fact we are feeling overscheduled with her. Last year, when she was in grade one, she was so tired at the end of the full day that I was glad I had not scheduled her for anything after school.
    Parents who get focused on this idea that their kids are going to be Olympic athletes because they put their kids in a sport at age 3, are focusing on the wrong thing, I believe. They need to relax and let their kids be kids. Any activities before age 10 or so should be just for fun! Not some competitive thing to get them ready for the Olympics or their future professions, they have time enough to learn that stuff later.

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