Crayon Liberation or How To Get Your Creative Groove Back

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about creativity. I think about what it is exactly, why it is important, how to we encourage it in ourselves and in children. Not too long ago, the ability to think and act creatively was not thought of as important. Today, child care professionals tell us that creative development in children is as important as their intellectual, social, and physical growth. Governments say that creative thinking and problem solving is more important skill than specialized abilities or even academic education. I also see a surprising number of posts over on the boards at Craftster that draw parallels between being creative and having good mental health – usually along the lines of, ‘I clawed my way out of depression by crafting’.

Speaking personally, I would go insane if I could not be creative. No lie, no exaggeration. Being creative is my life’s work and it exists in everything I do (mostly because I refuse to do anything that does not involve at least a little bit of creativity – see my many, many jobs that I worked for only a few weeks, or even a few days. Hell, when I was 16, I was a button pusher at McDonald’s for only five hours before I jumped off that train. My next job was chosen based on who would still hire me if I dyed my hair blue. Which was a record store, btw, where the boss encouraged me to do so since unnatural hair colour somehow confers customer trust in the sales personnel. Go figure.)

Anyhoo. My point is that creativity is important. And fun. And good for your mental health. But what if you do not feel like you have it? Okay, hands up, who here feels like they are not very creative or know people who are convinced that they are not talented at creative things. That they just do not have it in them. To make a very long story quite short, I think some people feel that they are not creative because they had their confidence in their own natural creativity squelched as a child.

How many of us have had our grade school artwork deemed inferior because we put colour outside of the lines, or used colours not specified by convention (a purple shamrock, anyone?), drew their own picture disregarding a photo copied illustration, or – my own personal burning humiliation of grade two – had crayon strokes going in all different directions rather than at a uniform 45 degree slant on my taupe (or brown, if we were feeling frisky) mushrooms?

Now, as an adult, I am keenly and vocally against labelling the creative works of children right or wrong. Because of this I keep in mind at all the squishing and breaking of my own creative expression over my young years, and I am especially conscious of the messages I now deliver to children about their creative endeavors. Especially with these wee creators in my home and under my care. My dearest wish for my children is that above all in life that they be creative because I believe it is a cornerstone for many other values I hope to impart, including the ability to find their own joy. Sometimes I do well. I love my four year old daughter’s expressions and find she is most happy when her art and crafts have been made unadulterated by her mother’s guidance or opinion.

Sometimes I goof. Sometimes my awareness of the ghost of my second grade teacher slips and I unconsciously start to treat my daughter’s creativity as something that could be done wrong or right. In examining my own hang ups I have discovered, to my great shame and horror, I am quite anal and anti-creative when it comes to crayons. Hello, my name is Vegbee, and I am a crayon tyrant

Here’s my crayon neurosis: When my daughter was a year and a bit and first introduced to crayons she would make a few marks with it on paper and then sit down and with great care and obvious satisfaction, peel the paper off of every crayon in reach. At first I was pretty okay with it, the peeling was refining her fine motor skills and it would keep her usefully occupied at the doctor’s office for a surprising amount of time. I took to carrying a couple of virgin, fully clothed crayons in my bag at all times. Gradually she began to do more with the crayons on paper. Sure, the crayon would rub off on her hands because the there was no paper to hang on to, but, whatever, as long as the kid is happy so am I.

At some point in her second or third year, as a holiday present, Smootch received a box of fresh, good quality crayons as a present, along with several colouring books. I think the sight of all those pristine crayons flipped some switch in my head. I got weird about it. I got… domineering All of our old crayons were delegated to my own craft stash for later crayon melting projects and Smootch was to use the new crayons exclusively. She was not allowed to peel the new crayons. Any peeled crayons got tossed in the bin. Horribly, this state of affairs continued for over a year until Smootch had hardly an interest in using crayons at all, except to use in colouring books where the pointy end on the crayon was a benefit when trying to stay within the lines. She was trying to stay within the lines! Crayons had been elevated from a tool of creativity to a tool of oppression, an instrument of conformity. I’m so ashamed!

Watching Smootch colour one night it suddenly dawned on me what a knob I was being. I was teaching my daughter to repress her natural curiosity and creativity to satisfy some misinformed adult idea of what a crayon was for and how it should be used. The exact opposite of what I believed. At the root of it, though, was my own early childhood training and my failure to stay alert to avoid repeating a cycle of creativity killing conformity.

Since then I have backed away from my crazy crayon rules, but I still think about it a lot and even sometimes have to look away when children use crayons. It has been bothering me that I still harbour unwanted beliefs about there being proper and improper ways to use crayons so I decided to hold a great crayon liberation for myself to help free up this peculiar crayon blockage I seem to have.

My great crayon liberation began with a couple of sheets of paper, some pretty new crayons, and my daughter and I at the kitchen table. The first task we had was to snap those pretty crayons in two. You should of seen my daughter’s face when I told her to break a crayon. She did it though - quickly, I think, to get a chance before I changed my mind - and with great glee. My own crayon snapping was very deliberate, and incredibly satisfying. A few more snapped crayons and we moved onto the next step of liberation. Much to my daughter’s delight, we peeled crayons. Next, we made marks on the paper by banging, smushing, rubbing them on their sides, drumming, and any other method we could think of. Dipping a crayon in water makes particularly bold marks, while freezing them makes them paler. When my six-month-old son woke up from his nap, he had his first crayon sensory experience. Smootch discovered that if you bit a crayon, some will become lodged in your molars and you can dig it out with your fingernail and create a nice soft, shaded look on the paper. After that I considered my daughter fully liberated from crayon repression, and I think I am getting there. I may need a few more crayon drumming sessions to make sure the liberation takes. Smootch is an excellent mentor.Are you wondering what this post is doing on my tutorial site, and not over on my other blog where I like to blather on in an unpurposeful manner? It is here mainly because my crayon liberation exercise was helpful for shaking me out of a creative rut and got me thinking about all the different ways I could use materials that I take for granted as having just one or two purposes. And it was fun. Try it.

I also would like to open up a discussion about what we have all learnt about being creative as children and whether that has helped or hindered us in later life. I think creativity is one of those under appreciated skills that we possess to some degree or another, but feeds into so many different areas of our lives. We will never go wrong to believe ourselves creative people, while to deny it can be harmful. Please, if you feel like sharing, leave a comment about your own creative liberations and repressions – I would love to read about your experiences and maybe learn more about what can be done to encourage the youngest generation of creatives.


  1. I love this post! Thank you for writing it! I apologize for not leaving a comment earlier - I love your blog but always seem to be reading it when I'm one-handedly feeding my 6-month-old. About creativity - when I was a child, my favorite plaything was a roll of sticky tape. Luckily something we always had in the house! But with it I'd make my own toys and was lucky enough to have parents who not only replenished the tape but let me be messy. I didn't think of it till I started blogging (and thus on the lookout for fun pictures to post) but - and I agree with you - it isn't about right and wrong, or prettiness; it's about letting our kids know the freedom to try new things and being excited about them.Here's a funny post I did on tape and cardboard boxes, and another one in which I made a dress from your tutorial (and have been meaning to tell you but never did, sorry!) Your kids are lucky to have you, differing crayon preferences or no - because you are generous with yourself in trying. Blue hair! I love it!

  2. It may not be easy to see but creativity can be squashed at any point in your life. I have been an equipment designer for nearly a decade and while it may appear that this possition allows me to be creative in all actuality I find it to be more like trying to colour between the lines. The only time I feel like I can truly be creative is when I am the customer of my own designs. That being said I am moving on to rediscover my creative side. Thanks for the encouragment. Viva la liberation.

  3. LiEr, thanks for sharing the best post ever on cardboard boxes! Everyone, go find

    Anon, thanks for pointing out that we need to protect our creativity in later life too. good luck xoxo

  4. I agree on fostering creativity in our kids. I try not to squelch it myself, too. I hope that my kids have creativity in them, too, and want to make sure I NEVER make them feel inferior for doing things a different way.

    When I was younger I had thought about going into fashion design, but quickly realized that I didn't want to be a starving artist. I already grew up in hand-me-downs and not much of much, so I wanted to have a job that I could live comfortably. I don't regret getting an accounting degree, because it has allowed me the ability to pursue my creativity.

  5. yes.
    I think another word for creativity is "breaking the rules" and freedom.
    Since the day I let my 3year old daughter "go" we both are os happy about her "new" creativity.
    Every day she got new ideas what she could make and try, what she could paint or cut and glue and what things she could use for it.
    I let her go, when she asks for it I help and I am her audience. That's it.
    (Oh, no, I have to clean afterwards ;-) )

  6. I LOVED this post! I am also guilty of protecting the crayons. I keep them up in a special spot and call it a supervised activity. It mostly started when my 2 year old was a little younger and she wanted to eat them. Now, I just get bent out of shape when she peels them and disappointed that she has more fun organizing them and taking them in and out of the box than actually coloring. I also noticed the other day when we were coloring together that she seemed to be intimidated by my ability to color "correctly". She seemed to give up:( Maybe if I'd just spend some time like you did and experiment with the colors, she'd find her own way of enjoying them...I think I'll try it!

    Thanks a bunch!

    ps. I'm a lurker...sorry:(

  7. This is an excellent post! I am guilty of this same repression sometimes myself. Creativity should be fostered however messy it ends up being.

  8. Hi vegbee, thank you so much for posting this. I've read it many times and have thought about a lot... I too struggle with craft fascism with my kids (as well as being one of the people in Craftster who posted a 'craft helps me with my depression' thread). I really don't know much about blog ettiquette, but I hope you don't mind that I posted a link in my blog to this post of yours. If that's an egregious blog sin, let me know and I'll remove it! Thanks again, I really enjoy reading your blog.

  9. No problemo amanda. I popped over to your blog and read all about it. Nice blog, btw, hope you don't mind if I check you out every once in awhile :)

  10. I would be honoured ;) God knows I check yours out 'every once and awhile'!

  11. I was never told I was creative as a child. I was smart. I worked hard. But creativity wasn't even discussed. My Aunt The Artist was the Creative One in the family.

    Guess what I've discovered as an adult? I am creative.

  12. I have been creative all my life but secretly creative after several teachers telling me I was doing it wrong when I was younger. If I knew then what I know now-if only my parents had stepped in and stood up for me..if only. So years of creativity have been squashed and secreted for fear that someone might see or someone might say something. I believe this fear had a lot to do with bouts of insomnia and/or depression. Even into my adult years (and I am now 37) I have been sewing and painting always hiding things away never showing anyone-then we bought our first ever house and I decided to turn our stairwell into an art gallery with paintings that I and my kids have done--visitors came over and everyone loved it, they loved my paintings even if they would not hang them in their own houses lol...but they said I was so brave and creative for using my stairwell and hanging my paintings. And I realized I was! I was here the whole time just too afraid to be me. Needless to say I painted my house bold colors-the colors we liked-I decorated the way we liked. Fast forward a few years and I am actually sewing things that my kids wear out in public, things that I wear out in public--I am brave enough to adapt patterns to how I or my girls like them or whatever bold colors we want---IMAGINE I was creative this whole time just too scared to be me. Perhaps more of us live like this--too many. And I determined that I do not want my girls to live like this I want them to have this revelation NOW not when they are my age. They are so creative-my older daughter wears costumes, creates her own-even has started to sew...she has her own groove and her friends like her because she is herself. My youngest is a musician artist and designs her own outfits (that I sew) when she plays her violin gigs. (I am using part of your corset dress for one of her outfits per request as she has been eyeballing that and looking for an excuse for that for months) Thus I found your post today about the crayons and I saw YAY YAY YAY YAY to you and your kids--look at the creativity that was just unleashed into the world unfettered! So YAY you and YAY all of us brave enough to let our creativity shine!


  13. Ah, Tabbi, now I want to see pics of your house!

    I was pretty convinced I wasn't creative either. I definitely thought I couldn't draw until a friend in grade 8 taught me a few tricks, which gave me the idea that maybe I could draw. Maybe I was (bum bum bum) artistic!

    How funny it is that all it takes is the smallest bit of encouragment to unleash all the good stuff.

  14. I've been thinking lately that there are some of us who are creators and others who are consumers. To me creating is a freedom and consuming is a tyranny because to consume you need to make money and that takes away time from life which could be spent creating.

    I know that when I am working to make money I have less time to create and it does get me a bit batty. Even dh will tell me that I haven't lifted the lid on my machine for a while and shouldn't I be doing some sewing?

    I need it and I would much rather be sewing than working (my boss thinks I am joking.....)

    My dd is 5 and wanted to sew on my machine but I got all controlling about it so I got her her own hand crank Singer which she creates on and I just let her get on with it. She has made lovely things which aren't perfect but she is so proud of them and uses them a lot. There's nothing like wearing a head band you made yourself and a stranger commenting on it is there?

  15. I'm totally late on this, but what the heck. When I was in grad school I taught a few beginning drawing classes and every semester I was amazed at how creatively stunted many of my art major students were. Here they were, embarking on these careers based off of open minds and endless possibilities... and they genuinely balked at the idea of doing things "unconventionally." The thought of doing something HUGE or HOT PINK or making the UGLIEST thing you can possibly think of was not something many of them wanted to explore.

    Trying something new, messing up, FAILING, and making the ugliest thing you've ever made is not encouraged in kids-and I think that is usually what leads to the most wonderful discoveries!

    Even looking at contemporary art, kids usually can connect in some way and adults don't... why? Because somewhere along the way, somebody tells kids that paintings must look a certain way, specific colors were not "beautiful" and sheep can't be blue. Then as adults, we block out anything that doesn't fit in this mold that some random 2nd grade teacher planted in our brains.

    Luckily, some of us DO hit adulthood and give that 2nd grade teacher a good mental kick in the pants. Yay.

    Oh, and love your blog- your daughter has some mean posing skills.

  16. Creativity is scary! Well, not for me, but I see children in tears sometimes because they haven't been allowed to even spread glue on paper without a parent's hand on top of theirs directing and controlling but then they come here and I say, 'go ahead and just do what you feel like' and they melt down.

    I think for some, telling them to give 'er is all they need - they're off and crafting. Others need a bit of hand holding to even grasp the concept of there being no wrong.

    I'm sure doing art is no guarentee of creativity, just like doing math is no sign of rigidity.

  17. I went to a Catholic school. In grade 1, we were coloring in photocopied pictures of the Virgin Mary. My (Indian) teacher told me off - she may have rapped my knuckles I'm not sure), and said, "Mary doesn't have yellow hair". Even then I thought, "How would you know?
    It's an interesting episode. I was back at the same school, at their church for a baptism recently. I looked up at the wall mural of Mary; it's engraved in my brain from countless hours of Mass in childhood during which I was bored rigid.

    This Mary on the wall of my old church has blue eyes, brown hair and pale skin ... The real Mary, of course, would have been of Middle Eastern appearance.

    The irony of a teacher from the subcontinent enforcing this idea that Mary must look like some Northern European's ideal has never been lost on me.

    But at the time I was six years old and wondering, what did I do wrong?

  18. I went to Catholic schools in Australia. In grade 1, we had to color in a photocopy of the Virgin Mary.

    My Indian teacher, famous for raps across the knuckles, rebuked me:"Mary doesn't have yellow hair". I think she was so ignorant she didn't even know the word for "blonde".

    She certainly didn't appreciate the irony of being a subcontinental Indian enforcing a Northern European ideal of Mary - we were surrounded by imagery of a sweet looking Mary with pale skin, blue eyes and mid-brown hair.

    I was cowed at the time, not understanding what I'd done wrong.

  19. HIP HIP HORRAY ... I too have joined the ranks of the liberated crayon Nazis!!! I had to smile while reading your post - that was me a year ago!! I too was horrified at my dictation! now we have a large cake tin FULL of crayons .. from large full length ones to the tiniest, itsy bitty ones (well technically they are just crumbs!) OOh I too let go the whole thing about pencils being perfectly placed in their store bought wallets and now cake tin no two is in the process of being filled!!

    Thanks for a amazing blog!!

  20. I know this is an old post, but it is such a very poignant one I am going to put it on my blog, I'm sure you won't mind, and I have put you on my blog roll too.

    I am pretty new to all this blog stuff but am finding it a window to folk like me, which is a god send!

    Personally I manage to confuse my kids going from creative dictator to anything goes at a snap... I am keeping this post close to my heart so I can be consistetly non-dictatorish... thank you, thank you.

  21. Uh-oh! I just realized that I am an awful, awful, crayon controller! :( :(

    I think it really started when I made my son several very cute crayon rolls, and then wanted the crayons to stay inside/not get broken/not get the paper peeled off/ not ruin the crayon rolls w/ the Japanese prints....

    Thanks for the great reminder to foster creativity!

    Thankfully my crayon nazi side has not extended to the use of markers (go figure), and the floor, wall, and parts of our clothing have all been created on by my 2 year old son.

    I think we need to have a crayon breaking session!

    I'll be back to read more, I'm a huge fan!

  22. How did I miss this?? I agree with everything you said. I was definitely a "color inside the lines" kid when I was growing up (probably because I was told that's the "right" way). I have a 2 year old who loves to color and I don't want her to lose that! Sometimes she tries to stay in the lines and sometimes she doesn't. I don't push her either way and she ends up with some of the most lovely color combinations because of it.

    Good advice for all of us!

  23. This is such a brilliant post. I, too, tend to turn into a dictator when it comes to the craft supplies, and too often say things like, "Wait, you're not doing it right!" I came back to reread this after having a problem with my own feelings about crayons again today. Thanks for sharing and encouraging us all!

  24. I'm hoping I had an ephiphany of this type relatively early, with my nieces, well before my daughter (not quite two) was born.

    When my nieces (twin girls) were turning three we were making princess birthday cakes for them. You know, the dome shaped cake with the half doll stuck in the top. A princess with a lovely, full ball gown. We tinted the frosting their chosen color and had a bunch of little flowery sugar doo-dads to add to them. The girls were over the moon and having a good time.

    At one point I caught myself guiding and correcting one of them to put the flowers more uniformly, not all bunched up, see like this? see how I'm doing it? And I caught myself. I thought "What am I doing? How can there be a wrong way for her to decorate this birthday cake?" I backed off. The cakes were glorious.

    I'm hoping it sticks now that my own daughter is old enough to start with crayons and other creative materials.

  25. That's funny. In my country parents are told not to even give their kids coloring books because theese're supposed to be bad for creativity... I just read that on the bord in my dd's kindergarden! We are not "allowed" to tell kids how to draw or even ask where the missing arm is;) Here the trend is not to guide kids in arts at all I think. They make me feel gulity if I told my dd the sun has reyes...

    I agree on the part that rules are ment to be broken by all means;) I like to find different use of materials myself. But I don't think I won't buy my dd a coloring book if she'll really want one.

    I had teachers of both sides: one was really repressing but the others were nice and really let go my creativity fly.

    Now I have two doughters and I don't tell them how they should do crafts but I do show them how to roll a ball from saltdough/potatoe dough... Of course they are allowed to squash their piece into any shape they wnat but I really would like that they keep the majority of my gnocci at peace (once they are finished). Is that therorism as well? Sometimes I really don't know...

    How do you do crafts with your kids? Do you do your projects with them or is the crafts just for fun with no goal in mind? I do some of both but the first one can be really challenging;) (they are 2,5 and 1 year old and would chew/tear apart/throw into the toilet... everything they see:)

    Sometimes I really don't know where the limit is: I don't care where the watercolors are as long as my youngest doesn't try to eat them whole (and she does when she finds them;). I don't care how or where they draw or what shape the clay would get but when I do my piece at the same time I sometimes don't want it to get squashed (because I need it in its original shape;). Sometimes they are quite happy with their part but usually they just like mine better... What do you than?

  26. Anon, sounds like you have done a lot of thinking about this too and have developed a nice balanced approach. I see a place for colouring books, if a child is drawn to them, and there is definitely room for instruction. Mainly, with crafts and arts, we focus on the process, exploration, and when a child has a vision, we just get out of her way. As with everything, there is no hard and fast rules, and some thought and flexibility is our greatest tools.

    As for making my own projects along side the children, I find that the most challenging thing ever. My youngest draws on my sheets, pulls pens out of my hands, and squishes my clay too. Drives me insane. Sometimes I opt not to make my own (good for the kids, so they don't have to think they must make what I do, or to draw/scuplt/paint at the same skill level as an adult) and sometimes I insist on not only making my own, but having it unadulterated by wee fingers (good for me and teaches the kids some boundaries and manners. Plus it's good for them to see adults involved in their own thing.)

    I will be blogging about this topic again soon - perhaps we can talk more about this then? :)

  27. very inspiring!
    but what about other people's crayons? i can imagine an older cousin or other getting quite upset at some younger kid's creative use of their crayons. ooops. i think one of the hardest things for parents is when their children fight with eachother.

  28. Alice,

    This exercise is more for adults to rediscover their creativity. Hopefully most big people have internalized a sense of respect for other people's property and are busy passing it along to their children. If not, well, they've got bigger problems than a few broken crayons.