Christopher Wisniewski is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which presents the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He describes why art and creative expression are particularly valuable in difficult times, with recommendations for engaging students at home.
With the public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, much of what we take for granted in our everyday lives—schools, neighborhoods, and communities—has been upended. Many of us are feeling unmoored. Some are even wondering: What is the point of creative expression? Yet I have come to believe that encouraging young people to engage in creative projects is more important than ever.
When so many of our country’s children and teens are learning at home, it is vital that parents, grandparents, and caregivers encourage their children and teens to express themselves through artmaking and creative writing. So—why does this matter now?
There are many reasons, but I would offer two that are especially salient at this time of crisis and change: First, creative expression can provide an outlet for identifying, working through, and expressing complicated emotions under difficult circumstances; and second, sharing art and writing builds bridges between people, offering opportunities for connection and empathy in times of isolation.
Practically, this can take many forms, but the most important advice I would give is to help students make time for creativity every day. With many students around the country learning remotely and adults working from home, we are more reliant on our screens than ever. Further, in relying on our screens to connect to our teachers, colleagues, family, and friends, we also keep ourselves plugged in to information streams that can feel unrelenting, if not discouraging. Build in quiet time every day, when you and the young people in your life can step away from screens and spend a few minutes writing or making art.
Sketchbooks and journals are wonderful tools for this kind of daily creativity. Because they are informal and personal, they open up a space where young people can reflect on their experiences and express themselves without the pressure to produce something that is refined, or the fear of judgment from others. A sketchbook or a journal is a safe space, and when it becomes part of a routine, its use can serve an important therapeutic function. This is just as true for adults as it is for young people. Model creative self-reflection for your kids: Put your computer and phone away for a few minutes every day, and spend some time journaling, doodling, sketching, or drawing. Give yourself the opportunity to be present with your own emotions so that you can be present for your children’s, too.
While it is important to respect the fundamentally private nature of a journal or sketchbook, I would also encourage parents and caregivers to open up a space for conversation—without communicating any expectation for how much or how little your kids and teens might be willing to share. A simple, open-ended question can create a supportive space where you and your kids can communicate with one another about what you’re going through. For example, “What are you thinking about today?” “Do you have anything you’d like to share?” or simply, “How are you feeling?”
In partnership with the New York Life Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards provide special recognition to teens whose work is shaped by a personal experience of grief—many of whom started their work with a sketchbook or a journal. While not all the young people living through this particular crisis may be grappling with the loss of a loved one, like our New York Life Award participants, many are working through a form of grief. They are grieving lost time with friends and canceled social experiences—from birthday parties and school graduations to sports meets and family vacations. They also are grieving the abrupt physical separation from the places outside of their homes where they used to seek inspiration or refuge, and from many of the people in their lives they depend on to talk to about all of the exciting, frightening, and complex experiences they have every day.
Our kids and teens need an outlet for sharing how they feel about these huge societal disruptions. That’s why it’s so valuable to make creativity a part of your routine. Still, you may find that not every young person feels comfortable jumping in to a sketchbook or journaling project. That is perfectly understandable under any circumstance. If you encounter initial resistance, you might need a little more encouragement, or even some prompts to get started. With the New York Life Foundation, the Alliance has published an anthology of student work, Healing through Creativity, which includes helpful prompts that build off the student work. Consider this prompt, based on a personal essay included in the book:
“Being present in one’s emotions and having a friend to share [them with] is powerful. The author and his friend return to a place of happiness—a grassy island—for healing. Describe [or depict] your place of healing.”
Again, while the inspiration for the original student essay was a personal loss, it is easy to see how the prompt might be relevant for a young person living through social distancing—particularly since the pandemic may have cut them off from their places of happiness and healing.
We need to acknowledge and honor what our children and teens are going through now. Creativity allows us to do that, and because it results in a product that can be shared with others across any distance, it also provides opportunities for empathy. At a time when we are all missing those connections that define our daily lives, few things could be more valuable.
Rachel Robinson, Traveling with My Reflection, Photography, Grade 11. Gulfport High School, Gulfport, MS. Gold Key, 2017. Featured in Healing Through Creativity.