I had to “go”, so I put down my paintbrush, excused myself from the table and found the bathroom.   It was small, but cute, and of course it was all painted.  We were, after all on a Teacher Field Trip in a pottery shop, painting pottery to be fired and brought home.  The mural amused me for the time I was in the little room and as I washed and dried my hands I noticed a small hand-painted sign hanging and it said,

There are no mistakes in art, just surprise ideas.

Immediately the quote resonated with me.  Mistakes!  We teachers were claiming to make them while we painted our pottery.  Yet we kept going; we worked with them.   And, if I do say so myself, our pottery came out quite nicely!

How many times have we seen a student making a “mistake” and throwing what they’ve done away only to start over?   (How many times have we been guilty of that ourselves?)  It can be truly amazing, though to see what happens when you don’t give up on something because of a small mistake, but instead work with it.

This is a shade different from the lessons we learn from our mistakes.  Like when we take take a wrong turn, use the wrong ingredient or wait until the last minute.  Those are the types where you might say, “I’ll never do THAT again!”

Instead, this is the type of mistake where you can be more reflective and instead of getting frustrated wanting to give up, you persevere.  This is one of the lessons you can learn through the arts.

Last year, I had my fourth graders do an integrated art project during our first-ever Studio Day.  Students were to create a folder to house a poem they wrote for their mothers for Mothers’ Day.  They were to use paint, sponges and templates to create a Frieze Pattern on their folders as part of their decoration.   During that time, one of my boys started over three times.  He kept “making mistakes.”

When I figured out what was going on, I intervened and said, “What are you doing?”

“I keep messing up.  I keep making splotches on my paper and it looks ugly!”

“Listen,” I said pulling his papers out of the recycling, “You need to pick one of these and work with it.  You never know, this mistake might be just what your painting needed.”

Reluctantly, he took one back to his table and started working.  He did work with it and in fact, it came out quite nice.  I showed him ways to make splotches into something by adding something here and doing something there.  He ran with the idea and others in the class took notice.

By the time we were done, the boy was pretty proud of his accomplishments.  He had stuck with it, persevered and worked WITH his mistake instead of giving up.

That’s one of the great things about the arts.  When you give students opportunities to really work with things and make mistakes in a non-threatening atmosphere, they learn to adapt and see things differently.

Mistakes become possibilities and students grow as learners.  Sometimes mistakes really can prove to be surprise ideas!

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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of www.theinspiredclassroom.com. She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Paige V. Baggett says:

    Another great post Elizabeth! I was inspired to share it…


  2. Thanks again, Paige for replying so wonderfully to my post. It seems that mistakes is a topic of interest among many educators and artists. It’s what we deal with all the time. The trick is learning how to learn from, grow with and move forward with them. …and how to share that with our students!

  3. Tori says:

    There are no mistakes in art, just surprise ideas. I LOVE IT! I am going to put that in my classroom. A big part of second grade (and every grade I am sure)is to reassure children that it is OK to make mistakes. Last year I had a little boy whose mom and dad said was a crier. I did not see this emotion until the day that he broke his brand new pencil in half (on purpose) because Zack told him to. I happened to be standing right behind him and the look of shock/surprise on my face sent him from 0-60 in about a second. Tears, crying, blubbering; it was all there. For goodness sake, it was just a pencil BUT I knew that he knew he had made a choice and it wasn’t the greatest one. I quietly asked him to go and get a drink and wash his face and he came back and we talked. We talked about the choices that he had (saying no to the friend OR doing what the friend wanted him to do) and what he could have done differently in the future. He was fearful that I was going to be mad at him for doing something “wrong”. My response was something like, “No..I am not mad. Did you learn anything from this experience? How are you feeling right now?” His answer: “I felt bad but now I feel better and I will never do something like that again!”. I am not sure if that was the last impulsive thing that he will do in his lifetime but I wonder if he will remember it’s okay to make a mistake? I want to use, “There are no mistakes in art, just surprise ideas” when I use AI in my classroom next year.

  4. Jennifer Rice says:

    I really like how you (Tori) handled that situation. I think most kids know, almost immediately when they have done something inappropriate and wrong. I think adults handle those situations in many different ways. Some I have seen get right in the child’s face and speak down to them very aggressively, and some are the other extreme and ignore the problem. Others put them in a time out but never bring the child back to talk about what happened. I really liked how you had the child step away to collect him/herself and then talk about the problem in a non invasive manner. Well done!

  5. Becky says:

    I often see a lot of kids in my kindergarten classroom thinking the same way, “I have to start again because I made a mistake.” We spend a lot of time talking at our level how to take a mistake and turn it into something else. I, too, am forever pulling things out of the recycling bin. Thinking about mistakes as surprise ideas is a nice language to use with kids. I think, however, that this necessitates a change in thinking about mistakes and some direct instruction, maybe a lesson or two about mistakes in artwork or other arts would be a valuable idea to pursue.

  6. Becky – I love your thoughts here. I too pull things out of the recycling bin in the 4th grade. Kids need to learn to work with things – to persevere! I look forward to hearing about a lesson that will help students understand mistakes are fine and in many cases a good thing!

  7. Julie says:

    Elizabeth – while researching for my final project in your grad course, I came upon a children’s picture book that speaks to the idea of turning our mistakes into something surprising and new. I have not been able to read it yet, but was able to view a short video clip and it seems like a great addition to a classroom library.
    It’s called “Beautiful Ooops” by Barney Saltzberg. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  8. Oh, I would love to get my hands on that book! Thank you for the suggestion. 🙂

  9. Michelle says:

    What could be better than to know that you can’t make a mistake? Just a surprise? So many of my students get “stuck.” They want to be perfect. I am never quite certain of what they think is perfect.
    Often they will do nothing for very long periods of time and then produce very little. It’s not easy to get them to simply try. They say they don’t want to be wrong. As high school students they are often afraid to share or to commit to something that may be an inaccurate reflection of themselves.
    I love the idea of telling them they have a surprise inside of them, not mistakes! Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Deb says:

    “The mistake might have been just what your painting needed.” What a wonderful choice of words. This comment was framed in such a positive light, it would be extremely difficult fur the child not to give one of them a try. As teachers, we work hard daily to teach our children to keep trying, problem solve and persevere. They live in a world that is full of many instant gratifications, and adults that are willing to jump in and fix it for them, that this becomes a more difficult uphill climb each day. The arts lend themselves so nicely here. And, thanks for sharing the woderful comeback Elizabeth!

  11. Laurel says:

    I love this concept. It seems as though so many children have become quite obsessive or perfectionistic in their work over the past several years. Many kids seem to go into shut down mode instead of working through obstacles. Studio days seem to be a wonderful way to provide children with ways to create and express themselves while working a piece through to completion.

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