At some point in time, nearly every preschooler picks up paper and crayons and begins to draw out disjointed circles and haphazard lines. Although this may appear to be random doodle, it could be the beginning of a lifelong love of the visual arts. Even if your child isn't a budding Botticelli you can nurture a love and an appreciation for the fine arts. So where do you begin?

Art Educator Malissa Rees believes art appreciation begins with everyday experiences early on. "It can be as simple as looking at illustrations in books and talking about the colors, shapes and mediums used," she says. "Or take your children outside and point out the trees and the effects of the sun on nature."

For Devon Godek, this came naturally. "From the time she was 3 years old Devon would say, 'Daddy, look at the colors of the sunset,' or 'Look at the design in the clouds.' Then she would try to draw them," says Joe of his now 9-year-old daughter. "It was obvious even from preschool that her work was more intricate than other kids her age."

Valerie Schulte had a similar experience with Maggie, now age 5. "From a very early age, my daughter was extremely creative," says Schulte. "At 2 years, she was enthralled with crayons and moved quickly on to finger paints. She also loved to manipulate clay. Even now when she plays waitress, she takes our orders and draws pictures of what we want."

Experts agree Maggie and Devon both display signs of an artistically gifted child.

"If a child has an intense desire to color, draw or explore other materials, it may be a sign he has a natural gifting," says art educator Debra Pozzi. "There may also be an unusual perception of his surroundings - things other children wouldn't notice, like figures or forms or colors."

Even if a child doesn't initially display extraordinary artistic skill, it's a good idea to continue exposing him to the arts.

"Parents shouldn't make assumptions their children aren't talented because it may not show up until later in life," Pozzi continues. "Even if it turns out they aren't gifted or don't have a desire to do art, exposing them will enrich their lives and give them a better appreciation of their surroundings."

Schulte hit this roadblock with her son, now age 11. "When Jack was little, he enjoyed coloring like most kids. But by the time he was 4 years old, it was apparent he was all about sports," she says. "That's when the struggle began to get him to participate in creative projects."

Like Jack, there are many children who prefer other activities to visual arts. But Reese says those interests can still be translated into art.

"Find out what your child is interested in - cartoons, cars, video games - then use those as springboards for projects," she says. "If you have a boy who likes cars, say, 'Let's make a cardboard car together.' If he's into sports, suggest a 3-D shoebox scene."

What's most important is that you encourage, but don't push. Be careful with correction, too.

"On a few occasions, I've tried to correct Devon's work but it wasn't well received. She's her worst critic," says Godek. "Now I ask questions to stimulate discussions and she responds better."

Pozzi and Reese both think accentuating the positive is the best approach. Praise the process and point out positive features of each piece. And don't be concerned if it's a little off color. "It's okay if kids want to make the hair blue or a tree purple," says Reese. "That's the beauty in children's artwork: it's carefree and whimsical. Encourage that."

One way Schulte encourages Maggie in art is to enroll her in community classes. "She really enjoys being with other kids who are working on the same project," she says. "She's just realizing her individuality and how everyone's work turns out differently because they all have their own styles."

"When children take instruction, they are exposed to a variety of materials and new techniques taught by trained individuals," says Pozzi. "This helps them grow as artists."

Another way to instill a love for the arts is to visit art museums. Many facilities cater to children with kid-friendly audio headsets, printed booklets and/or guides. Even if they don't, you can create impromptu games such as "scavenger hunts" for various shapes, colors, animals, portraits and/or landscapes. Keep the experience upbeat and fun, and leave before boredom sets in.

What if repeated attempts to encourage your child in the visual arts are met with failed endeavors? Back off and try something else such as dance, music or theater.

"I didn't set out to make my girls artists. I just wanted to give them a well-rounded education and help them develop an appreciation for all things," says Godek. "Devon and [her sister] Taylor have both taken dance and are learning to play the keyboard. We take them to plays, too. I think if you expose kids to a variety of opportunities, sooner or later you'll start to see their interests emerging."


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Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and grandmother of six.