The Living Arts

The Unfolding of the Living Arts

I’ve had lots of parents with toddlers and crawlers, or preschoolers and barely-walkers, ask how they can all play together. They feel guilty playing with the older children, they tell me, and worry that they’re ignoring their smaller children. I assure them that the little ones don’t feel ‘left out’ watching them with the older ones. I know it to be true, but why? How could this be? On a long drive to visit a family who had asked me this very question, I turned off the radio and gave it some thought. This is the picture that began to emerge.

LifeWays has beautifully developed the idea that our home-life with children can be divided into four areas, which it calls the four Living Arts: the Nurturing Arts (such as dressing, feeding, sleeping), the Practical Domestic Arts (such as cleaning, meal preparation, fixing and making), the Social Arts (interacting and playing), and the Creative Arts (arts and crafts, creating beauty). I love this idea! When we take something as mundane as mopping the floor, and turn it into an Art form, both children and caregivers feel nourished by the experience. If hair-brushing is not just a chore to be gotten through, but a living example of the Nurturing Arts, then our connection is strengthened and joy is shared. Children of all ages benefit when we lift each of these areas from a task to an Art. But these four areas of the Living Arts are not created equal. They awaken for the child in a specific order, at fairly specific times of development.

For the infant and young toddler, the most ‘living’ of the Living Arts are the Nurturing Arts. When we put our time and attention into dressing and undressing, diapering, falling asleep, waking up, eating and drinking, then children at this age feel fulfilled. Little else is needed.

Then, somewhere around age one-and-a-half, an awakening occurs: suddenly, domestic tasks become absolutely delightful to the young child. He is not good at them yet, but he is very interested. This is the age when he loves to show you that he knows where things belong, when he starts to imitate you sweeping the floor and gives you imaginary food to eat. Now is the time to take domestic tasks and imbue them with consciousness: they transform from chores to accomplish into Domestic Arts. Get an extra small broom and sing a sweet song each time you sweep the floor, letting your young child sweep alongside you. Let him show you that he knows how to put the forks away when you unload the dishwasher. When we do these tasks as an Art form, children at this age feel fulfilled. This is not to say that we let the Nurturing Arts fall by the wayside; the children are growing and expanding, and we grow and expand with them.

All goes smoothly until, around two-and-a-half, the young child has another awakening: a social awakening. Of course she has always loved to interact with others, and has even played with other children quite directly. But now, with this awakening, she is intrigued by all things social: she has stopped engaging solely in parallel play and starts what I like to call “perpendicular play”: whatever another child has, she wants. She can’t play apart but he doesn’t have the skills yet to play well together. She wants desperately to play with others, certain children in particular and not others. After a significant “me” phase, a budding sense of empathy begins to emerge. Now is the time to raise social interactions to the next level, and help our children learn to interact graciously. We have added the Social Arts to our repertoire.

Then, around three-and-a-half or four, comes the artistic awakening. Children below this age may enjoy arts-and-crafts, but they enjoy baking just as much, if not better (after all, you get to eat it afterward!). But now, creating things that are beautiful takes on new meaning. Imaginative powers begin to soar. The young child goes from play that involves imitating daily tasks, to going on fantastical journeys to the moon, or becoming a mermaid who searches for jewels or other treasure. Stories and fairy tales take on a whole new dimension. Coloring goes from general scribbles to specific pictures that he probably wants to make in to a book. It is time to engage in the Creative Arts.

Finally, around age five, it all comes together. Whereas earlier the child did things out of an innate drive to imitate and be immersed in whatever surrounded her, now she is ready to fine-tune, to begin learning the whys and wherefores of how something is done. At this age, the child becomes more susceptible to guidance and even instruction from an adult, and is usually eager to hone her skills in all of the Living Arts. When the Living Arts are enjoyed and practiced regularly, the five year old lives in balance and harmony, knowing how things go in the world around her.

With this view of the young child, we can see why it’s fine to be doing an art project with our four-year-old while the 16-month-old toddles around: the art project ‘speaks’ to the older child in a way that it doesn’t to the younger one, yet. That doesn’t mean the little one feels left out. On the contrary, young children feel fulfilled when engaging in what’s living for them, and when watching older children engage in what’s living for them. This is part of why children are usually born one by one in families, and why mixed-age care is so nourishing. The younger ones may even imitate the older child doing their activities, although when offered, they’re often not much interested in following through. So, this is why I tell parents that they needn’t feel pressured to come up with artistic activities that all of their children will enjoy at the same time. Eating meals together (part of the Nurturing Arts) is good ‘activity’ for a four-year-old and a one-year-old to do together; folding laundry together (from the Domestic Arts) is good for your four-year-old and your just-turned-two. And you can play social games with the three-year-olds, and do artistic activities with the four-year-olds, and your little one will watch and soak it in, coming to check in with you as they need to, then toddling away again.


  1. Faith, thank you so much for posting this. I have been thinking about it a lot since our visit. This idea of the “nurturing arts” has transformed the babies’ diaper changes and dressing/undressing. I put my whole heart into knowing that this is one of the best ways to make them feel seen and loved right now. They are resisting so much less now, and starting to enjoy the litle games and songs. And I’m not worrying as much about letting them do their own thing while I spend good time with Ezra. Very helpful perspective!

  2. Thank you Faith!
    Love this article! My son Oliver who is nearly 17months in a couple of days, has been around our daily rhyme with all the nurturing arts, 6 months old. Now that we have a house full of children of all ages. He seems some how to join in everything. Last week he started opening doors, this week he is taking his plate or bowl to scrape into the trash, then put up on the counter, no one has given him direction to do so, he just observes then does. He also will build a road for the cars, (which papa does often with him) and the older children, (who seem to be having issues getting involved in play) follow his lead and start to play with the road and cars.
    You are so correct, about the mixed ages, little ones learn from the the bigger ones and the bigger ones learn how to care for the smaller ones, very beautiful indeed to see this all unfold right before your eyes!

  3. Jackie Beach says

    This is indeed a lovely way to think about and to practice all of the things we do at home! Thank you so much for sharing this, Faith. It’s SO much nicer to think about domestic duties as an art form instead of the THINGS that you have to do constantly, day in and day out, FOREVER (which is how I’ve been thinking about dishes, laundry, cleaning, etc.). 🙂

Share Comments on this Post:


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: