In many educational settings, we find adult-directed art projects for children that focus on a product, rather than the process.
Whether it’s a teacher creating egg-carton caterpillars with his class, a daycare provider making handprint turkeys with her charges, or a mom with a snowflake craft kit after school, the tendency is the same — adult-implemented art projects for children make the projects themselves the primary focus.
When planning art projects for children, we adults must consider what it is that makes art fun in the first place: creativity. We must also remember what we're creating — not handprint turkeys, but well-rounded people.
While older children may enjoy the structure of a craft kit or a coloring book, children in early childhood (ages 0-6), are learning rapidly and will get more out of open-ended activities. Childcare providers (including parents, teachers, and volunteers) help children learn through play and art activities are a great way to facilitate this learning. Giving children access to art materials helps them express themselves, work on fine motor skills (drawing with a crayon, writing with a pencil), learn important skills for the future (cutting with scissors, communicating with peers and adults). By allowing children to choose their own materials, children are given the opportunity not only to express their feelings but also to learn how to make choices and build plans. Once children choose and use their materials, adults can reinforce their choices with concrete praise. Saying “You were very careful cutting with scissors today!” or “I like the way you used crayons and paint on your paper” gives children a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that is not earned by hearing an endless string of “good job” or “nice work.” Children who develop this sense of self-confidence are also more willing to take other risks such as trying out new skills like writing, shoe-tying, or hard puzzles.
Putting it into practice
The key to child-centered art isn’t letting the children have a free-for-all with art supplies, but rather building an environment where children feel comfortable creating art. Adults can facilitate art experiences by subtly structuring activities and leaving the participation to the children.
Here are some ways to guide art activities without running the whole process or letting things get too chaotic.
1) Set out a variety of materials. You don’t need to empty an entire supply closet — that would be overwhelming. Instead, try choosing three or four materials and allow the children to choose what they’d like to use and experiment with various methods (cutting and pasting, coloring, painting, etc.).
2) Choose a “theme” by talking to the children about it. Chatting about the weather and asking the kids to create a picture that represents their favorite kind of weather is an open-ended, process-focused way to create art. Giving children cut-outs of clouds and raindrops and telling them to glue them on blue paper is, however, a product-oriented activity.
3) Give the children unusual materials. By giving the kids access to supplies they haven’t used in art projects, you’re giving them the freedom to create. Bring in recycled materials such as paper towel tubes, empty thread spools, or milk cartons and tell the children that they may use the materials in an art project. Or, paint with sponges, pine needles, or toothbrushes. New materials will inspire new ideas for your kids!
4) Create a challenge. By creating a challenge to solve, kids are involved in the process of art, not worried about the final product. Ask the kids “how many shapes do you think we can we cut out and glue to this poster board?” or “What do you think will happen if we mix these different colored paints together?” You can even present a handful of odd supplies (try paper plates, paperclips, and paper cups or ribbon, toilet paper rolls, and empty yogurt containers) and ask the children how they would like to combine the materials in a group art project.
ConclusionBy focusing on the process of creating, learning, and artistic design, we allow children to be who they are and learn at their own pace. When we force kids to confine themselves to our expectations and focus only on a product as the end result we aren’t enabling the kids to be all that they can be. The next time you’re working with children try to brainstorm ways to let the kids go through the process of creation and worry less about the product they end up with.