It’s that time of year when teachers start to focus on children making things – holiday and seasonal decorations and gifts to display or to take home. Often the goal of these activities isn’t about children’s ideas or children’s experiences, it’s about requiring children to make a product that can be displayed to or given to adults. These products usually involve some template or design chosen by a teacher, with clear directions so what the children will produce will look “nice”. “I know this isn’t very process oriented, but the parents love it,” I heard a teacher say.
Is that the purpose of early childhood education, for children to follow teacher directions to make something the teacher thinks parents will “love”?
The purpose of art activities is for children to explore different materials, and experiment with their own creative expressions. What they make should be their own, not a reproduction of something a teacher was captivated by on Pinterest, or that the teacher has decided she wants children to make. We need to value children’s art as art – not as a means to create a product for adults.
One way to do this is to make a variety of art materials open and available to children daily. With toddlers and twos, it’s best to introduce one or two materials at a time, to allow them to explore their properties and give them a scaffolded experience in making choices of what to select. Children this age also need repeated experiences in figuring out how to use a material. Gluing paper seems easy to an adult, but it requires many steps that take time to figure out and practice. How do I get glue onto the paper? How much glue should I use? How do I make the thing I want to stick hold onto the paper? How many things can I stick on to this amount of glue?
Once children have had the opportunity to explore and understand basic materials like glue, paint, paper, and scissors, they’re ready for more choices. Setting up a table or art area with a small variety of materials can help them consider choices and continue to develop an understanding of the physical properties of different materials and objects.
And then when they’re ready, they can choose what materials they need, and how they’re going to use them. This is Art. They don’t need directions or templates or an example printed out from a webpage – they just need room to create.