What is Children’s Art?
As adults, artists are generally referred to in terms of the product they create - painters, sculptors, musicians or dancers. When we create ‘art’ we might think about what we are going draw or make before we begin.
When children explore art there is much less emphasis on the finished product – they might say they are going to draw or make something specific but often this evolves into something else during the process.
As I watch my children involved in what we may traditionally term ‘art’, I find that creative expression isn’t their only interest and there is certainly very little focus on the finished product. Sometimes they are practising skills. My youngest for example likes to snip paper into tiny pieces but if I suggest she might like to make a picture with the pieces, she isn’t interested. As children get older the finished product becomes more important. My pre-schoolers will often remark that they don’t know what it is going to be yet, whereas my 9-year-old often has an idea before she starts. Does this change occur naturally or do adults teach them that this is what ‘art’ is?
My younger girls’ ’art’ is about exploration. They ask questions like ‘what happens if?’ Through this exploration they see themselves as competent in the knowledge that there is no right or wrong way to do things. This give them the confidence to explore further.
The Salad Spinner Project
An example of a process oriented art project was inspired by a visit to the Children’s Museum where the children made pictures using a salad spinner. The directions were simple:
1. Put paint onto a paper plate
I’ve chosen 3 colours
2 .Place the plate inside the spinner and put on the lid. Place the spinner onto a cloth or newspaper, the holes in the bottom of the spinner allow the paint to come through.
4. Check results
They watched as the pictures took shape changing according to the colours chosen and how much paint they put on.
There is potential for this activity to become a product oriented if the adult takes over. The key to making it process oriented is to offer choice and allow the children to freely explore the materials.
How the Project Evolved
The pictures the girls had made at the museum had colours that ran into one another producing a marbled effect but the paints we used at home were thicker so produced very clear lines with little mixing.
They explored all the possibilities:
I’m choosing two colours.
What if I just put a bit of paint on?
I’ve put lots of paint on this one.
Which one is your favourite?
The next time we got the salad spinner out I suggested they might like to add things to the spinner to see what happened.
I know lets put balls in.
First they tried a golf ball
It makes a kind of bumpy pattern
They put it back in a number of times spinning the spinner at different speeds to see how the pattern evolved.
Next they tried marbles. The marble made tracks across the plate
It looks like a puzzle
The next attempt came out differently
When we put marbles in it makes a noise. Sometimes they get stuck in the sides and we have stop.
Hmm, Maybe if I spin it faster
Still no change.
I could try more marbles
Still no change.
Suddenly my 5-year-old had an idea
I know; it’s because I used too much paint. The one with tracks on didn’t have so much paint on so I need to use less paint.
The learning and creative thinking in this project is clearly evident so why would we plan art with a finished product as our starting point?
Process v Product
Sometimes as early educators and parents it is difficult not to plan art projects in terms of the finished product. Certainly years ago when I worked with older children we would often plan workshops and sessions in terms of what we would make. We all like our children to come home from preschool with something they have made. Teachers sometimes argue that parents expect their children to come home with something at the end of the day. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about yet another drippy painting or cardboard box construction.
This is often given as a justification for producing heavily adult directed arts and crafts. Starting from an adult viewpoint in this way often means that the children don’t do very much themselves. I have observed teachers presenting children with pre-drawn templates, ready cut outlines and telling them what they need to stick where – sometimes the child isn’t even allowed to do the sticking themselves. The children may come home with something pretty to put on the wall but what have the children learned, how much enjoyment have they had and have they actually made it themselves? Furthermore, if we show children at a young age that there is only one way to do things we destroy their enthusiasm to do things for themselves. Is this why we often hear older children say ‘I can’t draw’, ‘ I don’t know what to make’ or ‘It doesn’t look right’.
When you allow children to freely explore materials they begin to understand the properties of media, they learn that art can be a series of explorations and they are allowed to become absorbed in the joy and relaxation of the artistic process. Sometimes they will want to make something specific but allow them choice in the materials and tools they use and encourage them to try out things for themselves.
Creative thinking isn’t neat and tidy. An artist will paint many sections of a painting exploring colour texture and shape before finally coming up with a finished product. Think about the work of an author who writes and rewrites many times with crossings out, arrows and notes all over the paper. A finished product will come eventually but it is a long way off. Allow children to explore in this way, let them make a mess and do things their own way.
As Peter Dixon puts it
Your children are at a stage where the process of doing things
LOOKING, SEEING, FINDING, FEELING, INVESTIGATING etc.
is far more important than the end product sought by some parents. …The process of their work – might look messy, scribbly or completely unrecognisable to us but to your children it is utterly meaningful and an essential part of their mental and physical growth and development. Please honour – please respect your child’s own way of thinking. It might seem unusual but it is their birthright. It is the foundation upon which they will build all future understanding.
The Adults Role
Process oriented art doesn’t mean that you leave children alone with a huge amount of materials. The adults role is to organise the materials so that the children can find what they need easily. Sometimes this means setting out particular materials for example you may want them to explore with charcoal and erasers. It can also mean setting up an organised art station with neatly labelled pots and drawers that the children can choose materials from.
If the adult works alongside the child creating their own projects then they can inspire children and demonstrate techniques. They will be able to encourage children to develop their projects by asking questions
What happens if…..?
Have you tried this……?
What else could you add?
persuading them to try different materials and techniques.
If you log children’s comments and questions, displaying them alongside finished pictures and photographs of the process, it will help to show the value of process oriented art.
Examples of Process Oriented Art
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