Pinterest is full of artsy ideas for crafty kids – painting, sculpture, playdough, collages – thousands of activities for infants through elementary and beyond! So which art activity is right for your little one’s learning and development?
First let’s start by identifying what skills the activity is developing. Are you working on helping your child cut with scissors and practice following directions (aka sequencing skills – critical for future reading ability!)? If so, then a project with step-by-step instructions involving scissor use may be appropriate. However, these types of activities are primarily developmentally appropriate for older children and often are limited to one outcome, or product. These types of activities are commonly called “craft projects” and are often enjoyable for many children.
If the skill you want to develop includes promoting a child’s curiosity or expression of their ideas, then you would do well to look into more open ended, process oriented activities. Through these activities, children may be developing concrete skills such as cutting with scissors or holding a pencil; however, they are also able to have autonomy over the direction and result of their work. In a classroom, a process art activity is evident when children have access to the same materials, but their artwork is all unique – not one looks exactly like another. The result may also change each time a child uses the materials – one day the paint will cover the whole paper, the next a pattern appears, the next they make dots as they mix different colors together. Same materials – different results.
Process art also allows children to express their ideas or understanding about the world. A young toddler gluing leaves to a paper is learning vocabulary words and concepts like “leaf”, “tiny”, “green”, and “sticky”. The infant is enraptured squishing a bag of blue and yellow paint, watching the color change to green. A preschool dictates the text to go along with their drawing of abstract shapes and lines, telling about their favorite superhero saving the day. These types of activities are driven by the child’s interests and observations, their imaginations are clearly activated, and the adult is present to record the result of this process rather than direct the outcome.
At times process art has no product what-so-ever! The paper is destroyed by repeated strokes of the paint brush or torn and crumpled by tiny hands. The paint that decorated the toddler’s arms and tummy is washed off by their teacher, the popsicle stick and clay sculpture is squashed flat by the four year old, and the chalk drawing in the porch is washed away by the rain. In these moments, the only product we have is the story that is told regaling the joy of the paint smeared belly button or the picture of the sculpture before it was pulled apart and flattened. This is why early educators talk about collecting artifacts, rather than artwork, from their young students. The artifact is the representation of the learning, the experience, and the process of the child acting as an artist.
Process art allows children of all ages to explore and express themselves, make new discoveries, and build their skills needed to create – physically, cognitively, and creatively. The majority of art children should experience is of this open-ended variety and we have the lucky pleasure of standing as witness to their discoveries. Teachers who guide process art with children are careful to not directly impact the result of their efforts – they do not draw, cut, glue, fold, make, or do for the child. Educators are also cautious of implying meaning to a child’s art – rather than say “what is it?” or “that’s a great house!” when the toddler hands them a drawing, they encourage the child to explain their ideas by saying “tell me about it!”. They also use a variety of language to describe a child’s artwork – “that’s interesting!” or “it makes me feel….” rather than saying “that’s beautiful!” (Because not all artwork is meant to be beautiful.)
When supporting children as they develop their artistic abilities the craft projects may be fun, but the process art is where their stories come to life!