What Art Means to Young Children
Making pictures is an important way in which young children interpret the world. In their drawings and paintings, children explore, respond and give form to what they see around them. Their artwork is just one of many ways in which they conjure with their fears, their aspirations, and their imaginings. Young children have a strong need to tell their stories. The urge to narrate that is so evident in our children’s conversation—yes, they are a talkative bunch—will be expressed in their written work in the coming years. At this stage, their drawings and paintings form a link between talking and writing. The very youngest children explore art materials with their senses; smooshing paint and watching lines emerge from a crayon are miraculous experiences for infants and toddlers. This kind of exploration continues to fuel not only preschoolers but school-age children as well. However, the preschool years are when we see the layers of meaning to children’s work begin to accumulate, their styles and subjects diverge, and their imaginative lives take form on paper.
Even though a predictable developmental progression of drawing can be discerned overall—indeed, across many cultures—children’s artwork flows forth from and gives form to the emerging sense of self. That is to say, children’s work is deeply personal. Of course, some young children are far busier inventing imaginary worlds in the block or pretend areas and do not readily take up pen, crayon, marker or paintbrush of their own accord until some later stage; these children tend to express themselves in three dimensions. Whatever the mode, the benefits to later literacy skills need hardly be enumerated: fine motor control; confidence as storytellers; belief that one’s own thoughts and imaginings are worthy of being set forth.
Role of Adults
The CLC teaching teams spend a lot of time thinking about how best to support the children’s artistic explorations. How to make art materials and activities not only accessible but attractive to children whose agendas may not include drawing and painting? How to help children over hurdles when they feel they have failed to produce what was in their heads? How to allow the natural developmental sequence to emerge without being intrusive? How to be involved with children without inhibiting them?
In general, our experience supports the prevailing opinion of early childhood educators – that the children’s work will be more authentic and less dependent on external judgment if we, as adults, do not draw or paint for them. Even making models near them can at times be intimidating or frustrating; observant children may come to think that adults are the ones who make the “good” drawings. Some children watch quite keenly what others around them are doing, and often begin to compare themselves negatively to either peers or adults. While this is a sign of their maturing awareness of the difference between themselves and others, their abilities tend to develop most fully when they are not dogged by such concerns. With this tension in mind, teachers may at times be able to draw with (not so much for) children in ways that open up the children’s sense of their own possibilities, rather than limiting them. Lest the parents think that we are serving up a monolithic approach, we should explain that this is an area where different staff members at the CLC may legitimately and consciously embrace different approaches. What is important here is that the teachers calibrate their level of engagement to different children and different situations in a thoughtful, intentional manner. Teachers who draw with children consider that they are modeling different sensory or graphic possibilities, much as we model a range of appropriate responses to challenging social situations. Similarly, the children learn from each other. One can sometimes discern a sort of cross-fertilization of pictorial styles between friends.
Above all, we want children to have the chance to practice their work without worrying about conforming to standards other than their own—especially not adult standards. Indeed, their work tends to be more detailed and elaborate if they are not confined by adult expectations. One teacher recently described a child drawing a portrait of her. The child deliberately left out the nose, explaining “because the way I draw noses would make you look like a clown.” She also included a couple of blemishes “because they are there.” The finished product, gloriously noseless and pimply, was deemed satisfactory by the young draftswoman. This child was able to critique her work in a way that neither diminished her sense of her own competence, nor her pleasure in the process.
Talking With Children about Their Work
Having suggested that we not draw for children, there are many other ways for us to support their work. First of all, by attending to what the children are doing and noting details we give them an audience and affirm the importance and specificity of what they are doing. When introducing new materials, it is not only reasonable but useful to demonstrate technique. As another teacher told a group of parents some years ago on Curriculum Night, it is indeed our job as adults to initiate children into use of tools. In effect, children are apprentices. This, however, is quite distinct from doing the work for them. We can also help them become more observant on their own by simply talking to them about what they see and what they are representing. Asking open-ended questions, both about their artwork and about recent experiences, can sometimes help children focus on what they would like to draw. Assuming that they are in fact drawing something specific, though, can also be inhibiting and not always useful. Sometimes children simply experiment and cannot or do not want to attach a narrative to their work on paper. Educators often will discuss “how” work is done and let children talk about the meanings if and when they want to.
Parents are probably more attuned to their own children’s styles, interests and proclivities than anyone else. However, for those who are feeling at a loss, a few general suggestions about subjects to address in talking to children about their work follow:
- Lines, shapes, colors, patterns, textures;
- How they are repeated;
- How they are varied;
- How they are arranged. 
Some more specific comments that respect children’s work and stage of learning are:
- You certainly have been working for a long time on that.
- How did you get the idea to draw this?
- This is the first time I’ve seen you do this.
- You used so many (one) color(s). How do you like it?
- Do you feel you have finished your work, or would you like to add more?
- Would you like to hang this up or take it home?
- You look very proud. Are you?
What Can I Do if a Child Asks Me for Help?
When children ask for help or become frustrated with not being able to meet their own expectations, they often merely need help getting started. Until children have a great deal of experience with any one thing, they often need help planning their approach and their work. An appropriate response when children ask for help is to break down the task into small parts for them to consider. When a child has difficultly planning how she will draw a tree, one can ask a series of questions to help the child visualize and set a plan for how to begin.
- What color do you want to make your tree?
- Do you want to make it big with lots of branches or small with only a few branches?
- Do you want the trunk to be thick or thin?
- Would you like to start with the trunk or the branches?
- Do you want to start with the top of the trunk or the bottom?
- Where do you want the bottom of the trunk to begin?
- How far up do you want it to go before the branches start?
As the child answers those questions she begins to draw her idea, leading you, the helpful adult, to the next logical question. This models for children how to approach any large task. As the child gains more experience, she will begin to ask those questions of herself when she is faced with a big project in the future.
Some Second Thoughts
Having suggested that adults not draw for children, we are aware that home and school are two different settings. We are keenly aware that within each family, artwork, like everything else, is a deeply personal matter; in some homes, drawing together may be part of an important bond between parent and child. Having watched one painter draw beside his daughter over the span of many years, this writer has always been struck by the degree to which the father’s devotion to his work appeared to inspire the daughter to have a similar connection to her own. To this day (the daughter is now well into middle childhood), they work side-by-side, peacefully and companionably absorbed in their labors. Far from impinging on this child’s ability to give form to her ideas, working beside her father clearly has fueled her own passion for drawing and painting.
Another CLC teacher recently pointed out that the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, which are world-renowned for the central role of aesthetics in their curriculum, actually have resident artists in their early childhood programs. As she says, “the understanding in the adult and child community is that children draw like children and adults like adults, thus making children comfortable and confident in their ability.” Similarly, looking at great art with children can be a source of inspiration. On a recent trip to the Art Show at the Armory, two young children sat with sketchbooks on their laps, doing impressions of the vast flower displays and remembered landscapes. In that moment, these children were clearly identifying themselves with the adults who had made the work on display.
 Explorations with Young Children: A curriculum guide from the Bank Street College of Education, eds, Anne Mitchell & Judy David. Gryphon House: Beltsville, MD, 1992, pg. 210.
Taken with permission from AllProDad.com.
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