The Role of Art in Early Childhood

Ever taken a piece of cut-up paper covered in squiggly lines and a random pom-pom out of your child's bag and thought, what is this, and proceeded to toss it in the trash? In contrast, you pull out a perfectly painted paper-plate butterfly, praise your child for her beautiful work and hang it on the fridge?

Let me tell you why that first piece matters, too!

There are two types of artistic creations in school, categorized as either "process art" or "product art."

Process art looks like:

  • free painting at the easel
  • an art center stocked with various supplies and few rules on how to use the materials
  • it may not be obvious what the product is
  • an open-ended collaborative class project
  • open exploration of various media, such as a tree rubbing or rolling marbles in paint
  • it is relaxing, child-led and child-paced
  • children illustrate their writing or dictation as desired

Product art looks like:

  • teachers provide a sample of what it should look like
  • teachers provide step by step instruction
  • children ask “is this right?”
  • the finished products all look very similar
  • parents don’t need to ask the child what they made
  • children illustrate their writing or dictation with construction paper cut-outs

There's a middle ground to these, as well. I'll call it "child-led product art," in which teachers provide a prompt, but children take the lead on the "how." For example, teachers may instruct children to make a tree, but they have a variety of materials and may create their tree any way they choose. Photos of many trees are provided for inspiration.

While both ends of the spectrum are valuable, the Day School emphasizes child-led and process art. While product-centered art builds fine motor control and the ability to follow step-by-step directions, those skills are practiced in many ways throughout the school day. Process art also has the merits of fine-motor development, but engages children's cognition at a higher level as they develop a plan and follow through. It builds children's creativity and confidence in their ability to create, experiment and problem-solve. Plus, child-led art is a calming, enjoyable experience for our little students.

Try saying “tell me about your work” when art comes home. It may have a story that was planned before it was created. It may have meaning that surprises you. Or, it may mean nothing to your child, and simply served as a stress free opportunity to practice those fine motor skills. Either way, it’s meaningful and child-centered work. As for praise, focus less on the product and more on the process - i.e. "I can see you worked very hard on this."

This being said, sometimes parents just need a hand print turkey. And our teachers know that you’d love a couple keepsakes each year! They carefully balance the three mentioned types of artwork to meet the needs of the whole-child. Our staff are trained in best practices and have your child's healthy development in mind when planning art activities. 

Finally, neither of these types of art are about art instruction. Our wonderful art teacher, Mrs. Cummins, has the wonderful job of teaching our budding artists techniques in drawing, painting and more. Be sure to read her blog this week! 

With love and learning, 

Sarah Good