I returned to the classroom 5 weeks after S was born and was thrust into this brave new world of knowing absolutely nothing. Parenthood has turned me into a student both at home and in the classroom. I am constantly watching and learning and questioning. I use my village as necessary and it's necessary more often than I'd ever imagined. And perhaps the greatest asset to that village are the children themselves! Young children may have different ways of communicating than adults, but they tell us a lot when we are willing to listen and observe.
Whether you are a parent including structured play activities at home, more formally home schooling or a classroom educator, I hope you'll find these "troubleshooting" posts to be yet another part of your own village. The ideas I will share are all based on my own observations and home or classroom practices. Every child and setting is unique and as such, we need to adapt (and often adapt again and again and again) accordingly. Feel free to try what makes sense and ditch what doesn't! Also feel free to share some of your own thoughts with me in the Comments section or through personal contact. I'm always looking for fresh ideas!
Since we have been exploring Art and Artists this summer, I wanted to kick off our first post with a theme about art with young children. Why is it that some children are naturally drawn to art activities while others are not? Why do some children fill a page while others flee the scene after just a line or two? One child will mass produce picture after picture and another will sit with the same piece of work for hours on end. A little boy rushes in to the art table and begins his work even before being given instructions. Another little girl is sitting, staring at the blank paper, well after instruction has ended. Certainly, children all have different areas of interest, different strengths and talents and different areas of growth and rates of development. How can we as parents and educators work with this to create an environment that encourages art for ALL?
I will (over)simplify this into four basic steps:
- Plan for Success
- Assess and Address
- Revisit and Revise
- Observe and Evaluate
And now, for the juicy details...
- Plan For Success: Whether you are setting up your art center/materials in a classroom or at home, whether for a structured activity or simply for open access, it is important to plan ahead for maximum success. Here are a few key pointers to consider even before you begin...
- Can children reach and access all of the things they will need independently?
- Are materials at child level and visible?
- On the other end of that coin, if you intend to give verbal and/or visual directions first , are your materials out of accessible reach so that they will not provide an immediate distraction. Please remember that we want children to engage with art supplies. However, expecting them to not handle supplies within their reach while being given directions is very challenging for most.
- Do the children know all of the steps involved to get the materials they will need and to put them away when they are done?
- If you are doing a structured activity or project, do you have everything you need out and accessible? It is helpful to think of all of the steps of your activity from preparation to execution to cleanup. If children need to color and glue, you might want to have markers out first and then the glue when they are done coloring (otherwise, your markers may get super gluey and stop working properly). If the children are painting, do you have an open space set up for drying finished work? Do you have wet rags or wipes nearby for painty hands? Where will children need to go to wash up when they are done and how will they get there?
- Consider the space and time. Do you have enough physical space and time for the project you are about to embark on? Would your setup work best at a table or on the floor? Seated or standing? Can you provide options within these parameters for children who work better standing or laying on their tummy on the floor?
- Are your materials all functional? Nothing is more frustrating than finding empty glue sticks or dried up markers and crusty paint brushes when you're ready to get to work! Do your best to weed those out in advance and also to instruct the children to manage their materials as well. Children can throw away an empty glue stick and help wash brushes and remember to cap those markers. Invite them to be resourceful and responsible with materials and this little bit of effort will go a long way!
- What skill sets are necessary for completing an activity and are these all within your child[ren]'s range? Tasks as minute as pressing a cap all the way down on a marker or squeezing glue out of a bottle or using a "helping hand" to direct paper as the dominant hand cuts are all new and challenging to young artists. Spending the time to support them in the development of these skills can go a long way in eliminating frustration. I would even go so far as to encourage adults to work with children to master these skills rather than always stepping in to do so for them. The self-confidence that inherently comes with self-competence truly feeds creativity in art and other forms of work and play.
- Safety as always is vital. Make sure that appropriate supervision and support is provided with materials that can pose a choking risk or sharp objects and even permanent paints and markers.
- Do allow for use of "real" materials and art supplies, even those that are sharp and permanent. This provides a supported environment in which these forms of "real work" are mastered and children develop a confidence in and reverence for the use of these tools.
- Protecting spaces and clothing is something to consider as well. Some adults are not too concerned about colorful mishaps and others are. Some children are also more likely to feel concerned about this than others. Make sure that you have adequate coverage options for your work space and for the children themselves. I love using cheap vinyl placemats as "art mats" for smaller scale projects and activities and leaving smocks optional and accessible at home (sometimes less optional in a classroom setting since parents may not appreciate newly tie-dyed clothes coming home). For larger scale messy activities, you may want a cheap shower curtain, tablecloth or sheet to use as a drop cloth and to cover the area. You may also want to dress yourself and your younger artists in clothing that is OK to get messy.
- The activity feels too challenging. Many factors can play into a child perceiving that an art activity is too difficult. Perhaps there are too many steps. Children with difficulty processing verbal directions may do better given a visual support. I like to use 3 prompt cards made with movable Velcro parts to support these children. Even pre-readers can use a 3-prompt card with a pictures. If there are more than 3 steps, remove the steps as they are completed and add the next one. I do not like to include more than 3 at a time because this can feel overwhelming. Sometimes having too many supplies out at the same time can be overwhelming in a multi-medium/multi-step activity. Consider having only pencils and markers out to begin with and then handing out the scissors and glue, etc.
- There are not enough supplies. It can be hard to wait! If you are working with a large group and do not have enough of certain supplies for each child, consider having rotating stations. One area can be designated to gluing, one to cutting, etc. Alternatively you may consider making sure that there are enough glue sticks and scissors for each set of hands. This can go for both open ended process art and directed art activities.
- There are too many supplies. Whether you are setting up an open-access art area for process art that is child led or instructing a project, there is such a thing as too much. Option overload can cause some children to use materials in excess while others may feel altogether inhibited. Keeping shelves and the table stocked minimally and swapping out materials as needed to make space and opportunity for new ones goes a long way. There are certain things that I always have accessible: paper, scrap paper, scissors, glue... and others that I rotate in and out, like a variety of mediums for coloring, writing, drawing, collage, sculpture, etc. Within that framework, I also provide recycled trays and containers so children can easily contain and carry what they need to their space and not have to take everything with them. This is kind of like art portion control but is also generally more aesthetically pleasing to the young artists as they work.
- Time is of the essence. This is a delicate dance. Too much time, and some artists may grow bored and want to move on. Not enough time, and some artists may feel rushed--reluctant to leave a project and sometimes even reluctant to begin one. Consider how you can allow for artists to have the right amount of time--whether in one session or through the option to leave and return to work at a later point. If a child seems disengaged with an activity, can he or she leave and return to it at another time?
- Proper Prompting: Do you always finish a big project in one sitting? Alternatively, if you were in the middle of a project and someone said "Ok, let's go!" how would you feel? Consider the fact that even retailers give 15 and 5 minute warnings before they close to their adult customers--all people do best with prompts. Prompting children when time is about to be up can be done quietly from table to table or individually as opposed to through a turn-off-all-the-lights-and-listen-to-my-booming-voice way and it can be helpful to offer a verbal option of returning to the work at a later point if it is not done. It is also helpful to inform young artists in advance if their work will need time to dry or be completed before it can be brought home.
- To demonstrate or not to demonstrate? That is the question. When adults provide an adult sample--or even a child's sample, is this helpful or hindering? My answer is YES, to both. For some, it is helpful, for some it is intimidating, for some it is limiting, for some it gives structure. This is an area you will need to assess on an individual and time-by-time basis. I have worked with the gamut of personalities, from those who want an adult to draw for them to those who cringe at an adult writing their name at the bottom corner and everything in between. I try to be sensitive to all of these feelings whether they are all rolled up into one child or across a classroom. In a classroom setting, peer work can also play an influential role, for better or for worse. Using language like "everyone's work will be a little bit different" and "I did it this way, but you might have another idea and that is OK" seems to help.
- In Praise of [Not] Praising: How we speak to and about a child's work also contributes to his/her feelings about it. Avoiding comparison remarks and even avoiding quantitative and qualitative remarks in general--whether positive or negative is challenging but also important. This is not to say that we should never praise a child's work and say how beautiful it is. It is simply to say that we should also include statements that notice the work (Oh, I see you chose to use a lot of red in this area, can you tell me more about that?) or praise that reflects the effort and invoke's the child's feelings of accomplishment (You worked for a long time on that with a great deal of focus, I can tell you really feel proud about it!).
- The Good Enough Artist: Perfectionism is a quality that can lead to a masterpiece or stifle creativity altogether. In myself and in my students and in my own children, I have seen it do both. Allowing and encouraging the Good Enough Artist is a unique balancing act. Self confidence can be attained in many ways. While external praise can initially increase confidence, the most sustainable form of cultivating confidence in our children's creative work is through their own feelings of self mastery. Sometimes children will become distressed at wanting to draw or create something they "can't do." I appeal to what they can do. What colors is it? What shapes? What do you feel when you see it? It doesn't have to be a photograph--so much of our art is not! Introduce these young artists to impressionist paintings and abstract art by great artists--there are many right ways to capture the same object or idea.
- Helping and Hindering Environments: Some children work well in a quiet environment, others work best with some music. Some may be distracted by very bright light coming through a window or extraneous noise or even a strong smell (and some art materials do have a strong smell). Some children are averse to certain textures or messy art and having options within this to wipe or wash hands intermittently or perhaps to use a brush to paint or tool in clay rather than bare hands can go a long way in making sensory sensitive children feel invited into the art process. Additionally, the amount we, the adults, are speaking can go a long way in helping or hindering an artist. Too much adult talk can be quite distracting and too much adult presence can feel intimidating. I try to maintain longer pauses between my own talk during art times and to allow artists who do need more space and quiet for focus to have that. In assessing your art environment, I encourage you to sit where and how your young artists will sit, to stand at child level and really try to gain a sense of how they will experience the space. You may notice something that needs tweaking even before the issue arises!
- Alternative work space: We generally view art as a seated activity. Perhaps we also envision standing at an easel. The option to work standing at a table, seated with a tabletop easel, outdoors, indoors, laying on the floor, on a vertical surface and even lying on their backs underneath a table with the bottom covered with paper and reaching overhead can all be ways to encourage a reluctant artist or inspire an eager one.
- The Scribble Sheet: We all know at least one kid who loves to scribble. Whether or not that is developmentally related (and scribbling is where they are at with drawing and writing) or personality related (it feels good to scribble), I provide the option of a Scribble Sheet. Children can get a piece of paper from the scrap paper bin and get all of those scribbles out before beginning to work, during work times and whenever they feel the need and desire. I do not judge scribbles as "less than" a form of art, but rather a part of the process for some children, and they can, in fact, be quite beautiful! A Scribble Sheet also provides an option for young artists who wish to have a space for a rough copy or practicing a technique.
- Size, texture and color matters: When it comes to paper, sometimes introducing paper in a different size makes all the difference! We tend to steer straight for the standard printer size, perhaps the slightly larger construction paper. Consider providing large easel paper or small blank index cards. Or graph paper. Or paper of different colors and textures.What about canvas or fabric or tin foil? A great way to increase your options is to make use of your scraps. Save bits and pieces from projects in a plastic bin or tray for artists to use. Standard white paper is great, but not every artist is drawn to drawing on it.
- And while we're on the topic of drawing on paper... This is not every artist's favorite medium Sculpture, clay and dough work, wire, beading, building, designing, sewing, fiber crafts, collage, and photography are just a few more forms of visual art. The world of computers have also added a whole new world to design and graphic art. Allow for opportunities with a variety of artistic methods and mediums. Everyone has at least one artistic bone in his or her body--you may just have to find it!
- Join 'em! While adult samples and modeling are something I feel we should be mindful of, actually sitting in and joining our little ones in art together can be a great way to bond and inspire each other's creativity. Whether at home or in the classroom, engaging with children during art times, even participating, can be such an asset to all artists (yourself included).
- Expose children to art. And all types! Hang artwork at their visual level--their own and that of "The Greats." Let them touch art, let them see art and let them appreciate art--even if it means slowing down to admire things in nature or in a book... Make time to expose children to art in a variety of forms and locations and let them catch you doing the same!
- Stop, drop and roll with the punches. Sometimes, you really just need to stop and drop an activity. Maybe the timing isn't ideal. Maybe the activity isn't ideal. Maybe you will tweak it and return to it, maybe not. Be OK with abandoning ship when that feels like the best thing to do. Also be OK with letting young artists see you make that choice. "Gosh, I'm just not feeling this right now," or "this really isn't working how I wanted it to and I'm frustrated. I'm going to take a break from it and maybe I'll try again later.
- When is it done? Who decides when a piece of art is finished? This is a particularly sensitive area for the young minimalists in your life. When a child does leave a great deal of "white space" on a project, perhaps only adding one or two colors or lines and walking away, do you push him to "add more" or allow for the white space? Here are a few things to consider: Was the work, however minimal, intentional? S will quite often leave a good portion of a paper blank. He is, however, very intentional in how, where and why he places his work. If, on the other hand, you sense a child rushed through an activity and is leaving the project for another reason, perhaps inquire about why that is. Boredom, avoidance, distraction, frustration and so many other factors can play a role. This is where I often encourage offering a smaller sized paper. Blank canvas can be intimidating and standard sized paper is bigger than the little hands that work with it. Try offering a 4x6 blank index card and observe what happens. On the other end of the spectrum are the page fillers. Paint is piling high and deep. Glue is leaving you in a sticky situation and glitter might be everywhere. Again, I encourage you to assess the situation before saying "it looks like you're all done." I would inform about the likelihood for paper to rip when it is too wet with paint or to work on techniques to control the amount of glue or glitter that leave the bottle and jar in order eliminate unnecessary waste. But I also hesitate to tell an artist that her work is finished if she is genuinely still working. There is art in and of itself to be discovered through thickly layered paint and a whole world of beauty and bliss in the textures of glittery glue. An artist with a very wet painting can be offered a second sheet of paper to make a print and now he has two paintings! In either scenario, asking "does it feel done?" or "what's next?" can go a long way in encouraging young artists at work.
4. Observe and Evaluate: This is a unique step, because although I list observe and evaluate together, I want you to separate them. Take the time to observe and ONLY observe. A child using a material in a way that is not how you intended is not necessarily wrong--give it the time and space it deserves (unless, of course, it is a dangerous situation, and then intervene!) and see where it goes. Evaluate after the fact. What worked? What didn't? What would you do next time? What could encourage this particular child and what inhibits him? What was your role in the experience? What would you like your role to be? Are you too involved? Not involved enough?
I think, perhaps, the most important factor to consider is what the child's experience was. Children are not as driven by product as we are. In fact, they are hugely process oriented. Whether the art experience was child led or adult-directed, did the child seem engaged? Content? Frustrated? Encouraged? Rushed? Hesitant? Thoughtful? Distracted? And ask about their experience! How was it for you to make this___? Was it hard? Was it fun? Was it frustrating? Exciting? These are all great clues into what gets a child's creative gears spinning and how you can get your own working in conjunction to create an incredible opportunity in art for ALL!
I hope this post was helpful in getting your own thoughts going about engaging in art with young children. It certainly is not a post with as many answers as questions--but those questions are so vital in our experience as adults working with young children (the real experts). I would love to hear some of your own thoughts on the subject and tools of the trade! I'd also love to hear your ideas for future troubleshooting posts and would be happy to dive into any concerns or topics of interest. Feel free to respond in the Comments section or contact me personally.