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Art, Pedagogy
 
Well, it’s that time of year. Christmas is just around the corner and the craft projects are being shared left, right and centre on Pinterest and Facebook and being touted as “art experiences”. Of course, as they usually do, the painted handprints made into Christmas trees and paper plate snowmen have sparked heated debate amongst educators. Yet, once again, I lament that it seems for every educator who is frustrated by these “product based” crafts, there are several others defending it. Why?

I think for some these crafts are cute. They are something that “looks like something”, something that will be fussed over by the families. The most common responses to the challenging of these crafts are that “it’s just a bit of fun” or “the children love them” or “the families expect them.”  Recently though, I have heard a justification for these crafts that made me stop and scratch my head. 

“But it is a process. The children have to follow a process to be able to complete the craft” 

Hmmm… Yes, technically the children are following a process to complete these crafts, but when it comes to creativity – I just don’t think this hits the mark. Mary Ann Kohl (author of  Preschool Art—It’s the Process, not the Product, among other books) says “In children, creativity develops from their experiences with the process, rather than concern for the finished product.” 

The photograph above is what I found on our drawing table today. My 3.5year old has recently become obsessed with cutting and folding and twisting paper. Walking into the room and seeing this today, I was immediately taken back to my early days working in long day care. I remember the constant sighs and frustration of educators and the subsequent comments to the children: “you are wasting the paper!” Why is drawing or painting on paper seen as valuable and cutting or scrunching up paper is not? I could have easily looked at this scene and thought about the “wasted paper”, but her exploration of the properties of the paper, of manipulating it to fold and scrunch, are just as meaningful as if she had drawn on each sheet. The same can be said for sticky tape. How often have you seen a preschooler go nuts with the tape dispenser, taping anything and everything, layering piece over piece. It would be easy to see that as wasteful of materials, but we need to stop and look at the creative process. What is the child exploring? What skills are developing? How are they expressing ideas? 

Coming back to the Christmas craft issue. For me – I am not a fan of pre-determined, adult led craft activities. I would much prefer to provide children with a range of art materials, time and space every single day and if they’re inclined to make something “Christmas-y” then so be it. Sure, add some glitter or ribbon or something “festive”, but otherwise – leave it to the child. And… if you simply MUST do Christmas craft, for whatever reason, just call it what it is. It is craft. It is not art, it is not about process, it is not about creativity or exploration. Sure, it’s all just a “little fun” and it’s “cute” – but don’t children deserve more than that? Aren’t they more capable than following an adult designed activity? 

Embrace the process. It might not always look pretty, it might not always be what we imagine it will be, but you can guarantee it will be authentic. 

Nicole Halton

 

 
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Our “Reflections on Practice” digital download on Process vs Product might be just what you need to spark some professional thinking and discussion! Click to find out more
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Yesterday marked the start of school holidays in our household and with a six year old, three year old and one year old… it’s certain to be a busy three weeks! We started the day with some outdoor play – hours spent riding bikes, playing in the cubby and jumping on the trampoline. After lunch we decided to do some painting. Here is where it all went a little haywire!

We set up the acrylic paints (you know the ones… they don’t wash out of anything!), some jars of water, brushes and some canvas sheets. The three year old and six year old were in their element, mixing colours and narrating their process and their product to me. But the one year old… was not happy. See, she had been left out. I had not made a place for her to explore and so she began climbing on the table, stealing their brushes and making a general nuisance of herself. I quickly found some less permanent paint and paper for her and gave her a brush. A brush which she promptly cast aside in favour of a pencil that she use to stir and poke at the paint. She wasn’t interested in “painting”, she was interested in the paint. 
And so, I let her explore the paint. She dug in it, she poked it, she rubbed it between her fingers and held it out for me to inspect. And it was then that I began to think about the way in which we often (not always) approach painting in the early years. Over the years I have heard phrases like “keep the paint on the paper” or “don’t mix the colours up, you are ruining them” countless times. While we claim to value process over product, in saying things like this, we undervalue the fact that paint is simply a material. Sure, it often is used to make marks on a page, but it’s not its only purpose. 

When we provide materials and experiences for children we need to just let them be. Let them explore, create, discover… let them just play
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I have never made any secret of my disdain for stencils and structured, adult driven craft experiences being labelled as art. Whether you like these experiences and routinely offer them to children, or call for the burning of such atrocities, or sit somewhere in the middle, believing everything in moderation,  to call them art really is an insult to art. Art is defined as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”  (www,oxforddictionaries.com)

I would like to think that the majority of educators would not refer to a reindeer footprint, where a child has been used as a human stamp and then an adult has craftily drawn in a face and other “reindeer parts”, as art. There is clearly very little creative skill (definitely not on the child’s behalf) and imagination (particularly when 25 children all have the same reindeer). It is a very adult directed experience. 

Art on the other hand is free. Art does not need to be an experience, simply a creative exploration of materials and techniques. When children engage in art, we see things that we would never see in a craft experience. We see the world through their eyes. 

With this in mind, I created an art space for my daughter who is almost three. She asks to paint almost daily and draws constantly. I wanted a space where she could access materials and be free to create. Today was the first time she used it and she was delighted. As for me, I found myself walking a fine line between guidance and interference. I wanted to show her how to wash the brush. I fought the urge to explain that if she didn’t blot the brush after washing it, water would drip down the canvas. I resisted stopping her from turning each colour in the tray into a delightful shade of brown.

The whole time she was painting, I had this internal struggle between guiding her and showing her technique (which was well intentioned and is a genuine part of learning) and actually interfering in her creative process. Perhaps dripping water down the canvas was part of her process. Maybe she intended to create lots of variations of brown! 

As educators, this internal struggle is a good thing, a sign of critical reflection. It is important that we really think about just how free and creative and imaginative we enable children to be when exploring art. While stencils and product focussed craft activities are not my idea of a quality early childhood experience, I think we need to remember that they are merely a symptom of an adult focused, controlling attitude that lurks within some of us. If we take that attitude into creative art opportunities with children – we may as well be using stencils! 

So, take some time to reflect on your attitudes to art. Do you allow children to manipulate ,materials in ways that they are comfortable with? Do you encourage them to learn trial and error? Or do you feel the urge to yell out “no, you’re ruining it!” when they paint over their lovely flower with black paint?!

i would love to hear your thoughts… And as for me,  I will get back to washing paint of the floor!
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