by Kathy Hardy, M.Ed.
On a recent visit home, my mother surprised me with a large box containing many of my artistic endeavors from my childhood. As I unpacked such items as a large coiled pot, a soapstone sculpture, numerous paintings and drawings, small finger puppets, and a paper mache mask, I was both awed and touched that she had collected and save these treasures over the years. We spent the afternoon reminiscing about all the hours my siblings and I spent creating art with our crayons, glue and paper, sharing memories of the art classes and teachers I had experienced in my youth. My mother claimed that I was highly creative, very productive, and very happy in my art classes. When I asked her to what she attributed that success, she said that my teachers had been wonderful because they allowed me to experiment and to create whatever I wanted, without the pressure of being like everyone else. I was very fortunate to have this rich experience. If you were not so fortunate in your childhood, I am sure you can remember the large box of crayola crayons that contained 64 uniquely-named colors, such as periwinkle, sky blue, forest green, marigold, and magenta. How many hours did we spend carefully taking care of those crayons, treasuring the gold and silver ones especially because they sparkled when drawn on paper? Remember the crayon sharpener built into the back of the box?
Art has played an important role in early childhood programs throughout the years. Art fosters sensory perception, provides the opportunity to represent and symbolize experiences, offers children a chance to experiment, create, and build, strengthens kids' ability to think and make decisions, and helps children make sense of the world around them. And art is fun! Children have a natural tendency to create. We see this daily in their play, and art is one medium through which children can satisfy this need to create and express themselves.
Howard Gardiner, a well-known education theorist, writes that "artistic learning grows from children doing things: not just imitating but actually creating, whether it be drawing, painting, or sculpting on their own." Many educators support this theory, adding that art activities contribute to children's capacity to make and understand meaning. Children's art creations stand for objects, feelings, or ideas. We see this at the earliest stages of a child's drawing and painting. A line may represent the ground, the sky, a smile, or a frown. A dot may be used to designate a place or direction. A scribble may mean an idea or a feeling.
The most important rule for guiding children's art activities is that the process is always more important than the product. "Process" means allowing children to explore art materials with freedom without the pressure to copy a model or stay in the lines. Process is experimenting with paints, watching the mixing colors, and feeling the textures of more or less. Process is gluing various sizes, shapes, and colors of paper together to create a collage. Process is freedom to experiment and enjoy the feeling of creating without being concerned with the outcome or the product. Process is creating something that is uniquely yours and not a copy of someone else's.
Remember your own experiences as a child. The first time you discovered the magic of colors mixing, the sticky feeling of glue, the feeling of power as you modeled clay, the sense of accomplishment and pride seeing your own beautiful picture proudly displayed in your childhood home. If you did not have these experiences in your own childhood, create them for your child. Create an environment in your home that fosters creativity. Purchase paints, brushes, an easel and paper. Save "junk" (buttons, old greeting cards, ribbons, wrapping paper, doilies, paper tubes, fabric, etc.) for collages. Collect items from nature, such as pinecones, beach glass, pebbles, leaves, and twigs for building and sculpting. Encourage your child in the artistic process by questioning and commenting on their endeavors. Comments should focus on the experience, the process. Avoid asking questions such as, "What are you making?" and, instead, comment on the process, using comments such as, "I like the red color in your picture." Your goal should be to make your child feel comfortable, confident, and successful.
As my mother did before me, I have saved many of my children's art works from their preschool and elementary years. Many of their paintings are framed and hang on the walls of our home. My children have had wonderful art teachers over the years who respected and understood individuality and the process of creating. My children's artwork represents their uniqueness and their creativity, a part of their development that I hold so dear. I treasure the magical moments they had immersed in experimenting, observing, and creating. I, too, will hold onto their treasures and will return them when the right time comes.