By Rosanne Sommers August, 2021
When I began teaching Pre-K at HCS nine years ago, I spent a lot of time searching the internet for the perfect craft project to go with our theme each week. My students followed careful instructions to create nearly identical handprint crabs or umbrellas made with cupcake liners and pipe cleaners. Several years later, my co-teacher and I attended a workshop at the ACSI Early Education Conference that began our journey of discovering a completely different approach to preschool art.
You may have heard the phrase, “It’s about the process, not the product.” That is exactly what process art is. The value of art for toddlers and preschoolers (and many times for school-age children as well) is in the process of creating, not in the finished product. As teachers and moms, we all want that cute piece of artwork to frame on the wall or hang on the fridge. It can be hard to give up my mental image of a classroom display, but as I see the joy my preschoolers take in creating, my idea of beauty changes. (Although I’m not going to lie – I still send home or discard some projects sooner than others. And don’t worry, I have a few tips at the end for getting your child to create themed art that is still process-focused.)
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of process art vs. traditional ways of doing art:
- No sample to copy
- Focus on creative expression and developing skills
- Fine motor skill
- Making choices
- Expressing emotions
- Kids choose how to engage with the materials and which available materials to use
• Follows a sample
• Focus is on creating a specific product
- Develops ability to follow instructions
• Kids are given step by step directions
I tend to call product-focused artwork for young children “crafts.” Crafts have their time and place, especially for school-age children. Cutting, pasting, drawing, and painting all develop the muscles that control precise hand and finger movement (fine motor skills). Your 2-5 year old is working hard to develop those skills and does not need the added pressure of trying to make their artwork look just like a grown-up’s sample. In addition, I believe a child who is mostly given art projects with a precise expected outcome will grow up to say, “I’m not creative.”
It is true that modern parenting advice is sometimes too child-centered. However, I believe we can respect our children’s unique personalities and giftings and gently nurture their development without conforming to a worldly philosophy. Children have many opportunities to learn to follow directions aside from creative art time. And even when creating freely, there are directions to follow– Put lids on markers, clean up your supplies, respect your friends’ space, etc.
This summer, I’ve been teaching a mixed-age class of children ages 3-10. Most of these kids attended our school as preschoolers. It is beautiful to observe them creating art side-by-side, admiring each other’s work but not comparing it to their own. Notice the differences and attention to detail in their “bug hotels.” One little guy simply traced the bug stickers and then removed most of them. Older students created intricate drawings including a broken clay pot, spider webs, and dirt tunnels. I believe this freedom of creative expression is partially due to their process art experiences as preschoolers.
Note: This is not to say you shouldn’t teach your child any drawing skills. In my classroom, we play fun games where we create flowers, stick figures, and simple animals step by step. Grounded in process art experiences, most of the kids are delighted, rather than frustrated, with their creations.
A few tips...
Set out supplies in an inviting manner. Enjoy the way each child engages with the materials from their own perspective. This setup is from a Valentine’s party for preschoolers at my house and was a great icebreaker as kids and parents came in. If you would like the art to be themed, set out supplies in the shapes and colors you want.
Try to ask open-ended questions, make objective comments, or just observe as your child creates. When I’m really engaged in a process, I don’t necessarily want someone talking to me or asking me what I’m making.
Some helpful phrases:
“I see that you’re working hard to…”
“Do you want to tell me about your picture?”
Study color theory, and introduce it to your preschoolers. This can be as simple as reading the book Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh or Mix it Up! by Herve Tullet. Afterwards, set out two colors of paint and have fun mixing! It’s great to use all three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), but you may want to begin with two at a time until they know how to make secondary colors. My four-year-olds created all of the colors in this collage using red, yellow, blue, hot pink, and white. They could mix hues and tints for hours. Hearing them gasp in awe at the beautiful colors fills my heart with joy.
Don’t stress out! Only set out what you’re feeling up to. A stack of papers cut to an interesting size or shape along with a cup of markers is perfect for an invitation to create process art. Drawing squares on a large sheet of paper is simple and fun. The beautiful thing about process art is that it’s both more valuable and much less stressful than coming up with a craft project.
Art Workshop for Children by Barbara Rucci and Betsy McKenna
This book includes projects I come back to time and again. However, it is worth the purchase just for the articles, photos, and suggested supply list.
On Instagram: @art_wonder_play
My co-teacher, Ms. Marietta, and I are building a collection of art and play ideas for preschoolers. We would love for you to follow along and interact with us.
Bongiorno, L. (2014, Feb/March). How Process-Focused Art Experiences Support Preschoolers. Teaching Young Children, 7(3). Retrieved from NAEYC: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/feb2014/process-art-experiences