Like many parents, I’ve felt a vague sense of panic about the cookie-cutter arts and crafts projects that most young children are introduced to in preschool. The act of gluing together pre-cut shapes and googly eyes to create the same final product as all your classmates seems to provide little more than an opportunity to practice motor skills and the ability to follow instructions (oh and to sit in a chair long enough to complete the task!). These ‘make and takes’ (as an arts educator once described them to me) were one reason we chose a Reggio Emilia -inspired preschool for our kids.
Through the preschool and the wonderful Artful Parent book and blog, I began to value the process, not simply the product of our preschoolers’ creative output. BUT I struggled with this shift in focus from product to process nearly as much. A simplistic “process not product” approach leaves parents and teachers paralyzed by an “anything goes” and “it’s all art” mentality, making it difficult to formulate meaningful feedback, or to help children develop specific skills or learn how to use art tools for genuine self-expression.
So I was relieved that Erika Christakis, of the Yale Child Study Center and an experienced preschool educator (and parent), addressed this issue in a chapter titled “Natural Born Artists” in her new book The Importance of Being Little (February 2016).
“The problem with our catchy [‘process, not product’] phrase is that [it] doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s encouraging that we no longer force every child to produce in lockstep the exact same construction-paper Thanksgiving turkey. Even the dreariest early childhood programs have generally moved beyond pure mimicry as a pedagogic strategy, and one of the basic evaluation criteria for preschool pedagogy is the absence of a model of what each art product is supposed to look like.”
And thankfully, she provides some thoughts on how to emphasize process without abandoning constructive guidance and leadership:
“The irony never ceases to amaze me: educators are willing to provide direct instruction in almost every imaginable arena except teaching children how to use art tools, the one set of tools that all preliterate children should know how to use but might actually have trouble figuring out on their own. We hide our lack of leadership behind the guise of fostering self-expression when, in reality, we haven’t given preschoolers the tools and space to express themselves!”
“But imagine what happens,” she adds, “when a teacher treats a substance like real clay deliberately, showing the children how to attach two pieces of clay together by making a wet substance called “slip”. She could show them how to hold the cutting and shaping tools and how to put the clay away and keep it covered so it won’t dry out, inviting the children to understand its properties and how they change under different conditions, experimenting with more or less water, more or less pressure – all before even thinking about making something out of it. This process takes time and requires confidence in the teacher and the child.”
“The purpose of this exercise is not to teach children how to make clay alligators and coffee mugs. The purpose is to teach children a predictable cognitive sequence they can apply when they encounter anything new: Observe, question, explore, reflect. Repeat.”
It’s critical to pay attention to this with preschool-age children, because as children get older, the majority get more goal-oriented and creatively inhibited. I’ve heard many arts educators bemoan the fact that by the time children reach middle school their creative confidence is often very low. At home, I’ve seen our 5 year old already focus her art making on the product and on adult expectations (because of her more traditional preschool start? her intrinsic goal-oriented nature?), compared to our 4 year old, who is still happy to make meaning from his elaborate color creations that have no identifiable shape.
Studies using measures of creativity have shown that creativity drops most significantly between kindergarten and third grade. Older children often provide expected responses and stop before original ideas emerge due to peer or adult acceptance pressures. And even if a child is lucky enough to be in a program that supports creative learning, it’s worth keeping Erika Christakis’ reminder in mind, that:
“…there are no limits to how [you] interact with [your] children away from preschool. Studies show that even the best teachers have a relatively small impact on children’s outcomes compared to genetic, familial and environmental influences.”
There’s so much more to discuss about this topic (and Erika Christakis’ book), but for now, I’m working on the first step: encouraging more authentic art making processes for my kids and letting them explore a variety of high quality materials to make something that has meaning for them.
Thanks for reading!
For a nice, direct summary of Christakis’ chapter on Natural Born Artists, see “Why Preschool Crafts are a Total Waste of Time” by Melissa Dahl in NYmag.com’s Science of Us.