What Parents Should Know About Teaching Art to Kids

While teaching preschool and kindergarten, I loved getting kids enthusiastic about art by letting them paint, draw, color, play with clay, experiment with collage, and do print-making. These forms of open-ended art build a foundation in the early years. They promote decision-making, imagination, and self-confidence while simultaneously building strong fine motor skills. Most importantly, they focus on the affective realm -- getting kids to enjoy art for art's sake and letting them experience it as a pleasurable, relaxing pursuit.  After all, most students won't grow up and become professional artists, but all can grow up and enjoy creating art as a stress-reliever in this competitive, fast-paced world of ours.

Sadly, early childhood educators have moved away from open-ended art in recent years in favor of teacher-directed projects. Because many of them didn't receive any kind of arts education while getting their degrees, they're unaware of how harmful this practice is. Teacher-directed projects have become hugely popular today because of Internet sharing sites such as Pinterest. On these sites teachers scan hundreds of eye-catching, over-the-top projects that are guaranteed to get oohhs and aahhs from parents. They're the kind of projects that look stunning on hallway bulletin boards, receiving kudos from the principal and faculty. But...and it's a big but...they do absolutely nothing to help children develop as artists. In fact, they do just the opposite -- stifling kids' budding creativity by making them duplicate a sample in a boring, uninspiring step-by-step fashion.

When I was a young teacher just starting out, I worked at a preschool where the owner required us to  do teacher-directed projects each week. I hated it and knew it was wrong. Each youngster had to do the project whether he wanted to or not, getting pulled away from his preferred activity -- building with blocks, digging in the sandbox, dressing up as a chef -- and brought to the art table. Then he'd reluctantly make the project as quickly as possible so he could go back to play. What a perfect recipe to make kids hate art! 

The owner of that preschool forced us to do teacher-directed projects for the parents, not the kids. Moms and Dads liked how the projects looked -- so perfect and uniform -- and would display them at home on the refrigerator or mantle. Open-ended art, on the other hand, is often messy, experimental, and not "show worthy." It's art created by kids and looks like all its uniqueness and imperfection.

When my son was in first grade, he received another popular form of arts education that's developmentally inappropriate. Borrowing a practice from those who work with fourth and fifth graders, his teacher introduced lessons to the class about famous artists like Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse. She then had the students paint in the style of those accomplished artists. Once again, parents (except for this one) were thoroughly impressed. I, however, knew this was an example of putting the cart before the horse. These young children had never been given an opportunity to paint as themselves and now they  painting like someone else! It made me sad.

So...what can moms and dads do to encourage their children's artistic expression at home while teachers are hampering it at school? Fortunately, the answer is easy. They need a place in their house where kids have easy access to supplies for open-ended art: paper of different sizes and colors, various paints and brushes, an easel, clay and tools, crayons, colored pencils, markers, colored chalk, and collage materials. They should never force their children to do art but should always have it available as an option. They should always emphasize process over product; doing art is a joyful experience unto itself, not a means to make something that gets praise.

This egg carton alligator is a good example of teacher-directed art. This project took many days for the kids to complete, but what did they gain? Everybody's alligator turned out the same with no imagination, independence, or decision-making involved. But the parents sure loved them!

Painting at an easel is the ideal example of open-ended art.

Children make all the decisions about color, placement, and design.

They're in charge of their artistic experience!

An easel is the quintessential item for open-ended art. Release your child's inner artist by letting her have control at the easel -- painting what she wants, experimenting with color, and exploring design. Move it outside on a warm day so she can get inspired by nature. An easel makes the ideal gift for the child or grandchild you love.

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