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