Ages & Stages: How Children Build Skills Through Art

Art experiences lead to more than fun and wonderful, gooey messes!

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • Preschoolers love the process of creating far more than the final product. They enjoy experimenting with a variety of media and tools, using them to express feelings and ideas while honing basic skills.
  • Young children develop problem-solving skills and eye-hand coordination by working with art materials.
  • Inquisitive preschoolers embrace new activities and the opportunity to work with a wide array of materials.

Stage by Stage 5- 6

  • Kindergartners enjoy using their artwork as springboards for storytelling.
  • Fives' and sixes' increased dexterity encourages their interest in artwork.
  • Kindergartners' increased attention spans result in creative projects that are more intentional.

3 to 4 LOOK WHAT I DID! by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Three-year-old Danny holds a brush in each fist as he paints one color on top of another. He is fascinated by the way the layers of color change, even though his completed painting is a drippy, brown mass that is almost too wet to remove from the easel. Still ego-oriented, however, Danny excitedly calls to his teacher, "Look what I did!" On the other side of the easel, 4-year-old Ruth feels very powerful as she covers her paper with big circular strokes of color, one right next to the other.

The Joy of Discovery

Preschoolers develop their creative problem-solving skills and increase hand-eye coordination through the use of materials. Enjoying repetition, young children experience cause and effect or discover how parts relate to the whole. While young threes are using gross-motor skills to manipulate blocks to construct a tall sculpture, older threes and fours use fine-motor skills to string buttons into colorful patterns. When modeling with clay, threes delight in pulling their creations apart and beginning again, while fours tend to add to their clay creations.

Tactile Adventures

Tactile materials hold a special appeal for curious preschoolers ready for new adventures. Before washing his finger paint-covered hands, Wilfred, a 3-year-old, notices with great fascination that he doesn't always need paper to draw. He can create interesting lines on the back of his hand by using his index finger. Taisha, age 4, wants everyone to come and see the magical, growing mound of soft sawdust that her sawing has created. After turning the glue bottle upside down and squeezing, Emma, a typical 4-year-old who loves to boast, announces, "I made a gigantic pile of the stickiest glue I've ever seen!"

Novel Experiments

Interested in new materials, threes love to slide their fingers along as they dab paste on paper. They might tear off a few pieces of construction paper to add to the paste. However, creating a collage isn't really an important goal for 3-year-olds. Fascinated with change, they delight in simply snipping away at a whole sheet of paper to make little pieces. Fours, however, feel a real sense of mastery when they use scissors to cut assorted papers or magazine pictures to feature in their collages. They learn to discriminate among shapes, colors, textures, and sizes as they select different materials-lace, cork, feathers, and more-to use in this open-ended activity.

Preschoolers, especially inquisitive fours, relish new activities and novel materials. While scissors help children take things apart, tape, staples, yarn, and string encourage them to put materials together. Using everyday items in unique ways, such as making paint prints with spoons, is so exciting for preschoolers that you can almost see children thinking about their actions.

What You Can Do

Here are some ways you can help young children explore, rearrange, combine, or transform materials to nurture their spontaneity and sense of wonder.

Provide open-ended, unstructured materials to choose during free play. To strengthen children's perceptual skills, offer items such as clay, paint at the easel, and various drawing implements.

Organize materials for easy access and exploration. Use see-through containers to encourage children to try different media and tools. Store items on reachable shelves to foster children's independent choice.

Schedule long, uninterrupted periods for preschoolers to experiment at their own pace. Give children plenty of time to make decisions, play, and reflect on their discoveries. Encourage them to share their findings with friends in a leisurely manner.

If children lose interest or need a challenge, add new or more complex materials. Ask parents to send in interesting recyclables such as aerosol can tops, paper towel tubes, or ribbons to stretch children's imaginations.

Encourage children to pursue their interests and ideas. Let them initiate their own activities, rather than always following ideas that you suggest.

Share children's excitement about their discoveries. Listen attentively to what they say, write down their comments, or document the process with photos or a video recording. Display creations children are proud of.

Remember, your enthusiastic, accepting attitude reassures and inspires preschoolers. It lets them know that it is all right to create and explore freely, without worrying about always making a finished product.

5 to 6 SEE WHAT MY PICTURE SAYS!  by Ellen Booth Church

Six-year-old Kristin excitedly holds up her artwork and describes her painting to her teacher: "And then the sun goes behind the mountain over here. Black water pours out of the clouds and goes under the mountain. Then the black water squishes out from under the mountain without the clouds, and then it's nighttime!"

There is an inseparable link between children's stories and their artwork. Their drawings and paintings are fertile ground for amazing stories that children tell and retell with every showing of their pictures. We all know a child like Kristin who comes running over, brimming with excitement, eager to relate the story her artwork represents, and anxious to have it all written down. Such children have discovered an eternal truth: Every picture tells a story.

Blending Skills

Developmentally, kindergarteners are beginning to combine heightened verbal skills with increased fine-motor skills to produce pictures that, to them, are worth a thousand words. During this stage, children are more verbal than they were in preschool. They enjoy telling long, involved stories, both real and pretend. These stories may flow from their rich imaginations, from something they have experienced or observed, or from their own handmade creations.

Kindergartners' dexterity is also improving, influencing their developing desire and ability to create representational art; With improved fine-motor skills and lengthened attention spans, children at this stage work on art projects with more intention and care than before. And when children are so absorbed, rich language and stories are bound to follow!

Step by Step

There appears to be a progression of stages in children's use of language and art. Kindergartners often start the process by creating titles for their pictures. You may hear a child spontaneously announce, "Here's my picture- 'Blue Bird'" or "I'm going to call my painting 'Snowstorm.'" At this stage, children focus on the essence of their work and give it a name.

Some children skip the titling stage and begin right at the descriptive stage. This is when children delight in describing every feature of the picture. The language is focused on telling the who, what, and where of the artwork. ("This is me, my cat, and my dog, and over there is my house.") There may be little or no story about the things in the picture.

Language takes on the wings of story when children add action to their narrations. Here children move beyond describing what they have drawn to telling what is happening in the picture-and beyond! Children delight in using their art for storytelling.

Five-year-old Maya wrote the following account of her abstract drawing of lights and colors that represented a kind of vehicle she would like to invent: "A flying light. You sit right down, and there is a little button, and you press it. Then it starts flying! I would like to fly to my Grandma's on the flying light."

As you can see, Maya used many of the stages of storytelling-from describing the picture to adding action, character, and time-in order to create a magical story. She also used important reading and writing skills in the process. Using pictures to decipher text is an important literacy skill. When children create their own stories from their pictures, they are using pictures to generate text.

What You Can Do

Here are three key ways you can help kindergartners connect their pictures to words and stories:

Be an active listener and observer. Some children may choose to dictate their stories to a scribe-either you or a volunteer-while others enjoy writing them down in their own way. Still others may want to tell the story themselves, repeating it over and over to any listening ear. Whatever method they choose, your role is to witness their creation by fully listening, supporting, and responding.

Invite the child to share the story with the class. Whether or not the story is written down, celebrate it at group time. This helps build the artist's self-esteem and provides a new tale for others to enjoy.

Display children's stories along with their art in your classroom gallery. Then look around-you will be surrounded by the work of great masters!

  • Subjects:
    Cleverness, Arts and Creativity, Hobbies, Play, Recreation, Creativity and Imagination, Learning and Cognitive Development
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