"Just as the spirit of the artist is in the things the artist makes, the spirit of the child is in the things the child makes. True education helps children discover and revel in that spirit."  —Friedrich Froebel


Art experiences can be a sound and effective means in addressing the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of young children. This is particularly important for children because it is often easier for them to communicate their feelings through art than through words.

We've all seen children concentrating intently as they spread glue on paper, bursting with excitement as they discover a new way to use paint, or grinning with joy as they show you the clay sculpture they made. Clearly, art is an activity that engages and delights children. At the same time, art is an important part of development. By thinking about how children learn through art, and what kinds of activities foster their learning, you can create an exciting, stimulating environment for art in your classroom.

Addressing the Whole Child

Art experiences can be a sound and effective means of addressing the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of young children. Let's take a look at how appropriate art activities can enhance the development of the whole child:

Expressing Powerful Emotions

One of the most important things about creating art is that it allows artists to express emotion. This is particularly important for young children because it is often easier for them to communicate feelings through art than through words. Pounding paper with a magic marker, squeezing day, and painting wet shapes in vibrant colors are ways for children to give form to their feelings. At the same time that the process of art allows children to express their feelings, their creations let them share their expressions with others.

Equally important is the way creating art helps build self-esteem. Children can look at their work and think, I made this; this was from my idea. When children feel they are competent creators, a sense of personal power develops. This sense is useful in art, and it carries into other areas of the child's life and learning as well.

Building Cognitive Skills, Creatively!

Creating art is a complex cognitive process that requires children to use many skills, such as problem-solving, predicting, geometric design, and cause and effect. For example, think about a child who wants to draw a person. First, she needs to remember what she knows about how people look, then identify the important features, such as the head, eyes, and arms. Next, she organizes those features and represents them on paper through shapes and lines. No small achievement for a 3- or 4-year-old!

Just as art reflects children's thinking, it also enhances it. Consider an older child who wants to draw an ant and a mosquito. He learns about the similarities and differences between the two insects by observing; then, through drawing, he clarifies and reinforces what he has learned.

Art helps children gain a great deal of knowledge in more direct ways as well. As children experiment and investigate, they learn about the physical nature of tools and materials. What will the brush do if I hit it on the paper this way, or that way? I low can I make the foil plate stick to the wood? How much glue is okay to squeeze out of the bottle? When you offer a wide variety of materials for children to investigate freely, you broaden their opportunities for learning.

Engaging in a Physical Experience

In addition to being an emotional and cognitive experience, art is a fine- and gross-motor activity. As children create — thrusting sticks into plastic foam, forming small shapes with a marker, using a paint brush at an easel — they move back and forth between large, sweeping motions and small, discrete movements. These movements help children develop control and coordination of both fine and gross muscles. Both types of development are important for the child's growth, not only for forming letters and numbers later in school, but for overall physical movement. Offering children a variety of different materials, such as crayons, easel paint, scissors, recycled materials, and clay, helps them develop the various muscles in their arms and fingers.

Perceiving a World of Beauty

The early years are critical for sharpening children's perceptions of the elements of art — line, color, texture, pattern, shape, space — that occur both in art and in the environment. This is important because keen observation is the essence of creating and appreciating art-and is fundamental to the scientific process. You can help children become more aware by pointing out, labeling, and describing details in their art and in the world around them. You might say, "Look at the interesting patterns these shadows make."

Art in Action

For art to be art, it must represent children's original thinking. Your goal is to offer children many opportunities to create in their own ways. You can do this simply by making materials available, keeping them interesting, and, at times, presenting questions or activities designed to stimulate children's ideas. When children create, your role is to support and observe, always allowing children to direct both the process and the product of their art.

Here are ideas for creating a dynamic art program in your classroom. Choose from among these materials and approaches, and use them to spark your own novel ideas!

Providing Materials

Free, spontaneous exploration of a variety of materials is the core of art for young children.

  • Make basic materials a familiar part of your classroom, always available to children. These include easels and paint, markers and crayons, and cutting and pasting materials.
  • Add new items to spark children's interests, such as pieces of large paper and cardboard, and recycled items for collage and construction. At times, children may choose from any of these materials, and, at other times, you might select which supplies are available.

Breaking Routine

  • Altering, adding to, or even creatively limiting choices of materials, is a good way to keep art fresh. Try the following changes to rekindle interest in familiar materials and encourage children to use them in new ways.
  • Remove paint containers and brushes from your easel, and instead, place them in six-pack cardboard. Set them out near large sheets of paper on the floor.
  • Put out clay as a high mound in the middle of the table, with a few sticks and other modeling tools stuck in randomly. (Or, if you ordinarily set out clay this way, try dividing it into small individual balls.)
  • Place magic markers and paper in small baskets or trays, and invite children to take them wherever they want to draw, including outside.
  • Put out magic markers and lots of two-by-three-inch pieces of index cards. Very young children often like to use these to make multiple drawings. Kindergartners may want to make original decks of cards.
  • Clip corrugated cardboard, Mylar, or scraps of plastic remnants instead of paper to your easel. Or, invite children to paint on the outside of large cylinders and cardboard boxes.
  • Move collage making and drawing materials to the windowsill.
  • Collect mat board remnants from printers and framcrs, along with stickers and labels, and invite children to make designs.
  • Set out paper and materials for making collages, but remove all scissors. Encourage children to experiment with tearing paper into the shapes they want.
  • Offer painting using only black, white and one other color. Suggest that children use the paints to mix new colors and shades.

How Art Develops

Like all development, artistic expression follows a predictable sequence, shifting and changing as the child grows. Remember, though, that development is fluid. Children may move back and forth between stages, and of course each child develops at his own rate. The following profile describes the development of two-dimensional art, but the same progression is apparent in three-dimensional work such as collages and sculptures.