IN CELEBRATING CULTURE and diversity, we often invite young children to look at the similarities and differences among people -- their feelings, clothing, foods, housing, language, customs, and so on. An important similarity to think about is that all humans have a need for beauty, a need to gaze at something that delights the eye with captivating qualities of color, pattern, and originality - ART!

Art is an important signature of culture. Approaches to creating beauty -- bright colors, earth tones, abstract designs, symmetrical patterns, representational pictures - vary widely, yet they often share similarities of medium or technique.

Just as diversity education and building on children's home cultures are essential and ongoing parts of early childhood programs, sharing examples of art from cultures around the world can become part of children's day-to-day experiences. In this way, you can help children understand that art from every culture demonstrates the innate human need to be creative and the beauty of self-expression.

Two Important Considerations

Free exploration of art and materials is an essential component of every early childhood program. There are, however, times when you can show children a technique and then encourage them to experiment. The trick is to set up the situation so that children discover nuances themselves. Rather than model what you want children to do, encourage them to use ideas in their own ways. Make sure they don't feel they're supposed to reproduce what you or someone else has done.

At the same time, it is important to pass on to children the importance of cultural art. Share examples of actual works of art (or at least illustrations), and involve children in a discussion of how much time and skill it has taken to develop such intricate and valuable work. Remind children that in some forms of art, the art itself is sacred and only very special people are even allowed to do it, as is the case with sand painting. Remember: Your goal is to build not only a foundation for appreciating the variety of techniques involved in creating art but also a deep respect for the complexity of cultural heritage.

There are many art techniques that are shared by different cultures. The two chosen for this article are wax-resist and sand painting.

Wax-Resist

The process of creating wax designs and pictures on paper, fabric, and also on eggs is found in many cultures. Batik is the name used for the technique done on beautiful fabrics made in Africa, India, and Indonesia. A traditional waxresist technique is the basis for intricate Ukrainian eggs.

  • Bring in examples of this art form or some pictures to share with children. (Consider sending a note home; perhaps families have some examples they'd be willing to bring in.) Sit down together to enjoy the beauty, and invite children to express their feelings -- noting similarities and differences.
  • Experiment with wax-resist. Invite children to use crayons to draw a design or picture on heavy white paper or oaktag. Encourage them to press down hard to make thick wax marks on the paper.
  • Challenge children to see what will happen if they paint over their picture with watered-down dark tempera paint or watercolors.
  • Discover the technique together, and then encourage children to explore different combinations of crayon and paint and surfaces. You might ask: "What do you think would be the result if we made a wax-resist on a weed? On a stone? On cloth? What else could we try it on?"

Other methods for using crayons or wax:

  • Children can use clear paraffin wax (found in grocery stores) to draw a secret design on white paper and watch it appear when painted over.
  • Children can work in small groups with close adult supervision. Place a warming tray under paper or cloth. As children draw, their crayon will become slightly heated, creating a more fluid line.
  • After children have used wax to draw on fabric, iron the cloth to melt the wax design in. Dip the fabric in dye and then rinse it. When dry, remove the wax by ironing the fabric with paper towels placed under it. You'll have the basics of a batik!

Sand Painting

Examining art techniques can inspire interesting questions. Why did a particular form of art become traditional? Could the materials found in that part of the world have played a part? Children may begin to understand this concept as they look at sand painting - an art that evolved from the natural materials available. Sand is a basic art medium of many cultures. Indigenous people of Native American Nations, Tibet, India, and Australia use sand and colored powders to create intricate patterns and designs that often have a symbolic meaning. Interestingly, all the cultures that use this art form do not save their finished designs. The artist may take hours and even days to create a design, but when complete, it's swept away.

Perhaps children can understand this process better than we can. After all, the art they do is often more about process than product. Haven't we all seen a preschooler paint a lovely picture and then paint right over it, again and again? Or build something, then take it apart immediately or decide to add on to it, creating something entirely different? Sand painting and design is an art form that supports children's natural inclination to create without permanence.

  • Collect photos of different types of sand paintings. There are many good ones available on the Internet. Encourage children to compare and discuss what they see.
  • Provide clean sand in a variety of colors. Invite children to explore the medium, using small pitchers or pastry bags filled with sand to pour their designs onto trays or cardboard.
  • Use powdered tempera so children can create their own colored sands. Mix the two media in small bowls, and when dry, add the new colors to those you already have. Children can use plastic spoons to slowly drop sand onto their design.

Further explorations with sand painting:

  • The Aboriginal people of Australia add natural materials such as bird feathers, sticks, rocks, and seedpods to their sand paintings. What natural materials could you find and use? Try it!
  • Native American people often use the sand painting to tell a story. Encourage children to tell a story based on their creation.