Four-year-old Michael works at the art table with a wide grin on his face. He looks up at his teacher and exclaims, "Look, Mrs. Kelley, my lines look like mountains!" As Michael moves his crayon way up on the page, then way down, creating a zigzag pattern, he clearly delights in exploring the creative possibilities of the lines he's forming. In many ways, art is the first language of the beginning reader and writer. Children usually draw or paint before they write. They use what might look like simple scribbles, squiggly lines, scratchy marks, and blobs to represent something else. The connection to writing is clear. 

Make the Connection

How can we help children make the connection between art and writing? One way is to introduce "art words." This is a wonderful way to expand children's vocabulary and teach them about the basic elements of art: color (names of shades, light and dark), shape (circle, square, triangle, flat, fat, big, little), texture (bumpy, fuzzy, lumpy, soft, smooth, hard), line (long, short, straight, curvy, thick, thin, spiral, slanted), and space (front, back, high low, near, far). You may notice that these words are also important in children's math and science explorations.

Focus on the Process

We have all heard the expression "It's the process, not the product that matters" in regard to art activities. As teachers, we know that children learn how to think and solve problems by freely exploring art materials and language. As they "mess around" with a rich assortment of materials, children create their own representations in their own way. No two projects will look the same. Isn't that a lot like writing? A group of writers may be looking at the same object or situation but write about it in many different ways. It's best to let go of the models and expectations for a fancy or perfect finished product. Children's art and writing are always unique and perfectly their own.

Look with an "Artist's Eye"

Art offers a perspective. It is looking at the world with an artist's eye that inspires children to create visually through art and writing. Looking at things this way means seeing differently.

Art is seeing

shapes in clouds

rainbows in puddles

shadows on the lawn

texture through the trees

lines on the buildings

forms in the dark

beauty in everyday things

up close, while looking far away

How does this lead to writing? When children draw what they see through an artist's eye, the words and descriptions seem to flow naturally. Sometimes open-ended questions help children's verbal or written expression. One preschool class became fascinated with the rainbows they saw in the playground puddles. After free exploration with watercolors and drips of food coloring on paper, children talked about their personal handmade rainbows. When asked, What do you think makes rainbows? the children had some interesting things to say:

  • Rainbows are in puddles because they fell out of the sky with the rain.
  • Plants make rainbows. The colors from the flowers melt down into the ground and pop up in the puddles!
  • Puddles are rainbows on the ground.
  • You can only see puddle rainbows if you get really close because the color fairies make them and they are really short!

Expressing Feelings

We all know how important open-ended art materials are as an outlet for children's emotions. A lump of clay or a brush at the easel allows children to express joy and happiness, or work through feelings of sadness, fear, or anger. Children express themselves through their artistic movements. Pounding the clay, making big swipes of the brush can be an appropriate and much needed release for a child who is having a hard day. When art is not highly planned and programmed into a particular project, children can freely express themselves through a variety of media. Your easel can be the perfect place for this. By varying the types and colors of paints, the implements to paint with, as well as the papers and objects to paint on, you offer a year's worth of open-ended art for free expression. You might want to keep an unbreakable mirror nearby for children to "see" themselves and how they are feeling. The results can be amazingly powerful!

Scribbling Leads to Learning

How did you learn to draw and write? Most of us started off in the scribbling stage. Ideally, you were encouraged to explore the feel of the crayon or pencil in your hand and on the paper, and you were not asked to "make something" that looks right or even recognizable. It's interesting that both art and writing begin at this stage. So why is it that when learning to write, children can get locked,into trying to make letters perfectly rather than learning to express themselves? With the current proliferation of workbooks for young children, we are finding children at younger and younger ages asked to make a letter "fit" in the lines or to trace letters over and over. Scribbling in both art and writing is a wonderfully heartfelt expression of thoughts, images, and emotions. Let's celebrate scribbling as both an art form and a writing tool.

Discussing Children's Art

How do you feel when someone judges your outfit or hair? Do you feel as though the person is projecting her own personal taste on your style? Believe it or not, young children can feel the same way when we talk to them about their art. When we tell children what we see in their picture and what we like about it, we are often imposing our own personal sense of style on something that may be very different from what they imagine. In the purest sense, art speaks for itself and does not need any further discussion or description. But, of course, as teachers, we like to invite children to talk about their artwork. Here are a few things to consider:

  • You can best encourage children to use art for expression by avoiding the typical. compliments ( "That's pretty!"), judgments ("I really like what you painted!"), corrections ("Nice picture, but remember that dogs have four legs"), and questions ("What did you draw?").
  • The safest way to respond to a child sharing her artwork is to not respond right away. By smiling and nodding first, you give the child a chance to think of and say what she wants to say about her work. Often, in that pregnant pause, a child will chime in with something she wants to tell or show you.
  • Sometimes all that needs to be said is a simple "Thank You." It is amazing, the power of those two little words. In this context they say so much: "Thank you for making this picture, for showing me, for working so hard on it." There is no judgment or generalized compliment in this approach, just sincere gratitude for the artistic effort.
  • An effective approach is the nonjudgmental descriptive method. This is describing, without judgment or compliment, just what you see on the paper. "You used many colors and some of them have mixed together to make new ones! I notice you made lines across the bottom of the page and squiggles on the top." This can open the doors for the child to tell you something more about the artistic elements you are describing.

Sharing Artists' Work

It used to be that it was difficult to use the work of great artists because of the difficulty of finding good representations of their art. With the advent of the Internet, all that has changed. Have you discovered the "image search" button on Google? It offers the best quick access to almost any image, including the work of great modern artists. Just go to and type in the artist's name to run the search. Up pops some mini snapshots of their work almost instantly. You can click on the small version to get the larger image and then print it. Now, you've got pictures!

Why use great artists' work? It is often easier for children to talk about what they see and feel in another artist's creation than it is for them to talk about their own. When you invite children to look at the work with an artist's eye, you open the door for seeing and feeling what the artist is expressing. Of course, this is just what we want children to do with their own work! Talking about what the artist might be thinking, feeling, trying to say sets the stage for children to talk about their own work. Use the art to help children with their writing.

Show children pictures of paintings of several artists. (Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollack, and Joan Miro offer good places to start.) Explain that artists have a "style."' Invite children to examine the art and discuss what they see. Children may be surprised to see that much of the artist's work is similar to their own beginning drawings. One class was excited to notice that the paintings of Pollack "look like the mat under our easel!" As children realize that artists don't always draw or paint recognizable things, it relaxes the pressure they feel to draw something that looks perfect. In one kindergarten, when a child started to tease a boy about "just scribbling," he responded by saying, "No, it's my style!" .

After showing children an artist's work, provide art materials for them to begin creating their own abstract art. Children might experiment outside with dripping paints on large sheets of paper to create a Jackson Pollack mural, for example. Children can paste colorful cutout lines and shapes to create Mondrian-style art. As children finish, ask them to study their creations and suggest titles. Provide file cards for them to write the titles using inventive spelling or let them dictate the title for you to write.

Creating a Sidewalk Art Show

Families are thrilled to see their children's art, and particularly enjoy seeing children's titles and writings. Consider a springtime sidewalk art show to share children's explorations with art and writing. Involve children in mounting and displaying the artwork on die playground or along a hallway. Hang a clothesline and help children hang their mounted works with colorful clothespins. Try attaching children's names to the clothespins for easy recognition. Ask children to draw "invitation cards" you send home to families with the date and time of the event. Children can help bake cookies to serve as well! Make a video of the event as families enjoy the art and writing.

Constructing Art Portfolios

You may want to start an art portfolio for the children in your class. Save any dictation, writing, or words children have for their work. When you review the work together, children will see not only how they have grown artistically but also linguistically. Involve children in the selection of the work they want to save. Periodically revisit the portfolios with children. Invite them to spread out their work, going from old to new. They will see clearly the progression of their artwork and language skills throughout the year.

No matter what goes on in your art center, the availability of paint and paper, clay, or just things to assemble will keep children inspired day after day. Swirls of color, joyous or brooding, or forgiving lumps of clay to be whacked and pounded are a refuge and an outlet for emotions, and fertile ground for ideas to take form and flight. As George Bernard Shaw once said, "We use a mirror to see our face and the arts to see our soul."

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