Experiencing Art with Young Children
For more than twenty-three years, it was my great joy and privilege to have been the music and art teacher of young children in a wonderful, progressive private school. Even though my title was “teacher”, I never really “taught”. You can’t, with the arts. I was really a “facilitator”. We shared experiences together and learned from each other.
I did, of course, have to teach them how to use some of the tools in the classroom, like cutting with scissors, squeezing out paint with a dropper, and using different media to get different effects. Children’s eye/hand coordination and small motor skills and muscle groups get a great workout during art activities. These are important and valuable side benefits.
This is a very brief synopsis of my art lessons. This is what I handed out on parents’ night. When it was my turn to speak, I would explain to the parents that, while this is an outline I tried to follow, things could change at any moment. It all depends on what the children seem interested in on a given day. Sometimes, a child would say something that would change the whole topic. I strongly believe in following the child. They intuitively know what they’re ready to learn and school is so much more fun and productive when we care about what we’re doing.
We learned, together, about different artists and their styles, colors, and the feelings we get by looking at their works. It was not my goal to ask the children to copy the work or the style – just to know about it. While enjoying a painting, we could discuss the way the colors were used and how a color can feel warm or cool. We could see how the artist made some things look close to us and some look far away – all on a flat surface! We could see the way some artists painted realistically and some painted with their imaginations. The children enjoyed knowing words like “Impressionism” and “Abstract”. They liked talking about “positive and negative space”, and often surprised their families by using these terms correctly at the dinner table!
Together, we saw how a flashlight would cast shadows and create highlights when shone on our classroom Teddy. We could see how Rembrandt used light in the same way when he painted portraits. We saw how a color became lighter when we added white, and darker when we added black. We noticed that yellow doesn’t show up well on white paper until you paint another color next to it and then it popped! It popped more when the other color was a bright one!
My notes are not complete. I have to admit, they were dashed off at the last minute, the night before I first needed them. I didn't name all the artists we were to cover, as I couldn't possibly have known, ahead of time, all we would do. I did forget to include photography. We enjoyed seeing and discussing artistic photographs, discussing how the sun does some of the work, and making our own prints on sun paper. Science and art work together all the time!
I also forgot to include sculpting. We used wooden and plastic sculpting tools and made the most wonderful sculptures from bars of soap! It’s incredible to see how quickly a bar of soap can be whittled down to a minuscule and very abstract work of art!
It was amusing to me that, whenever I introduced a new artist, the first thing the children would ask me was, “Is he/she dead?”. Often, the answer was, “Yes”. One day, we were enjoying the work of Jonathan Green, an African American artist who is considered, by art critics, to be “one of the most important painters of the southern experience.” Mr. Green is still alive and painting. The children loved his work and we felt so lucky that we could send him an email and tell him that! Together we composed the loveliest of letters, filled with many, many compliments (the children got competitive here!)! We sent it and, the next day there was an email for us from Mr. Green! He was happy they liked his paintings and thanked them for their kind words. What excitement there was in our classroom!!!
One of the most important things, in teaching the arts, is that the children enjoy it. Directions are just guidelines, and the children shouldn’t have to follow them. They are not planning, or practicing, to be artists. They are artists. If I suggest they paint a landscape a child paints a transformer instead, I would have felt arrogant if I corrected that child. I can’t experience their process. We can really only share experiences.
I always wanted the children I taught, my children, to know the wondrous universe we live in. To know that they are a part of it. Then, the
can flow through them and from them into the expression of art.