Thursday, February 3, 2011

Art is the Root Word of "Start"

The first children, besides my own, that I ever tried to teach art to were the son and daughter of good friends.  The 6-year-old son, Cooper, was a bright, likeable child.  Much to my dismay, in the middle of each of our drawing lessons, Cooper would burst into tears and refuse to draw anymore, often negatively comparing himself to his older sister who seemed to do everything perfectly. Cooper’s outbursts were usually precipitated by a mark that he perceived as an irreparable “mistake”.  (I had the children purposely draw with pens or markers to avoid erasing.) At first, I was at a loss as to how to help him and a bit frustrated over his behaviour.  Eventually, I took the course of action recommended by Mona Brookes in “Drawing with Children”.  I constantly repeated the mantra that “there are no mistakes in art – only changes to be made” and tried to help Cooper think through what changes he could make to end up with a drawing that he was satisfied with and that expressed his thoughts.  Eventually, Cooper stopped the crying spells and began to understand how he make changes to his drawings that led to more exciting possibilities. This process with Cooper was an important lesson for me in observing one of the most valuable skills that children can learn through art:  problem solving.

So why is art important in a child’s education and why is it important in the church?  I will begin by answering the first question. (The second question will be another blog entry!)  Art assists children in developing foundational skills that will overflow into all other academic and practical areas of their lives.  Art is the root word of “start”.  Quite simply, art gives children a place to start.  A place to start developing language skills.  A place to start learning to solve problems.  A place to develop perseverance by seeing a project to its logical end.  Not to mention, that it is a fun place to start!

Art author and educator MaryAnn F. Kohl identifies 5 areas where children develop life skills through art:  communication, problem solving, social and emotional, fine motor, and self-expression / creativity.  I have written much in this blog about language development in young children.  Children are sensorimotor learners who have the ability to reflect, but lack the language skills to express themselves.  Here, art, be it visual or performing arts (music, dance) can help children express ideas that their tongues can not yet readily put into words.  And their art teachers, by asking the right questions, can help them begin to talk about their work.  Mona Brooks also writes that teachers have reported “dramatic increases in letter recognition and reading readiness” as well as increased motivation to read when art is combined with other subjects. (For details on the other areas, see Kohl’s article, “The Importance of Art in a Child’s Development”.)

Just as nature has a calming effect on children that increases concentration, Brookes also writes that children with attention deficit disorders also experience increased concentration when working on art projects.  Brooks herself was a teacher for at-risk students with learning disorders and writes of their progress in “Drawing with Children”. (Read more in the article, “Teaching Basics Through the Arts”.)

Jo Murphy, an art educator in Brisbane, Australia, drawing on the work of John Dewey and Elliot Eisner, writes that art teaches students to make judgements about qualitative relationships in the world, thereby increasing their problem-solving skills and ability to interpret their world. (Read the full article, “Creative Arts Develop Problem-Solving Skills”.)

Another great article to read on the benefits of fostering creativity and the hindrances to it is “Creativity in Young Children” by Sara Gable.

My own son is also now in a perfectionist phase where he frequently bursts into tears at having made a “mistake”.  This time around, though, I realize that it is an important part of his development.  And he is starting to problem-solve rather than being paralyzed by his mistakes.  A good start indeed. 

The following pictures are my children's rendition of a wonderful winter art project from Gail at That Artist Woman.  My son had his latest opportunity to problem solve while working on this project. 

Before: there were lots of tears when my son in a hurry to finish picked up a paintbrush and used black paint to paint the polar bear's features.  After what seemed like an eternity, he calmed down and began to think with me how he could change it.

After:  he decided to let the white and black paint dry and then paint over  what he didn't like with white paint.  Then, he drew the new facial features in with a pencil.  We were both pleased with  the result!

And just for fun, here is my 5-year-old daughter's painting.  I was so pleased with her polar bear stencils that she drew all by herself!


  1. Hey Shelia
    The Polar Bears look terrific, Thanks so much for describing the "process" your son went thru...let him know that many artists(myself included) go thru these challenges and his bears turned out wonderful, I also love your 5 yr olds with the smiles! Would you be interested in letting me post these photos in the art gallery on my sidebar with a link back to you?
    Thanks for your link to me and I am so glad you gave the Polar Bear project a try.
    Take care

  2. Hi Gail, Thanks for the encouragement for my son! I'll e-mail you the pictures and I'd be honored to have you post them on your site.