I am, by training, an art historian. After having taught for more than fifteen years in museums, I consider myself a museum educator by experience. I do not, however, consider myself an art educator and yet, I find myself in the position of having to provide and support art based projects. I am not going to lie, I have often felt a little out of my element and concerned about creating authentic art experiences. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one. I am certain there are other early childhood educators and parents out there who dread the “art activity” largely because many of us have the mindset of either being good or bad artists.
I am happy to report that over the past five years, I have managed to take on a different perspective. I’ve learned that my art projects don’t have to have the same goals as those of art educators. I use these projects as a way to extend a theme, facilitate a creative experience and shape a community atmosphere. I don’t try to teach technique or fundamentals and leave that to the experts. Here are some ideas for getting to your own place of Zen with your student’s or children’s art activities.
Extend the Idea
In a class featuring African masks, we visited the National Museum of African Art and explored this mask from Burkino Faso. Our conversation began simply by observing the piece and then connecting the mask with shape of a butterfly wing. We then talked about how the mask connected to nature – not only in its subject matter, but also in its meaning and use. On our way back to the classroom, we walked through a nearby butterfly garden in the hopes of seeing a real butterfly.
Once we returned, I provided students with large cut-outs of butterfly wings and asked them to design their own butterfly patterns. I was drawn to this idea because it extended the butterfly theme and supported the same connection with art and nature. I also liked it because it was simple and manageable for everyone.
Keep it Open-ended
After a visit to the Freer Gallery of Art’s Peacock Room, we spent the end of class creating our own peacock-inspired painting and frame by using the Whistler’s blue, green and gold color palette. Again, this project was simple to execute but underlined the importance of the color scheme. I also thought it worked well since Whistler felt that his artwork should be beautiful. Not giving them too many parameters enabled them to create something using their abilities and to do it in their own individual way.
Provide a Variety of Materials
I think a range of materials helps speak to different children and what interests them. For example, when designing the butterfly wings I provided markers, paint and oil pastel crayons. Each produced different effects and gave the children a chance to experiment with different mediums. It was interesting to see what they chose to work with and how they used it. The opportunity to choose for themselves felt like an exercise in creativity. With that said, the trick is trying not to overwhelm them with too many options.
Like the materials, the inspiration piece has to balance. I like posting images around the room when doing an art project – whether it’s an example of another child’s work or of a famous artist, having inspiration available can help get the creative juices flowing.
Finally, I love to give children the chance to share. Of course there are times when children don’t want to share, but I find that they still benefit from the conversation. I begin by asking them to describe their artwork and then inquire about one or two interesting components. Why they chose a color? Did an element mean something? What did they like about the project? The class gets to see multiple perspectives, practice speaking/listening in a group and be proud of their accomplishments.
Want to have some fun with us? Join us for our Preschool Pioneers and create your own art project.