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Art and Young Children
If you’re at all like me, it’s been a long time since you saw the door or sides of your refrigerator. Mine is covered with magnets holding “priceless” bits of children’s art. From time to time I change the exhibit, not because I am tired of the masterpieces featured there, but because new ones come in at a rapid rate. From the time they can hold any sort of implement that can make a mark on paper (or a wall), children love to draw, paint and mold—and to have you register approval and appreciation of their efforts.

Our efforts to produce pictorial representations of objects and events come from somewhere very deep in the human psyche. Reflect on the fact that the earliest artifacts we have of attempts by humans to provide a record of their existence and their lives are paintings found on cave walls that date back some 15,000 to 20,000 years. After all, if you have no alphabet, no concept of writing, and maybe not too many words, pictures represent all you can do to relate events and feelings.

A few years ago I visited the cave of El Castillo in northern Spain, awestruck by the array of hand prints splattered all over the walls. The sight immediately made me think of how 3- and 4-year-old children delight in making hand prints with finger paints—prints that look very much like those of their prehistoric counterparts. The cave also contained representations of humans and animals important to the tribe, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the prevalence of so many hands meant that the artists were boasting about the wonders they could accomplish with that magic appendage. Nothing has changed; it is still a miracle.

Encouraging Artistic Expression

As parents, we want to do everything possible to encourage our young children to explore the arts and to express their feelings and interests via this medium. I have a few suggestions that will help in this task.

Provide implements and materials. Children have to have something to be artistic with. And it won’t cost a lot to provide simple materials they can use. From around 2 years on, they enjoy making marks and squiggles on a piece of paper. And usually they’re through with a sheet of paper after making one squiggle! So don’t hesitate to let them get started with paper that would otherwise go straight into the trash or recycle bin. Without intending to, I waste a great deal of computer paper, which I save for my grandchildren to use for drawing and painting. And a set of crayons or colored pens will delight them for years. Make certain to provide only non-toxic crayons and paints, as they are quite likely to find their way into your child’s mouth. And I would sit with a child younger than about 3 during any coloring activity. After that, many children will draw, paint or color for a half-hour or longer with limited supervision.

Drawing and coloring are early activities that young children greatly enjoy, but they also love to paint and make 3-dimensional objects with modeling clay. Children who attend an early childhood program for the first time are often more fascinated by the easels and painting aprons than anything else, and they usually wait impatiently for their turn at an easel. Not all homes have the luxury of enough space to allow much easel painting, so you might want to leave that as a special treat for your child to experience at school. But finger-painting takes little space and can be done on a Formica table and then washed off. And I’ll give you a finger-painting “recipe” that babies of 12 to 18 months will love: Drop spoonfuls of yogurt on the highchair tray table, stand back and watch genius unfold. As much will get tasted as painted with, but your baby will love it. If nothing happens at first, move a bit of it around and help your baby get the idea.

Comment and display. Art activities are rewarding in and of themselves, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to brag about each one. But find something to say that lets your child know that you appreciate what is being done. We know that we have to resist the urge to ask, “What is that?” when a drawing is brought to us. And we know not to say, “That doesn’t look like daddy to me,” if a drawing is produced with the announcement, “That’s daddy.” A good comment is simply something like, “Tell me about your drawing.” Even better would be, “Tell me a story about your drawing (painting).” If nothing is forthcoming, handle it in a very matter-of-fact manner and say, “Sometimes we don’t need to say anything about our drawings, do we?” And, as your refrigerator won’t be able to handle the entire output of an artistically inclined preschooler, you might want to ask each time one is submitted, “Shall we put this on the refrigerator?” Your child might surprise you by commenting, “No, it’s not very good.” If that happens, just say that you’ll put up the next one. If you save it, be sure to date it.

What about lessons? Art educators are pretty much in agreement that no formal art instruction should be offered to preschool children. But this doesn’t mean that participation in art classes should be delayed until elementary school. Many museums offer classes for very young children. These essentially involve exposure, encouragement and opportunity. In small groups the children are exposed to a variety of art forms and are given an array of materials with which to make their own creations. If the museum in your city has such a program, give it a try with your children.

What about coloring books? This is perhaps the question that parents ask more than any other when I speak to a group about art with young children. Most early childhood educators are rabidly opposed to them; I am not in that group. I consider them one medium, just like paints and crayons. But I would not use them with a child younger than 4; prior to that age, they don’t have the muscle control—or the desire—to “color within the lines.” After that point, they like to see evidence that their skills are improving, and a coloring book offers them proof that they are becoming more able to control their marks on the paper. Incidentally, coloring books are wonderful to take along in the car on vacation trips. Not only will they help keep the children occupied; they can be “reviewed” later in the evening for story time.

Pay attention to the content and structure of the drawings. Finally, let me remind you that drawings and paintings are important and revealing personal documents. They tell us a great deal about how children see themselves and others. The eminent psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry obtained drawings from many of the children who survived the Branch Davidian tragedy. They often drew themselves as very small and inconsequential in relation to others in the picture. And many were, of course, preoccupied with fires and guns in their drawings. Not every picture produced by a young child is a window to that child’s inner self—it may, after all, simply reflect the TV show most recently watched—but repetitive drawings and paintings of feared events can alert us to a child’s need for security and reassurance. After all, isn’t one picture supposed to be worth a thousand words?

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education