Today over Skype, my mom told me a terrible story about my three year-old niece at her art class. Terrible, because three year-old art should be exciting and free and spontaneous and fun.
My niece was at our favourite neighbourhood children’s drop-in art class that will remain nameless because at the moment I am very disappointed in it. The premise of the class is that the teacher reads a story, and then the children all create art around that story. So far so good, stories are fabulous provocation for art! But then the teacher laid out a sample of what the children’s art should look like on an easel, which today was a cat’s face. All of the children were to make eyes and noses and mouths and whiskers and put it together like the teacher’s model. Now, even this is sometimes okay. Teaching children how to create something step-by-step is sometimes a very good lesson, especially if you are constructing something unique or intricate, BUT I would hesitate to do this and call it art. So back to the story, my niece drew and cut out her eyes and nose and then to her dismay, she realised they were too big to fit onto her cat face! My sister noticed that she became a bit teary-eyed and asked her what was wrong, and she said “my cat doesn’t look like the teacher’s”.
To me, and any self-respecting preschool teacher, this whole scene is devastating! Not only is my niece not experiencing exciting and free and spontaneous art, but she is learning that art has to look a certain way, and that not conforming to a model means that her art is “wrong”.
Structured art (as opposed to unstructured art) is easy to spot, and if your child is in a preschool classroom, it is easy to tell if your child gets to experience art, or just to make it. If your child is taught structured art, you will see bulletin boards filled with the same artwork such as ladybugs with pre-cut spots or daffodils with pre-cut petals and leaves. I can find a million examples just by searching “ladybug preschool art” at Google images.
Unstructured art is art that encourages children to explore textures, colours, and materials, communicate an idea or story, socialize non-verbally with others, and sort through feelings. For a fabulous article on the many different languages of children’s art, try to get your hands on this:
Kind, S. (2005). Windows to a child’s world: Perspectives on children’s art making. In K. Grauer & R. L. Irwin (Eds). StARTing with: Readings in Canadian elementary art education, 2nd ed. London, Ontario: Canadian Society of Education through Art
And for some great examples of amazing preschool art education, look at the art encouraged by these fabulous Vancouver preschools, Capilano University Children’s Centre, and Little Ark Preschool: