The Day School’s approach to early childhood education is rooted in constructivist-progressive pedagogy. Every aspect of our school – curriculum, teaching style, physical environment and practice – is centered on our “image of the child”, a term adopted from our colleagues in Reggio Emilia. It is not a new way of thinking for us, but a very clear statement of our organizing principle:
We believe children are inherently competent, that they are born with all the potential capabilities they need in life to learn, to aspire, to love – to succeed as human beings. We also believe that children’s intellect is expressed not just verbally but in many non-verbal ways, including music, art, and materials construction and through manipulation of elemental sensory materials such as sand, water and earth.
Through observing and studying children while they are engaged with materials, we see that they are creating concrete representations of their theories, ideas and understanding of how things work in the world. Individualized attention is the key to supporting each child’s natural unfolding, revealing who they are meant to be.
The Importance of Play
Play is the work of children! Through their play they are experimenting, imagining, constructing and re-constructing their understanding of what the world is all about and who they are within it. Their play is purposeful and inquiry driven. Children form and test hypotheses about what people do and how.
They create costumes and have conversations that imitate what seems to be most important to the adults in their lives. They call, make appointments and write restaurant menus. They cook, put band-aids on baby dolls and rock them to sleep. They chat on the telephone and fill up handbags with paper to go to work. They use Metrocards to board buses of lined up chairs and drive to Florida.
Children’s block building reflects the intent to discover the physics of gravity and balance and also reveals their observation of living in a built environment.
There is sheer sensory pleasure in squishing play dough, squeezing gooey cornstarch or slippery gak. At the same time, children develop muscle strength and the ability to discriminate touch and texture through these substances.
Experimenting with the materials of art is a nearly perfect intersection of all that play can provide: the joy of sensory exploration, the delight of discovery, the purposeful use of materials to represent ideas and emotions, plus skill and concept development.
Children are also very attracted to things in and of the natural world. They have an affinity for living things and objects from nature. Research indicates that young children dream about animals more than anything else and have an instinct to explore natural settings. Blake, Shelley and other Romantic poets believed that children have a sense of unity with animals, trees, wind, earth and water, a “primal sympathy” according to Wordsworth. Contact with nature and natural elements inspires children’s art and poetry and stimulates their powers of observation. It also has a calming, quieting effect.
We respond to children’s need for nature by “bringing the outside in” as well as taking the children outside. Lima bean plants climb and twine around windows. Tiny pumpkins have emerged in an old fish tank. Clusters of snails undulate in terrariums, caterpillars spin chrysalides and children dig their hands in dirt and sand, splash in water, and smell and taste products of the earth. They visually and physically explore what is growing in the park or has fallen on the ground.
Children are happy, enthusiastic and focused when they are able to engage in tasks that develop the capabilities which are motivated by their authentic interests and emotions. According to psychologist William Crain, “we help children the most by giving them opportunities to work on problems they find most interesting.” Educational theorist Jean Piaget said, “In order for a child to understand something, [she] he must construct it for [herself] himself, [she] he must reinvent it... if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of creativity and not simply repetition.”
The Importance of Art
Many areas of the early childhood classroom provide children with materials with which to recreate their experiences and develop concepts such as pattern, color and symmetry and the visual aesthetic of composition. But it is through using art materials that creative expression finds its deepest, most satisfying outlet.
Art as Sensory Exploration
Art is a component of most early childhood classrooms. Typically, children paint with brushes and their hands, draw with crayons and markers, make collage and perhaps use clay. However, when children have frequent, unstructured encounters with art media, over time they acquire the facility to represent their understanding of the world and to reveal their thinking.
Sensory exploration – without an adult planned outcome – is the finest, most natural way for a child to discover what these visually, tactilely appealing things can do (“Oh – it drips!”), how they can control them (“I made a mark!”) and what they can create (“My red and yellow turned orange”).
Young children instinctively use their senses to explore and learn about the world. The basics of early childhood art – painting, drawing and working with clay and collage – provide rich possibilities for sensory exploration. Each material offers a different way to express feelings, construct knowledge and encourage skill development, and also provides different problems to solve. When engaging with these simple materials, a child is simultaneously in pursuit of two important developmental goals: acquiring creative self-confidence and gaining practical skills for immediate and future use. Purposeful use of paint and clay derive from the child’s gradual ability to control the medium through multiple encounters with these substances.
Art as Developmental Tool
Within each encounter are opportunities for discovery, change and degrees of mastery, so these materials remain interesting and useful to children at all stages of development. Skill, experimentation and refinement come with trying different techniques and tools. Paint is applied with fingers and feathers, brushes and brayers. The development of eye/hand coordination is assisted by the practice of applying paint to paper. Squeezing, pounding, rolling and poking moist clay help strengthen small fingers and hands that later will be able to comfortably control a pen or pencil to produce the symbols of written language. Precisely placing and pasting small bits of paper, wood shavings or found objects in collage work is practice in selecting and organizing materials. Manipulation of clay is a soothing, tactile activity which helps children relieve tension and expend energy while experimenting with three-dimensional form.
It is with the tools of drawing that we can readily see the skill practice that helps the child become ready to write, and the developmental progression from symbolic to representational work. Before nursery school age, a child with a crayon or marker will produce vertical marks on a piece of paper. These marks are the result of how the child is able to move at this age; the hand is primarily controlled from the shoulder. The joy and satisfaction of discovering the wonderful ability to produce marks encourages repetition and leads to control of the wrist motion. Experimenting with this new ability leads to more complex drawings: circles decorated with lines and marks, such as crosses and rays. As even more physical control is developed, the results of crayon and marker use, as well as painting and clay work, begin to be more pictorial and representational.
Art as Non-verbal Language
Expressive art taps and explores a child’s internal imagery. Fostering observational skills and techniques supports a child’s desire to represent what is seen. Both are personal and creative, reflecting the child’s esthetic choices and perception of reality in how and what they are representing. The context for working with art materials is often provided by the topics or studies a class is involved in; art is an integral part of that exploration. This takes the form of modeling clay animals and their habitats, drawing and painting dragons, and looking closely at the shapes, colors and contours of vegetables before they are turned into soup. Through their artwork, children come to a better understanding of the world around them. Feelings, ideas, theories and technical experiments are facilitated through drawing, paint, clay, collage and construction.
The process and product of art making is, therefore, a nonverbal language enabling even the youngest children to communicate well beyond their verbal abilities. Listening to children’s art requires respect for their innate capabilities and certainty that children do not need us to give them ideas. They need us to engage in meaningful conversation about their art, offering our attention, interest and opportunities to build knowledge.
Art as Personal Expression
Plurality of materials, and stretching our expectations of what children can do, open the way to exciting investigations with tape, string, wire, paper, plastics and found objects in addition to the basics of paint, crayons and clay.
As Martha Graham once said, “[A]rt is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.” Given enough time, variety and attention, every child will find the most appropriate dialect for their personal expression of ideas and feelings within the many languages of art.