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ECE Resources

Key ideas for enhancing visual arts practice in your ECE setting

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar offering practical ideas for visual arts practices in ECE, Dr. Sarah Probine (Manukau Institute of Technology) and Jacqui Lees (Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten) share ideas about how to provoke and sustain rich visual arts experiences for children, and provide examples from research and practice.   

Visual arts support children’s thinking and communication of ideas  

In the visual arts, children can use diverse kinds of symbol systems (such as drawing, painting, claywork, sculpture, print-making, blocks, and ephemeral art created with sand and natural resources) to explore their thinking and communicate ideas to others. This can include children exploring and connecting with their own and others’ cultural identities. When children can express their ideas through drawing or clay and communicate these ideas so that other people can interpret them, they are on a sound trajectory to becoming increasingly literate in other ways, including in written language. The tangible work that children create using visual arts enables them to come back to explore their ideas many times, giving them opportunities to revisit their learning and develop metacognitive processes. 

Different materials help children to think differently 

Working with different materials to create a visual representation helps children to develop, challenge and modify their ideas and theories. For example, the ideas children have about a concept such as a mountain when using ephemeral art materials outdoors are different to those they have when drawing: when working outdoors they will connect ideas about mountains with the leaves and other natural elements in that environment whereas, when drawing, they might think about the mountain in relation to their homes, because their home is something children may be more likely to represent when drawing.

Teachers’ intentional participation in children’s art-making is important 

Teachers are an important influence in all children’s learning, including their learning in the visual arts. Children and teachers can work together to co-construct art, and teachers provide a scaffold for what children are doing by having conversations with them and giving them opportunities to evaluate and revisit their art and talk about it with their peers. Teachers can also teach children techniques and knowledge for the visual arts, based on their knowledge of the children and what they know, what they want to know and the kind of support that they might welcome.  

Using I wonder and having loose intentions empowers children’s art-making 

Teachers at Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten use the phrase ‘I wonder’ to propose ideas to children, with the understanding that they might say no – for example: ‘I wonder – if we were going to make a kite, how would we start? What resources would we need?’ Using ‘I wonder’ can also help teachers suggest ways in which they might scaffold learning or directly teach skills: saying ‘I wonder if you need a little bit of help’ gives children the opportunity to say no. 

Changing the language used about visual arts can impact positively on practice 

Resources rather than junk: Visual arts can be created with all kinds of recycled and sustainable materials, and it is important to talk about and treat these items with respect as resources rather than junk. This change in language has led children to be more resourceful at Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten.  

Aesthetic experiences rather than making art for infants and toddlers: When art is understood as the creation of products and representations, teachers feel like they should engage infants and toddlers in printing handprints and turning these into artworks. However, if teachers think about visual art experiences for infants and toddlers as aesthetic experiences, different kinds of activities become appropriate. Examples include placing a block of clay in the middle of the floor, moving paint on a table, playing with reflections and light, or looking at visually aesthetic things. 

Process, exploration and mistakes rather than product: Teachers should present the visual arts as a tool for thinking and exploring (whether that is aesthetic exploration or exploration of an idea or working theory) or for building relationships with others, rather than emphasising beautiful and finished products. It is important to create a culture in ECE settings where it is acceptable to make mistakes, and where art involves playing with colour and shape and form as well as representation.  

Teachers can lack confidence to support children’s art-making  

The influence of developmental theories which encourage teachers to watch the child unfold naturally, and ideas within the art world about the sacredness of children’s art, have lead teachers to be unsure about what they can and should do to support children’s art-making. Teachers might also lack experiences in arts themselves or have had negative experiences in the past, which may lead them to turn to websites like Pinterest to find ‘safe’ art activities with predetermined outcomes. These types of activities can be problematic because the child then can’t interpret the materials in a way that makes sense to them. The most important way in which teachers can build confidence is through nurturing their own artistic identities and finding ways to engage in and enjoy art. It can be helpful for teachers to spend time playing with the materials that they offer children, relaxing and enjoying the process instead of worrying about what the final product will be.