Part 2. Introducing the role of the teacher
Part 3. Exploring the role of the teacher
Part 4. The visual arts in an inquiry approach
Part 5. Developing inquiry through the visual arts
Part 6. Environments and materials for the visual arts
Part 7. Using materials intentionally in the visual arts
Part 8. Integrating visual arts into everyday teaching and learning

Getting situated

Need help?

Before we get started on the course, we’d like you to spend some time reflecting on your feelings about and attitudes towards visual arts.

In what way do you view the visual arts? What words, concepts and ideas come to mind when you think of the visual arts? 


What did you come up with?

Your ideas about art will depend to some extent on your own experiences, education, family and culture, and it can be good to reflect on these and challenge yourself to view the visual arts through other lenses. We might sometimes be limited by thinking about the visual arts in very specific ways.

Compare your list to the one below, and see where the differences lie.

Art is… (Click here for the list)
  • Creativity
  • Self-expression
  • A problem-solving tool
  • Skill
  • Technique
  • Language
  • Communication
  • Aesthetics
  • Play
  • Exploration
  • Experimentation
  • Free
  • Elite
  • Frivolous
  • Thought-provoking
  • Emotive
  • Display
  • Cultural practice
  • Knowledge
  • Process
  • Product
  • Structured
  • Critic
  • Individual

Are there some words here in our list that you hadn’t considered?

Are there some you don’t agree with?

What does this exercise add to your understanding about the nature and importance of the visual arts as a curriculum tool?



Read this introduction to visual arts in early childhood education and note the different ways that the visual arts can be connected to a range of learning outcomes in the early childhood curriculum.

An introduction to the visual arts in early childhood education

The visual arts encompass an extensive range of visual modes that children utilise for expressing, communicating, mediating their thinking, engaging in aesthetic exploration and research. What is defined as visual arts is shaped by cultural and social values. Some common examples include painting, clay work, sculpture, collage, weaving, construction, photography, wearable art, carving, printing and ephemera, although there are many more modes of visual expression and exploration.

How do the visual arts support children’s learning?

Thinking of the visual arts in early childhood education can initially evoke an image of a child standing at an easel, thick stubby paintbrush in hand with bright acrylic poster paint spreading quickly across the page. However, research has shown the visual arts to be a rich domain through which young children can explore and represent their experiences, think through and deepen their working theories, and develop their creative thinking. It is through the visual arts that children learn about the symbolic systems of representation and communication valued by their communities. The visual arts support children’s learning in a number of ways:

Facilitating communication

For pre-literate children, the visual arts are a primary means through which they can explore and share their perceptions of their world. The visual arts can help children to communicate ideas that cannot be expressed verbally, which is particularly important for children with English as a second language. The meanings of children’s art works are not always obvious but, in some cases, the act of creating art can encourage children to talk as they work. When this occurs, both the artwork and the dialogue that occurs alongside are equally important in helping teachers to better understand the child’s thinking.

The visual arts also support children to communicate with each other, particularly when teachers create opportunities for them to work on shared projects or to explore common interests together. Such opportunities encourage children to exchange ideas, consider solutions and develop shared meanings through collaboration. These experiences may also encourage children to develop their verbal language.

Mediating thinking

Researchers have built upon Vygotsky’s theory that language acts as a tool to mediate thinking to suggest that visual arts could work in a similar way and found that children’s visual representations are more closely connected to thought than verbal language is. When children create visual arts in groups, the act of representing thinking visually allows them to share their ideas with others. This supports them to transform their understandings through co-construction. In such an environment, children can try out new ideas as well as strategies for working with visual media, inspired by their peers, which they internalise and then draw upon later in different contexts. In this way, the visual arts support children to develop their metacognitive capacities.

Developing an appreciation for diverse points of view

A wonderful aspect of the visual arts is that there is never one right answer. The visual arts offer multiple solutions to a problem or ways that an idea can be expressed. When children have opportunities to view each other creating visual arts, and to talk about the ideas they are exploring through their art, they can develop an appreciation for different perspectives and an understanding that knowledge is subjective, that there is no one ‘truth’ or correct answer.

Developing cultural knowledge and fostering identity formation

Researchers also assert that the visual arts, alongside other arts domains, are a primary means through which cultural identity and associated values are shared with young children, and argue that it is important that teachers develop understanding of how the visual arts are valued by families and communities as a basis for creating culturally responsive visual arts curriculum. For children, experiencing the visual arts valued by their cultures within their early childhood settings can transmit powerful messages about how they and their families are valued. It is also vital that children are exposed to many different examples of the visual arts so that they can develop an appreciation of a range of culturally diverse art forms within their early years. This can be achieved by connecting with local community organisations such as galleries, artist studios and important cultural sites like the local marae.

Promoting creativity and imagination

The visual arts allow children to enter imaginative worlds, to be creative and to engage in playful thinking. Developing children’s imaginations is important for learning to show empathy for others. Creativity is the capacity to develop unique ideas and solutions that are of value. The visual arts invite experimentation and exploration, and as such, support the development of creativity and what has been described as ‘possibility thinking’. Fostering possibility thinking develops key dispositions of learning such as problem solving, perseverance, collaboration and seeking support from others.

Exploring aesthetics and the language of art

For some children, visual arts are a means to explore colour, texture and the possibilities of visual media. These children relish opportunities to develop skills and techniques. Research has highlighted how important it is that children have opportunities to conceptualise their own art making in addition to opportunities to create in group contexts. This allows them the space to immerse themselves in aesthetic exploration should they wish.

Developing critical literacy

Teaching children to interpret or ‘read’ visual modes of communication is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century as children are constantly exposed to visual texts and multimodal texts. Multimodal texts are those that include two or more ways of conveying messages, such as combining text and image. Some researchers argue that it is crucial that teachers talk with children about the images they encounter in their everyday environment, discussing how meanings have been conveyed by the artist or illustrator. This helps children to understand that images, like stories, are constructed and that they communicate messages. This is the first step in developing the ability to critically analyse visual texts, a vital skill in a world saturated by images. Talking with children about images also allows them to understand that they too, have the capacity to create images, to communicate ideas to others, or to explore ideas for themselves.

Offering emotional support

For some children, art making is their primary means of processing their experiences. For these children, engagement in visual arts can impact their emotional wellbeing, allowing them transition into the day, or into a new centre environment. Research has also found that art making has the potential to significantly reduce stress levels: it is important for children to have access to tools for art making throughout the day and particularly in the morning as a means to support these children to settle into the day.

To read the full version of this research review by Dr Sarah Probine, with references, click here.

As this reading makes clear, the visual arts support a broad array of learning outcomes across the early childhood curriculum. Do you notice how many of the opportunities for learning within visual art experiences involve children’s cognitive development and language skills?

Exploring the links between the visual arts and cognition forms an important part of this course, as we advocate for using the visual arts as a way to support, engage with and extend children’s thinking.