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


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In Part 6, we looked at how to choose materials to inspire children’s creativity and art-making. But there is more to being intentional than this. In Part 7, we start with a podcast that looks more closely at being intentional in our choice and use of materials. Then you’ll put your learning into practice by planning and implementing another activity in your setting.

We’ll also watch an interview with teacher and researcher Jen Boyd, who shares her thoughts about the particular relevance of visual arts experiences for infants and toddlers.

Our aims in this part are:
  • To explore in depth the intentional choice and use of materials for the visual arts
  • To learn more about the intentional use of visual arts experiences with infants and toddlers
This will involve:
  • Listening to a podcast about intentional strategies for planning visual art materials
  • Developing and implementing an art experience for children that enables them to explore their working theories and extend an inquiry
  • Watching a video in which Jen Boyd, an early childhood teacher and researcher, discusses the value of the visual arts for younger children

There is also a link in the further reading section to a webinar with Sarah Probine and Jacqui Lees.

Revisit your learning so far

What are some of the advantages of using open-ended loose parts in your visual arts provision?

Loose parts can cater for children’s diverse interests, strengths and cultures, and empower children to pursue diverse creative avenues for play and exploration. They stimulate the senses and support children’s ability to pay attention to materials and to the qualities of different materials. They emphasise values of sustainability in terms of reusing and recycling materials. They encourage a range of positive learning behaviours including more complex play, social interaction, risk-taking and exploration, as well as literacy, numeracy and motor skills.


In this podcast, we discuss some intentional strategies you can use when preparing and planning art materials for children’s art-making and investigations. These include:

  • placing specific materials and tools in relation to each other
  • thinking about what children could do with a given material
  • creating collections of materials that share a particular property
  • using documentation and displays in intentional ways

You may like to have a pen and paper handy to take notes as you listen.

After selecting your materials, the next really important and intentional act is how you position them. So when we’re talking about positioning materials, we’re talking about putting the  materials and tools into relation with each other. So you might put collage items with the clay, for example. And this might not be random – you should be really carefully selecting the materials and thinking about how you’re going to use them to expand the interests that children are exploring. So if the children have been making buildings from clay, you might add some wooden sticks, some little plant tendrils or some clear plastic that children can use to add into those buildings. You might decide to put blocks together with clay and see what happens when those two languages meet. Or you might put a clipboard and some squared paper into the block area, and see what happens again. With infants and toddlers, you might decide to lay out a selection of papers, and maybe you might scrunch up some of the papers, just to offer that invitation to the infants and toddlers as to what they might do with the materials. And so at Tots Corner we saw how they brought the materials from the ngāhere – from the bush - and placed them on the light table. And did you notice the base boards with the holes inside of them? And can you imagine what it would be like as a child to enter into that space and see the base boards and the holes and the pile of sticks next to them? The positioning of those materials speaks an invitation to children. 

And part of the thinking that goes into really providing quality arts materials for children is about thinking about what the materials can do, thinking about what affordances they have for children and how you might promote those by the way that you lay the materials out. So, for example, you might want to accentuate the property of length that ribbons hold, so you might lay the ribbons across the table, you might have them hanging down from a basket, or hanging down from spools on the wall. 

In relation to this, it’s also really useful to create collections. You might have a collection of translucent objects or a collection of patterned papers or a collection of buttons, and these kinds of collections can stimulate children’s pattern-making and their desire to make ephemeral art. So what might children do with a collection of glass stones? What would they do with a set of patterned papers? What would happen if you added some floaty fabrics to the glass stones, or some scissors and rulers to the patterned papers? What you really want to be doing is cultivating an eye for interesting materials, and rather than looking through educational catalogues or browsing internet sites, look for what’s around you – it might be the coffee pods that you use to make your coffee each morning, or the bottle tops from your recycling collection, or just some items that you find out on a bush walk. Work with what you’ve got. 

Another way that you can expand children’s interest and their intentions is by using documentation and display very carefully. When you document about children’s previous experiences, for example, you can support them to revisit and extend on their ideas. If you have some loose parts and you’ve collected those from a natural setting, you might like to put those out on a table with some of the photos that you took while collecting those objects. And if you discuss and talk about the documentation, you can really help children to remember and revisit and think about how they might represent some of their ideas.

There are two activities below: the first is suitable for older children, while the second is designed for infants and toddlers. Complete the one most appropriate for the age range of the children you work with. The infant and toddler activity follows the video interview with Jen Boyd. 

Relate your learning to practice (older children)

In this activity you will set up an art experience that helps children explore and develop their thinking on a given topic – in other words, furthering inquiry through the visual arts. There follows a list of options and ideas for you to draw from. This activity should continue on from the topics you explored in the activity in Part 5, although note that you don’t need to be working on a project or inquiry in your programme in order to complete this activity – instead, you can relate the activity to children’s interests. 

Choose one of the following three options:

  1. Explore changes in children’s thinking in relation to a shared inquiry. 

Here you might use Jacqui’s prompt (from the video in Part 2): ‘Yesterday you said… I wonder, do you still think that today? Or has your thinking changed?’ This might involve revisiting children’s previous representations of their understanding and encouraging them to share new or modified ideas through the visual arts. Consider whether to use the same visual language (which might more easily enable comparisons) or to use a new language (which might have different affordances for representing the new ideas, and change children’s perspective further) by offering different materials and resources. You might also have children draw after using another language, as Jacqui and her team do, to see how that creative experience influences their understandings.

2. Encourage children to take a new perspective on the inquiry topic you began in Part 5, and encourage them to use the visual arts to explore their ideas about it. 

An example from Tots is the projection of children’s artwork on a wall so that they could add another layer to it. Another example from the inquiry at Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten involves helping children to understand the shapes on a map in relation to a bird’s-eye view by asking ‘I wonder, if you were a bird, what would you see?’ You will then need to offer children appropriate visual art media to express and explain their ideas and thinking. 

3. Provide a new medium to see what additional thinking and theorising is made possible

Consider what children have been thinking about and representing in their current artwork. What other tools and media can you give them for thinking about this interest or inquiry? You might relaunch an idea or try to spark wonder by creating a provocation to use materials in a particular way (such as the way the teachers at Tots Corner projected the children’s map up on the wall). Children that have been passionate about drawing dogs might like to try to make them out of clay (‘I wonder whether we could make a dog out of clay? What would we need to make first?’) and children that are constantly building small worlds in the sandpit with loose parts might like to try drawing the pretend places they make (‘I wonder how we could show this on paper? What part do you think would be the easiest to draw?’). Remember to ensure that the medium suits the topic (for example, clay isn’t really suitable for making fairies). 

  • Review some of the videos and readings in the course so far (thinking back particularly to Parts 2 and 3 on the role of the teacher) and write down some ideas of things you might say and do to support your chosen goal. 
  • Carry out your plan and reflect on successes, improvements, and next steps. 
  • Assess what you learned about children. What can you learn about children’s thinking from this activity? Did changing media add anything new to the children’s or your understanding of the topic? What might the next steps be for further extending their thinking?

Watch a video

Listen to Jen Boyd, an early childhood teacher and researcher, talk about the benefits of the intentional use of the visual arts with young children. In her teaching career, Jen has had a great deal of experience working with infants and toddlers, and in helping them in their early exploration of a range of visual languages. Although Jen’s interview focuses on the use of the visual arts with infants and toddlers, teachers of children of all ages will find a wealth of ideas to reflect upon here.

The benefits of the intentional use of the visual arts with young children

Jen Boyd

Researcher and teacher

Why are the visual arts so important for infants and toddlers?

I think that they bring so many diverse threads of curriculum together that the visual arts aren’t just about things like painting or drawing. They are about all sorts of different things – they can be seen through a mathematical lens, or they can be seen through all sorts of different ways that aren’t just about creating a piece of artwork.

What benefits do the visual arts bring individuals, both on a personal level and in regard to their learning?

Yes, I think that they are a really good conduit to the wider world – they really bring children and teachers together so there is a not a hierarchy any more between an adult teacher and a child as a learner. And they get to use all sorts of different materials they might not have experienced before, especially very young children, and it as an opportunity for us to be with them in that moment, and they utilise all their senses. It is breaking down that metacognitive focus, really, and creating connection between mind and body rather than just thinking of it purely on an intellectual level – it is also a sensory experience.

What is the value of arts experiences for younger children?

I think it all about their opportunity to make meaning and explore questions, you know, what does this material do, what does this pastel do, what does this paint do, how does it feel? One such way that I saw this in action that really got me thinking about the different ways in which they can explore materials was a young boy who would have been about 18 months and he had discovered that the pastel made different sounds, made different movements, made different patterns on different surfaces, The teacher - she was an artist herself - could see that this was a really exploratory phase, or not wanting to say it was a phase, he was really connecting with different places and he started drawing on the table where they usually ate their morning tea and things like that. And soon other children came to see what he was doing, and they joined in, and all these different swirls and lines and things were appearing on the table.

It was an opportunity for teachers to really challenge themselves to step back from any notion of purpose and see the tabletop as a canvas, and it really became an ephemeral art experience because the children knew, we had to assume their competency, even at a very young age, to understand that the table served different purposes, and there were different ways of working with that they knew, if they were sitting to eat they wouldn’t sit on the table or lean over the table in those kind of ways. But when it was a blank surface and the pastels were there inviting them to connect, it was beautiful, and the teacher could leave that there overnight and the children would come back in the morning, and it would be an opportunity for them to reconnect with that art and explore it again before it disappeared.

I think we get quite nervous, especially we are just beginning our teaching journey about what the visual arts represent and what we should be doing as teachers. And even when in our teacher training sometimes you pick up that there should be products, that it is creating learning opportunities in which there is an end result that say a child can give to their parent or can be put on the wall for display. And being an infant toddler teacher and talking with an artist and realising that that’s a socially constructed understanding about what the purpose of art is for.
And a lot of the time it really is a playful time where you’re invited to play with the materials, see what they do, it doesn’t mean that anything’s going to come of it – it’s just an experiential moment in time. And allowing yourself that means that you’re not co-opted into this notion of a ‘craft’ experience. There is a word for it I have seen where some people have called it ‘craptivities’ which is an amusing way of articulating what they mean where a teacher can ascribe meanings – ‘okay now we’re going to do Easter so we’re going to have chickens and they’re going to be yellow and orange and those will be the paints available and they’re going to uniformly sit on the wall in nice rows’.

But I would put a challenge out there to say, do the children come back again and again to connect with that image knowing its them, knowing how they felt when they were making it, do parents understand the process, or do they just see the end result, do they know the child’s input or the adult’s input? You know those are all the challenging questions that arise. That can be so freeing for adults to remember that, to give art experiences to children and to experience them with them, they don’t have to be an accomplished painter or, you know, have artwork around them that they’ve completed. It’s about coming to know with the child.

Is it important that teachers share their own art or creativity with children?

I’ll start with perhaps the negative perception that that can have. I’ve heard that it can be off-putting, especially with older children, where their teachers have been described as doing something amazing that the child can’t do, that the child, their self-esteem suffers from that. But I would say that actually, especially if you start at the very beginning with children, that you’re ‘coming to know with them’. I keep saying that phrase ‘coming to know with them’ – you’re not placing yourself in a knowledge-providing role, you’re on that level with them. And so, if you explore, often we would have those materials out, the paints or the pastels, and your urge is to want to play alongside the child rather than trying to control anything that is happening or give as a directive what should be drawn or what should be represented. They just see it as an experience that they’re having with you.

There’s another little narrative that I’ve thought about, that takes the visual arts outside in different directions, is that it can be a conduit to emotions as well as experiencing that connection between bodily movement. For example, we had a young girl – a very exuberant and very physical child who loved to climb and to chat and everything and anything. But also, it could cause frustration because having that disconnect between ‘I’m trying to share this with you but you’re not understanding it’.

And the teacher in the room, she had a big piece of paper on the table, and when this child was frustrated, the teacher just went ‘swish’ right across this page, really strongly with this pencil. And it was kind of an unspoken invitation, and the girl was still feeling an emotion, but she saw this process of being able to make these dark, strong marks across the page as a way to get her feelings out. It wasn’t a teacher coming in to offer comfort in that moment, or to verbally express a feeling, it was using the visual arts as a way to connect with that which I thought was quite a powerful tool.

I would just invite teachers to play, to experience, to be, in those moments and that is where I think the learning crosses over between children and teachers. It is a lifelong lesson to just become more confident from the child you were at school where you might have experienced your own teachers that formed those ideas in your head and now you can break out of that mould and be a different kind of teacher.


Jen’s video helps us to understand a bit more about the potential of visual arts experiences for younger children, and especially the way that the visual arts are used in a very holistic way – rather than a focus on children’s cognitive processes, Jen talks about children’s bodily and emotive experiences with visual arts. Note also what Jen says about the experiential aspect of visual arts with infants and toddlers. Jen’s interview might help you think a bit more about the purpose of the visual arts for this age group.  

Relate your learning to practice (infants & toddlers)

While many of the inquiries described in the case studies of this course are focused on the use of the visual arts with older children, infants and toddlers can also be encouraged to use the visual arts to inquire and develop working theories. Instead of using the visual arts to think about something else, however, they are more likely to be developing working theories about the visual arts media and materials themselves, such as how they work and what they can do with them. Remember, as the teachers at Tots Corner emphasised, children need to be quite familiar with materials before they can use them as a language to express ideas. One of the most powerful things about visual art materials for this age group is their capacity to be moulded and transformed by children, and children’s growing awareness of that. This is what is so exciting for the infant/toddler explorer, and what enhances their sense of competence and confidence. 

In this activity, aim to build on what you learnt about children in the activity from Part 5. For example, you might pick up on particular actions that children seemed to be excited by in that activity, and plan this one to extend on and provide more opportunities for them to explore those actions. If you focused on children’s emotions in that experience, you might be able to draw on that learning about children to plan an activity that will enable them to experience those emotions again, or alternatively, use what you learnt about the way children collaborated to plan for further collaboration. 

You will need to be a sensitive observer and work hard to try to make sense of what children are thinking about as they explore materials. You will be amazed at the aesthetic compositions that infants and toddlers can create when materials are carefully chosen.

  • Choose one of the following three options:
  1. Encourage infants and toddlers to explore a medium such as clay, mud, or pencil. Think about how children will be empowered to transform things using the medium – for example, how easily can they transform paper or a cardboard box with the pencils, or transform a plastic toy by covering it in mud? Also think about ways to enrich the sensory qualities of the medium – for example, you might add things to mud to increase texture, or add water to clay, or provide corrugated card for children to draw on. This activity helps infants and toddlers to see their powers of expression in terms of creating or transforming something.
  2. Encourage infants and toddlers to construct 3D layouts and constructions. What materials can you offer that children can stack, combine, and put into different relationships? For example, you might use biscuit tins of different shapes as well as smaller materials to fill them. Other shapes might be stackable. Think about how infants and toddlers might be able to explore an aesthetic with the materials you provide (with biscuit tins this might be shininess, or reflection), or concepts to do with shape and space such as height, length, enclosure, and enveloping.
  3. Encourage infants and toddlers to explore a colour. Consider providing a provocation of materials and media that are only in one colour. Think red pencils and pastels, red paper, red fabrics, red ribbons, red plastic cups, red jar lids, or white lace, white doilies, white crayons, white pegs and a large white sheet across the floor. You might provide one or two things in an entirely different colour (such as a couple of black things in amongst the white) for contrast. Make sure everything is accessible for the children at their stage of locomotive development. Think about the different ways that children might compose with materials, and consider providing a space or frame for them to move the objects to (toddlers will enjoy this). 
  • Review the videos and readings in the course so far (thinking back particularly to Parts 2 and 3 on the role of the teacher) and write down some ideas of things you might say and do while children are exploring. 
  • Carry out your plan and reflect on successes, improvements, and next steps. 
  • Assess what you learned about children. What can you learn about children’s thinking from this activity? Did you see the children creating and developing working theories about what the media and materials can do? What might the next steps be for further extending their thinking?


The important points to take away from this part are:

  • Children need time to come to know a visual language before they can use it to express feelings and communicate ideas.
  • Planning for an art experience involves thinking about materials, concepts, questions, and techniques to teach, as well as being on hand while children explore and develop their ideas.

Discuss online

In the online discussion forum for this part, you might like to share what worked well in the activity that you planned, or what surprised you. What would you do again, and what would you do differently next time?

Further reading

You might like to watch this webinar with Sarah Probine and Jacqui Lees, both of whom we met earlier in the course, in which they offer practical suggestions for visual arts practices in ECE and share ideas about how to provoke and sustain rich visual arts experiences for children. You might also like to read the short insight article based on the webinar.