In the second part of Module Two, we revisit the ideas about the role of the teacher in children’s visual arts experiences from Part 1 and explore them in more depth in a reading. Then we introduce Dr Louisa Penfold from Harvard University and use her ideas to plan an art activity.
What role should teachers take in children’s visual arts experiences?
There are some more suggestions around the best pedagogical approaches for the visual arts, and the specific practices and actions that are associated with them, in the following reading. As you read, consider adding some of the strategies that you think might be useful in your context to the list you made when watching Jacqui’s video.
Teacher scaffolding and support for children’s art-making experiences
Children benefit from teacher interaction and support to develop skills and competencies in visual arts. While learning does occur through children’s open-ended play with art materials, teachers should also be scaffolding learning and intentionally targeting specific skills and complex thinking. There are a number of intentional strategies that teachers can use to scaffold learning and development in the arts.
Positioning the visual arts as a tool for thinking
Art-making enables children to think in divergent ways about a topic. It also immediately reflects back ideas to the child, so it is a powerful tool for enabling thinking and reflection. When teachers position arts experiences as opportunities to think and communicate ideas, all learners can be encouraged to engage, not just those who have existing skills and confidence in making art.
To position the visual arts as a tool for thinking in your own practice you might:
- Intentionally provide regular and ongoing open-ended opportunities for spontaneous meaning-making and communicating ideas with visual arts materials. Attend to children’s art-making, listening to and joining conversations to be present to the narratives and meanings that emerge as they create.
- Encourage children to draw their ideas and thoughts, as drawing seems to support cognitive complexity and abstraction.
- Discuss children’s artworks in terms of the message or idea that the child aimed to convey rather than the aesthetic qualities of the work or how realistic they may be. You might ask children what they are discovering about their subject matter in the process of trying to make their art to emphasise thinking and meaning-making and to engage children at a complex cognitive level.
- Use drawing as a way of making notes when you go on field trips, which can help children to focus their attention and formulate and express a personal understanding. Viewing and discussing drawings in a group can help to mediate a broader understanding of the experience for each child.
- Share an expectation that it may take several attempts to effectively convey an idea. Keep children’s artworks as a record of their developing thinking to be reviewed, reflected upon and communicated to others, and use artworks in displays to emphasise children’s developing working theories and knowledge.
Creating a community of learners that use visual arts to think about and communicate ideas
Children’s art-making can be used as a forum for exchanging ideas and to open up dialogue that is both cognitively challenging and engaging. Once shared, ideas are available for all the children to explore, and they may start to link and integrate each other’s concepts and ideas in their artworks. In doing so, children are likely to build more complex concepts as well as more complex strategies for representing ideas.
To create a community of learners you might:
- Promote a social context for art-making by providing high quality, interesting and well-presented materials in a safe and comfortable space set aside for art-making.
- Encourage children to engage with others socially as they draw or create so that they can exchange ideas about what they are drawing and support each other in using materials and resources in particular ways. You might invite a child who has mastered a technique to show another child.
- Promote dialogue in small groups around children’s explorations in the visual arts that focuses on observations of children’s strategies for learning, thinking, and making meaning through the visual arts. For example, you might note a special technique that a child is using or discuss different ways of depicting objects and phenomena.
- Encourage children to talk about, share, discuss, revisit and revise their artworks, particularly in terms of the meaning and information contained in their drawing or artwork, to lead them to construct some shared understandings. You might then ask children to use the visual arts to represent their new, modified understandings.
- Put artwork on display in ways which demonstrate children’s divergent thinking on the same topic or inquiry.
Encouraging artistic thinking processes and dispositions
It is important to identify, encourage and acknowledge children’s creative and artistic thinking. The behaviours, dispositions and thinking skills that support the visual arts include engaging and sustaining attention, envisioning or imagining possibilities, observing details, evaluating processes and products, and being playful and creative. A disposition for creativity involves transforming or inventing something and actively creating meaning, with an eye for difference, transformation and innovation.
To teach artistic thinking skills and dispositions you might:
- Support children to engage with a problem, to focus and persist with it.
- Encourage children to observe, and to attend to visual details more closely than they ordinarily would, in order to see things that otherwise might not be seen.
- Talk to children before they start building or making to help them envisage what they might achieve, and to imagine the next steps. For example, if children are going to build a city, having a collaborative discussion about what each of them has seen and experienced in a city might help them envision possibilities and develop more elaborate mental pictures of what they are going to build. If they are making a model of their dog in clay, talking about what their dog feels like, and what she likes to play might support children to create a richer piece.
- Help children evaluate what they have done, particularly in relation to their ideas and intentions, and to critically reflect on their work in progress. You might ask where they struggled or had difficulty, how they resolved that, and what they might try differently next time. You might also support their ability to examine, analyse and interpret visual images and works. Note that contemporary approaches to arts education value a focus on both processes and products, and support children to evaluate their artworks, creative solutions and the processes and materials used according to their purpose or intention, as a way of promoting learning.
- Encourage children to reach beyond their existing capability to extend theirideas and explore what else might be possible, while embracing mistakes and accidents as learning opportunities. You might challenge children to add something to their artwork or representation, for example, to add another layer, balcony or turret to their block building or to populate it with some characters and create narratives.
- Give feedback which is intentionally focused on the specific skill you are helping the child to develop. For example, you might comment on the child’s ability to observe carefully or point out what might need further attention.
Extending skills with particular media
Teachers should share their knowledge and skills about producing artworks, offer guidance, and model visual arts skills. For example, you might teach children how to use tools (such as viewfinders and brushes) and materials (clay, charcoal, mixed media and paint) as well as about artistic conventions (colour-mixing, tones, perspective, use of space). Children’s learning can best be extended when teachers provide scaffolding that is within each child’s individual zone of proximal development. This means being aware of where children are in their learning, and teaching them something that is just within reach (proximal) or an appropriate extension.
To teach skills for working with particular media you might:
- Ensure children are familiar and have confidence with art materials and methods. Show children how to hold tools and manipulate materials to support their fine motor skill development. Being present and developing shared attention with children during art experiences is very motivating for children. You can watch for children’s curiosity and exploration with visual art materials and build on their initial experimentation to develop skills.
- Use children’s individual artworks as a vehicle for discussing tools, materials, techniques and processes. For example, help children to note variations in the qualities that are observable in their processes (drawing fast and slow lines) and products (the red colour that matches the colour of the child’s shirt, or the way the smeary chalk lines look soft). In the block area, point out features of children’s buildings and help them to notice the details of a construction.
- Talk about the illustrations in picture books, thinking about the ways in which artists or illustrators create feelings and messages, and the materials and techniques they use. Discuss the elements of images such as line, colour, placement and positioning, light source, and so on. You might encourage children to imagine what an illustration might look like before showing them, or to imagine how they would illustrate that part of the story, to develop their envisaging skills, or encourage their ability to expand ideas by suggesting other things the artist might have depicted.
- Demonstrate processes and provide information in a way which inspires children to try it out for themselves and to apply it to their intended art-making rather than following a step-by-step process. For example, if you want to encourage children to develop skill in building arches with blocks, you might post pictures of arches around the space and ask children to look at them and guess how they were made. You might ask children to anticipate what problems they might have and demonstrate ways to solve those problems, or create alongside children to help them develop further techniques and skills. It is important that there is not a predetermined outcome for art activities, which can lead teachers to have a (sometimes extremely) hands-on role in managing the process or making the item for children, severely limiting children’s activity, autonomy and learning.
- Ask questions that encourage children to extend themselves or experiment. You might ask children whether they want a smooth or bumpy texture on their clay model, or how easy it will be to make the model stand up. Can they think of ways to make the clay smooth?Can they test how strong the joints are between different parts of their model?In this way you help to articulate design challenges and problems, while leaving children in charge of solving them.
- Encourage children to revisit artworks, and to add to or re-work what is already there, which helps children to expand their repertoires. For example, they might work over dry media with wet.
Attending to multi-modal expression
Young children often express themselves in multi-modal ways using speech and non-verbal communication including facial expressions, gesture and bodily movement alongside visual language. Children might provide a verbal running narrative as they draw a map, or use gesture, sound effects and movement to describe what their clay monster figure is about. Attention to multi-modal approaches can give a powerful insight into children’s ideas, interests, intentions, concerns, culture and values.
To attend to and value multi-modal expression you might:
- Recognise when children need to use multimodal ways to describe their thinking and ideas, and provide an (informal) audience for this, which can be you as the teacher, or other children. Being alert to the additional information that narrative, gesture and movement bring to children’s meanings as they create an artwork leads to greater understanding of their art-making.
- Play with different modalities yourself. For example, use a high squeaky voice to make sound effects as you draw short little scribbles, and a lower pitch to make slow, thicker lines.
- Challenge children to represent an idea in another modality. For example, challenge children to draw a clay model they have made, or to create a 3D model of a map they have drawn.
- Bring the visual arts into all areas of the curriculum. The visual arts can be readily connected to other disciplines and topics in early childhood programmes.
Active collaboration and shared engagement between teachers and children can support children’s development in visual art-making as teachers position themselves as co-learners with children, listening to children’s emerging meaning-making, sharing narration with them and experiencing their ways of constructing knowledge. This can be more insightful than asking children about what they have created once it is complete. Drawing with children (on the same surface) can be powerful for opening up communication with children and learning more about their interests, ideas, and intentions, and for offering opportunities to expand on children’s understandings and learning.
To try collaborative art-making in your own practice you might:
- Support children’s mark-making through verbal dialogue and gesture as well as co-drawing to validate the child’s work. For example, ‘I like how you made thick lines. I am going to make thick lines too.’
- Listen to, and contribute to, children’s narration as they draw. Talk with the child about what you are doing, attend to and share non-verbal gestures and expressions.
- Use the marks that you observe children working with. You might slow down some of the movements to make them more deliberate, or retrace the lines that children draw. Learn from the child, share and exchange skills with them to become familiar with different media and to expand your own artistic skills.
- Try to work together, co-ordinating marks and drawings. Don’t try to control the child’s mark-making, even if they move off the shared surface that you are using (instead, sustain your interest in the shared work which might encourage the child to return to it).
- Look at and respond to the child’s work. Focus on colour and the use of material and support children’s thinking, self-expression and communication of ideas, rather than aiming for a particular representation or level of realism.
Observing, interpreting and documenting art experiences and products
Children’s art-making benefits from formative assessment so that appropriate and intentional teaching strategies can be developed to support their ongoing learning and development. It is valuable to develop in-depth written, visual or photographic documentation of art experiences which have been closely observed and combined with knowledge about children’s home activities and interests in order to best understand, assess, evaluate and plan for further art experiences.
For observing, interpreting and documenting art experiences you might:
- Sensitively observe the process of children’s art-making (rather than just examining a finished product) and attend to the various multimodal ways of expressing meaning that children use in conjunction with their artistic process to see how the child’s various marks can be distinguished and how they are ascribed meaning. Try to develop an empathy with what children are trying to communicate, being sensitive to the artistic processes that they have developed with a medium (which may still be exploratory). Take note of children’s artistic choices, because how something is communicated is part of the overall meaning intended.
- Consider the context which informs the art-making experience, such as children’s prior knowledge, personal experiences and cultural influences, as well as the environment in which they were drawing or making, and the social interactions that took place.
- Communicate with children’s parents and whānau about children’s art-making to develop your awareness of children’s interests and activities.
- Take a holistic approach to planning ongoing visual arts experiences for children, recognising that the subject matter that children draw on for their visual art-making are a result of home and centre experiences, and can be fostered to enhance their understanding of a range of subjects.
- Store children’s artworks in a safe and accessible place so that you have a record of their development in the visual arts.
Now you have considered a range of highly intentional and proactive ways to get involved in children’s learning in and through the visual arts, let’s try putting some of it into practice. In the next video, we will look at how you might think through the different affordances of particular materials for particular artistic concepts, and some strategies for presenting these to children. We will use these ideas in the activity that follows. Dr Louisa Penfold from Harvard University describes an approach that she uses in the context of an art gallery, where she provides visual arts experiences for children visiting the exhibitions. While it is a little more structured than the open-ended approach we have explored in the case study, Louisa’s very intentional approach to selecting materials and planning the experience resonates with much of what Jacqui has discussed about the intentional practice of the teachers at Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten.
Watch a video
Dr Louisa Penfold
In this video, Dr Louisa Penfold from Harvard University explains how she uses contemporary art experiences to provide a starting point for planning visual arts experiences for children. To get started, Louisa recommends selecting a key material alongside a key concept that children might explore with the material. In this video, she uses the art of Bahar Yürükoğlu as inspiration for an art experience planned around the use of plastic as a material and colour-mixing as a key concept (if you are not familiar with the work of Bahar Yürükoğlu, watch her video first).
Note the other ideas that Louisa works through when she thinks about the kind of experience to offer children.
While Louisa uses the work of a contemporary artist to inspire her choices around what arts experiences to offer children who visit the art gallery, you can use the two key visual arts ideas that Louisa explores in the video, materials and concepts, to guide your planning without drawing on a particular artist or artwork. Intentionally selecting materials and concepts helps focus the other aspects of planning an experience. For example, Louisa plans a set of play prompts as well as things she might say to encourage exploration, and a set of reflective questions that can help her and the children to understand what they were interested in. She also brainstorms a list of art techniques that might be useful to show children in relation to this material. All of this means that she is primed to support children as they explore and create, but of course what happens next depends on observing and interacting with children during the experience.
Relate your learning to practice
Have a go at Louisa’s planning process and prepare an art experience for children in your own setting. You can try Louisa’s coloured plastics provocation, choose from the list of ideas below, or make up your own idea.
- Once you have selected a key material and a key concept, brainstorm a list of resources to set up in your own centre (make sure they are things you actually have to hand or can procure). Remember that these will help connect the material you’re planning to use to the concept you intend to explore. Louisa had various types of coloured plastic, but also tools such as pegs to hold the plastic, because she wanted the children to be able to hold the plastic upright to catch the light. Don’t be afraid to plan to include objects that are quite different to your focus material if you think that these things will help children to explore the concept. For example, you might include old frames from an op shop for children to stretch various kinds of string and ribbon across. Also include on your list the tools that you think would help children to explore the material and concepts you’ve chosen. Consider which will you offer straight away and which will you hold back to the side for a little while.
- Make a list of the actions and techniques that can be performed on those materials. For example, tearing or cutting paper, slicing clay with wire, stringing metal washers onto wire, and so on.
- Generate a list of vocabulary you can use with children while they are exploring. Making such a list now will help you to use richer language in the moment with children.
- Using all the ideas you have developed so far as well as the lists of materials and potential actions, vocabulary and artistic techniques children might use, create a set of three or four play prompts to be used at the beginning of and during the experience, and (for older children as appropriate) three or four reflective questions that you might ask children about the things they make or do. You might like to revisit Louisa’s video for ideas. Note that for infants and toddlers, just listing actions and vocabulary will be plenty, as you will want to have a more unobtrusive presence in their exploration, focusing instead on responding to their cues.
- Set up and explore this provocation in your early childhood setting with children. Experiment with the layout and positioning of resources, remembering that it is often best to keep the set up simple at first and to keep some resources aside to extend play when appropriate.
- Join children at play and observe what occurs. Remember that you too will learn about the properties of these materials if you get involved. Allow time to observe children’s interests and layer in your play prompts, reflective questions and modelling of techniques when it is meaningful. Take photos, videos and make notes of children’s comments and conversations. You might like to document these.
What were the outcomes of this art experience for children, and what impact did the combination of materials and their positioning have on children’s learning? How might you follow up on this experience?
Share something in the online forum for this module about how your planned activity went – what was the highlight for you? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt from or about the children through completing this activity?
Take a look at our full list of intentional teaching strategies, many of which are highly relevant to teaching practices for the visual arts.
Read academic Linda Knight’s account of collaborative drawing with her toddler.
Watch this webinar with Dr Louisa Penfold in which she talks through some of her planning processes, or read the short insight article based on the webinar. You can also find out more about Louisa and her work on her website Art Play Children Learning.
The important points to take away from this module are:
- From a sociocultural perspective, children’s art activities with more experienced peers and adults are key in facilitating children’s development in the visual arts. An important part of the teacher’s role is to use carefully designed and intentional teaching strategies that promote skills and knowledge development.
- A range of intentional and proactive teaching strategies can be employed to help teachers engage with and support children’s learning and thinking about and through the visual arts.
- Teaching strategies might focus on aspects of the visual arts such as positioning the visual arts as an important tool for thinking, extending skills with a particular media, and collaborative art-making.