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A few weeks ago I came across a blog I didn’t want to leave for a very long time. Would you believe your luck if you discovered a treasury of detailed clear-cut instructions of how to teach children to draw illustrated with photographs of real-life works and accompanied with a printer-friendly version? Well, I couldn’t.
The blog "Art for Small Hands" is run by Julie Voigt who has taught art for over twenty-five years in public, private, and Montessori schools, both in the United States and Hong Kong. Julie has a degree in art education and her teaching experience spans pre-school children through eighth-grade. I am happy to have Julie as a guest.
Julie: When I write “what children know about art,” I am referring to each child’s innate sense of art. Seeing the world through uninhibited eyes, children seem to have a natural sense of balance and order. As we grow older, we tend to lose this naturalness. The artist Pablo Picasso suggests this when he said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
There is great joy in interacting with children, helping them to develop their creativity, and experiencing their unique solutions to assignments. The challenge is to teach without inhibiting their natural creativity – to find the right balance between providing instruction while still allowing freedom for each child to express his or her own vision. As instructors, we want to stir the children’s minds with ideas and teach them how to use materials in a way that does not hinder their abilities to think of their own solutions.
Julie: Stencils actually serve the same purpose as pre-cut shapes. When children are learning to draw, why would you give them a shape to trace? Stencils give predetermined outcomes, not allowing the child to express his/her own solutions.
Julie: Your child's activity of tracing shapes is useful as an exercise to develop manual dexterity, but it is not art. Show your daughter a real fish and talk about its characteristics, such as fins, tail, scales, and round eyes. Then have her draw a fish as she interprets it - that is art.
When teaching art, I prepare the children to take on the task I have requested by giving them enough instruction to do the project without hindering their vision. If children want to trace or copy, I tell them that their interpretations are what we want to share. I convince them to try the project on their own and that I will be around to talk through any problems they may come across. Once the child gets started, I'm rarely called upon to intercede.
Julie: I'm having trouble answering your question because the situation you describe is so far removed from how art should be taught. When I see the freedom and joy in Dasha's drawing of fern, I can't imagine guiding her to see the fern through someone else's eyes. No, I would never ask students to repeat brush strokes after me. Instead, I would teach the children the many ways that a paint brush can be used to create thick or thin lines, curvy or zigzag lines, broken or jagged lines. I would discuss the characteristics of the fern and then allow the children to paint their own vision.
Art is a process of self-expression where children explore and discover, producing unique and original results. Since each child is different, successful lessons need to allow for a wide variety of solutions. Guiding children with step-by-step instructions is uninspiring and a lost opportunity for the children to develop their own solutions. As science writer Roger Lewin said, "Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve."
Julie: While the children are working, I travel around the classroom giving help and advice in the form of open-ended questions, encouraging the children to come up with their own answers and solutions. When the projects are completed, we display them so each child can tell us about his/her work. We discuss what worked best, what might have been done differently, and what the children learned in the lesson.
Julie: Spending time at home with your child and sharing activities is very rewarding for both of you. However, when teaching art in the classroom, working side-by-side with adults hinders the children's abilities to think of their own solutions - and worse, they often attempt to imitate the adult's vision at the expense of some wonderfully unique and charming art.
Julie: Having taught art for almost 30 years, there are too many wonderful art works to choose a favorite. However, I can address a few of the most successful lessons.
Self-portraits - The children do exercises to learn about the proportions of their bodies and then draw self-portraits. Looking into mirrors, we discuss each child's individual characteristics like glasses, freckles, and hair type. The children take great pride in drawing their own images.
Drawing with contour lines - As fruit is cut or eaten, the children record changes in the contour lines. In this lesson, the children work from observation and loose any inhibition about drawing because they are having so much fun eating the fruit!
Papier Mache Hand Puppets - As the children work, they develop a personal attachment to their puppets and love planning a "puppet show" with the class.
Storytellers - In the tradition of the Pueblo Indians, the children make clay figures depicting storytellers passing along their legends while children gather round to listen.
Note that in all of these lessons, the children's solutions to the assignments are unique and delightfully different.