"Art, especially the traditional arts, continually demonstrate the vital principle that sameness and differences always go together. A Texan and a Missouri fiddler may play the same tune, but they will not sound the same."

- Bess Lomax Hawes, folklorist

Art is an important part of everyday life. It is not only the work of well-known artists in renowned art museums, but it is also the art of distinctive societies and subcultures. This is folk art—art that develops its styles, techniques, and subject matters within the culture and history of a social group.

Many things, some biological and some historical, define who we are—gender, age, ethnicity, region, religion, language, or occupation. Thousands of artistic expressions come out of our collective American cultural roots in the form of rituals, objects, celebrations, dance,music, and stories passed on from elder to child, from artist to apprentice, and from neighbor to neighbor. Some traditions are as ancient as storytelling, others as new as jump-rope rhymes and poetry slams. Folk art represents the traditions and practices of closely connected groups, preserving cultural and community identity through artistic expressions such as music, dance, art, and craft.

Folk arts enrich our lives by:

  • fostering a sense of group belonging;
  • giving us similar experiences as a basis for meaningful communication;
  • helping us reflect on basic life questions and concerns;
  • making life interesting by creating beauty and fun in unexpected places; and
  • upholding creativity as an important value, often by utilizing existing (sometimes taken for granted) resources in unique ways.

Children comprehend their world and the cultural significance of events by witnessing and participating in celebrations and ceremonies, creating objects, singing, dancing, and sharing stories with family and community. In this way, children learn from these practices, develop self-awareness, and form relationships with others. As parents and teachers, we can help our children explore connections between their own life experiences and artistic expressions. We can also help them observe and respect their own cultural traditions and those of other people.

Engaging Young Children in the Folk Arts

Folk arts are commonly practiced by most children in everyday life through neighborhood games, songs, and rhymes repeated in play, as well as in celebrations that represent family traditions. For children, it is likely that the term “folk arts” is unfamiliar, even though the practices may be well known. Children develop a personal repertoire in the arena of folk arts through interactions with family members, classmates, and friends. It is often through games that oral traditions are communicated by young people, such as:

  • Sidewalk chalk drawings and finger paintings
  • Songs that imitate
  • Forts and dollhouses
  • Puppetry, dress-up, and magic shows
  • Fortunetelling games made from folded paper and costume making
  • Clapping games, cheers, jump rope, and bicycle tricks

Talking with your children about games is a way to begin exploring folk arts with them. Ask your children about the games they play and what makes certain games “special.” Teach your preschooler a game that you used to play and talk about your enjoyment of it. Read Bein’ with You This Way by W.Nikola-Lisa and act out the chants. For the preschooler, it is important to share simple finger plays, sing songs, and repeat rhymes that you remember from your own childhood.

While younger children simply enjoy the games, older children have the ability to analyze the characteristics of those games. For six- to eight-year-olds, it’s interesting to think about whether there is a certain way to play a game or whether the game can be played according to other rules. What makes the game special? Is there a set way to do a bicycle trick? Older children will be able to talk about characteristics that make games special. Is it originality, repetition, rhythm, rhyme, or volume that makes the game special? Encourage him or her to ponder the “how” and “why” of particular games. Together, compare similarities and differences to determine which characteristics make the games unique and interesting.

The beauty of exploring folk arts with your children is that traditional arts provide a framework for meeting lots of people, learning about a wonderful array of cultures, and experiencing important subject matter in unforgettable ways. For example, a visit to an outdoor museum like Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village might introduce children to historic artistic skills that are still practiced today. Weaving, quilt making, needlepoint, blacksmithing, and decorative woodworking are all demonstrated in outdoor museums. In these visits, children experience music, dance, and games that played an important role in the culture of earlier times.

There are other activities that you can share with your child:

  • Document family traditions by interviewing grandparents, uncles, and aunts to find out about family history. Listen to family stories, learn about grandparents’ hobbies, listen to their childhood songs and games, and investigate special holidays and family events. Make a scrapbook with your child that includes stories and pictures from the past. Include specific recipes for foods that are traditions in your family. Encourage your child to ask a grandparent to join in this project.
  • Make a calendar with your child identifying specific dates, special events, customs, and celebrations that are important to your family. Remember to include birthdays, religious holidays, and community festivals. Add events described by grandparents and other family members.
  • Visit local markets or craft shows that sell homemade objects, crafts, or even foods. Craft shows are especially engaging if they give spectators a chance to watch the artists creating their art. This firsthand view enables children to see someone paint pottery, cross-stitch, or weave.
  • Create a neighborhood history. Ask friends and neighbors about their often-told stories, artistic skills, handmade objects, foods, songs, and dances. Older children can collect information and then create a record of neighborhood traditions by taking pictures, documenting stories told, and writing captions that explain cultural customs. Note the specific ethnic traditions of your family and friends, and how they might differ from others.
  • Investigate other ethnic traditions with your children. Read children’s stories that introduce customs and rituals from other countries. Encourage your child to compare them with your own—what customs and rituals are similar and which are different? Do any of the traditions overlap with your own? Do you all celebrate birthdays in the same way? Teach respect for different ideas and people. Talk about the elements that are common to everyone. For example, people from different cultures wear distinctive costumes or clothing for special occasions or holidays.
  • Enjoy local festivals. This is a good way to see ethnic traditions in action. Find out what festivals are planned for your town, county, or region by looking in your newspaper, contacting your state arts council, or calling a local historical society.
  • Visit community museums that reflect specific ethnic groups and cultures. Many of these museums were formed to preserve cultural traditions and reflect community values and aspirations. Family days at these museums typically offer authentic celebrations, customs,music, dance, food, and crafts associated with a cultural identity.
  • Music is an important aspect of the folk arts. Share songs that are important to you and your family by singing and teaching them to your children. Look at popular folk songs, and see where they originated (for example, many American folk songs originated from English or African folk song melodies with new words added). Ask your child how a song makes him or her feel. Folk songs from other cultures reveal a way of life and expand your child’s knowledge of the world.
  • Food is often the most enduring tradition in any family, regional, or ethnic group, persisting long after community members have forgotten “old country” language, dances, and other rituals. Think about foods that are unique to your family, your community, or to the cultures of your neighbors. You may want to document these diets with your children by creating a family or community cookbook. Include photographs and oral histories to make a more complete history.

Education and Special Programs in Folk Arts

Young people absorb their own cultural traditions from family members, friends, neighbors, and spiritual leaders. Experiencing cultural traditions of others through local programs offered by museums and other cultural institutions helps young children learn about others.

Six- to eight-year-olds gain knowledge about folk arts in many settings: home, school, community centers, libraries,museums, festivals. Quality educational programs integrate folk arts into language arts, social studies, math, science, visual art,music, theater, and dance. This approach teaches literacy, civic responsibility, and cultural curiosity in an authentic, meaningful fashion. In today’s schools, folk artists share their talents with students by demonstrating cultural traditions and performing stories, songs, or dance.

For example, a local artist may visit the school to show students the art of Navajo basketweaving. Encourage your children’s teachers to strengthen school-community connections by incorporating folk arts into their ongoing lesson plans.

In elementary school, students work with educators to document folk arts just as professional folklorists do by interviewing, photographing, and recording family and community members. Six- to eight-yearolds interview family members and document their findings like junior ethnographers. As students mature, they test interesting venues to present their fieldwork findings: exhibits, performances,multimedia presentations,Web sites, publications, radio programs, and videos.

If we take the time to stop, look, question, and listen, we discover that art is all around us, often in the form of folk arts. The process of exploring folk arts with our children helps us rediscover that our families, neighbors, and communities provide rich, engaging learning environments.


Today we can find hundreds of books, Web sites, and recordings about local, regional, national, and global cultural groups and their folk traditions. Organizations such as the National Council for the Traditional Arts, National Network for Folk Arts in Education, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress strive to introduce people to authentic resources that convey accurate portraits of people and places. Individual state arts agencies employ or collaborate with state folk arts coordinators who will be able to provide expertise and information concerning folk arts.

Children's Books About the Folk Art

Rechenka’s Eggs by Patricia Polacco
A Is For Amish by Kim Gehman Knisely
Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year by Madeline Slovenz

Parent Resources

Masters of Traditional Arts, A Biographical Dictionary by Alan Govenar is a two-volume set with biographical entries for all of the NEA National Heritage Fellows from 1982-2001. Many libraries have a copy of the set.
A DVD-Rom presenting audio-visual samples of the works of National Heritage Fellows is also available.

Children of the Midnight Sun: Young Native Voices of Alaska by Tricia Brown profiles children from eight Alaskan Native groups.

Step It Down: Games and Songs From the Afro-American Heritage by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes includes many games and play songs and stories that will jog parents’ memories of their own childhood play.

Web Sites

American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
Houses thousands of photographs, recordings, and documents. Look for online collections such as the John and Ruby Lomax Collection, which has many children’s songs, and publications such as Folklife and Fieldwork, a guide to doing fieldwork.

CARTS: Cultural Arts Resources for Teachers and Students
CARTS is a Web site created by City Lore, a nonprofit cultural organization, to provide resources and best practices for integrating the folk arts into schools’ curricula. The site also includes information on the National Network for Folk Arts in Education, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides artist residencies with NEA National Heritage
Fellows, activities, and links to national and regional resources. Click on the map under “Resources” and find out about the folk arts of your region.

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Find a virtual festival, online guides such as “Borders and Identity” about the U.S.-Mexico border, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, offering hundreds of recordings of traditional music from around the U.S. and the world, http://www.si.edu/folkways.

National Council for the Traditional Arts
Founded in 1933, the National Council for the Traditional Arts is the nation’s oldest presenting organization that deals with folk, ethnic and tribal arts, dedicated to the preservation and documentation of traditional arts in the United States.

This is a Web site intended to build a national preserve of documentary films about American folk culture. Educational materials are presented to accompany the streamed audio-visual presentations.