Why Art is Important for Young Children

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Before making decisions about what to include in our arts programs and how we will go about our work with the children, it is important to give some thought to why we make such decisions. Without some strong philosophical underpinnings, our visual arts programs could be simply a series of ad hoc activities or the slavish following of a formula.

Research in early childhood art education has enjoyed an increased amount of attention over the recent years (e.g., Bresler, 1994; Kindler, 1996; Matthews, 1999; Piscitelli, 1996; Thompson, 1995; Wright, 2000). A review of the literature shows multiple forces pulling in different directions, with policy statements emerging from the field of early childhood and the field of art education. Uncertainties are perpetuated in a number of common beliefs or myths about the nature of art, development, and creativity of young children (Kindler, 1996).

The complexity and diversity of influences that have shaped views on the teaching of art can be understood as a palimpsest, a term that describes the way in which the ancient parchments used for writing were written over, but new messages only partially obliterated the original message beneath. Both the new and the original messages still stand, albeit partially erased and interrupted (Davies, 1993).  A reading of the numerous philosophies and practices of art education throughout our relatively recent history allows us to see familiar things in new ways. This new way of seeing enables the continuous exploration of new ideas in bids to improve practice, while recognizing that traces of previous thinking are not always completely obliterated but instead recur, shape, and interact with new developments.

At the site where a young child is learning about art, there are points where ideas about the child, art, and teaching meet, sometimes connecting, sometimes colliding, sometimes competing.  We have beliefs that have shaped our ways of seeing the child, art, and teaching.  Media can enhance our understanding of children and the art media themselves and how we can scaffold young children's learning within these media. 

Ways of Seeing the Child

Commonly held images or constructions of the young child shape and inform all aspects of early childhood—policy, practice, institutions—as well as relationships between teacher and child, parent and child, and child and child (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999). Some possible readings of why we do what we do in our work with young children can be explained by examining different constructions of childhood (Dahlberg et al., 1999; James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998; Jenks, 1996; Stainton Rogers, 1992).

To reiterate some content discussed earlier in this book in relation to the arts in general, let us go a bit more deeply into how children have been viewed throughout time, particularly in relation to the visual arts. Early views of the child as tabula rasa or an empty vessel shape the belief that children's early artworks are fairly worthless scribbles. With this view, teaching art is seen to lead the children on a path of progress toward realism and representation. In contrast, the view of the child as natural—as inherently innocent and uncorrupted by the world—shapes the notion of precious childhood and the idea that this should be preserved at all costs. From this perspective, teaching art requires preserving child innocence and spontaneity and avoiding any form of intervention that might corrupt spontaneous creativity.

Other views are that children are capricious, with innate propensities to the wild and savage. The work of teaching is seen to be one of "civilizing" the child, and art activities are extremely teacher-directed, leaving no room for error, experimentation, or accidents. Developmental theory also frames childhood as universal stages of development, and the teaching of art is seen in relation to developmental continua, ages, and stages, and the provision of developmentally appropriate activities. In addition, the view of childhood as a supply factor in determining the future labor force causes art to become marginalized in the curriculum, so that a greater emphasis can be placed on the "basics" of literacy and numeracy. Art is validated largely on the basis of how well it can integrate with or enhance these "more important" curriculum areas.

More recent views of the child center on democratic principles, where children are seen to be freely choosing individuals. However, if freedom and fun are viewed as the essence of childhood, it is possible that teaching art will be considered useful only if it ensures that children are busy, happy, spontaneous, and free, rather than bored. The notion of children's working at skills and techniques in art may be seen as inconsistent with a philosophy of democratic freedom. Some contemporary early childhood educators advocate the view of children as competent beings, co-constructors of knowledge, and art can be taught as one of the multiple languages available to children without destroying the children's sense of freedom; in fact, such co-construction can enhance children's enjoyment of learning (Dahlberg et al., 1999; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1994; Malaguzzi, 1993).

When we realize that many positions have appeared, remained, or disappeared, only to reappear in a different time or place throughout our history, we come to understand that we also participate in the shaping of current and future views of art education. Evolution of ideas requires us to adapt to change—to recognize the influence of current, modern influences on children's lives and how we can incorporate some of these positively into an art program. Childhood cultures, for example, are made up of interwoven narratives and commodities that cross TV, toys, fast-food packaging, video games, T-shirts, shoes, bed linen, pencil cases, and lunch boxes (Luke, 1995). Teachers and parents can often find their own cultural and linguistic messages losing power as they compete with global narratives—the passing phases of pop culture fashions. Pokemon replaced Power Rangers, which replaced Ninja Turtles, which replaced something else. Yet popular culture and the media are a part of children's cultures, and we need to depart from the idea that cultures and languages other than those of the mainstream are deficit. To be relevant, teachers and parents need to recruit, rather than ignore or erase the different interests, intentions, commitments, and purposes that children bring to learning (Cazden, Cope, Fairclough, et al., 1996).

As discussed in this segment, how we see children will affect the way we teach. We may view children as empty vessels, natural, capricious, developing, or competent. At times, some or all of these views may exist simultaneously; at other times, one view may seem more relevant in certain circumstances or for particular reasons. Not only is our teaching affected by our views of childhood, it is also influenced by our views on art.

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