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Preschool Art: It’s not another yellow duck

I have a confession to make…I may have become a preschool teacher just for the art. So many times, I have gone to the craft store and walked out with bags of things that I never even knew existed or even really knew how I was going to use. My assistant would watch most Monday mornings as I schlepped bags of things I bought into the classroom. “What are we going to do with all of this felt?”  she’d ask.  “I don’t know, but look at how it’s all arranged by color and tied up with a nice ribbon.  And it was only $5!  We’ll find some way to use it!”  Some might say I’m obsessed.  I love everything about it; the colors, the textures, the mess, the sparkle, and mostly watching kids go through the process!  Art is absolutely, without a doubt, my favorite part of the day.

As my obsession with art has grown over the years, I have become increasingly aware of how it is used with young children.  There is a difference between art and craft.  They are not the same thing.  Both have a very important role in the classroom, and I believe in doing both with children, but I think it’s really important to know the difference and to be able to talk to parents about that difference.

So let’s get down to it.  What is art?  Art is child-driven.  It is about the child’s exploration of materials to create something.  We, as teachers may guide the process by providing specific materials, but for the most part, art is created by the child using his or her own imagination.  Art is all about the process, not the product.

When you walk into a classroom and see 15 yellow ducks hanging on the wall, and they all look pretty much the same, that is not art.  Or when a teacher cuts out all of the pieces to make a snowman, and they’ve been glued on a sheet of construction paper in such a way that all 15 are exactly the same, that’s not art.  Those are crafts.  And sometimes, despite good intentions, they are a teacher’s work.  Look, I’ve been there.  You’re working with a child and they want to put the snowman’s arm coming out of its head, and you correct it.  This is where intention becomes so important.  You have to know going into any activity what the purpose is. So for this example, the question might be, “is my intention with this activity to let the child create something that is their own, or is my intention to teach body awareness, in this case, where an arm goes?”

Now let’s talk about the art!  I think you’ll see the difference.  Here’s an example of some lovely child art.

We put out a bunch of tissue paper, scissors, some glue, and other materials, and one of the children made this lovely piece of art.  You’ll notice that no one arranged the hearts in a pattern.  No one told the child to make the hearts into a rainbow.  No one insisted that the hearts were sorted by color or size.  The child made this; and it is beautiful!  And you can be sure that he didn’t even notice that he was practicing fine motor skills, making decisions, focusing attention, or problem-solving.  He just knew that he was making his own choices, and he was proud of what he made when he was finished.

One way really easy way to ensure that children have access to art is to make the easel available every day.  You can also make sure to stock the art center with fun materials.  I had an assistant once who found a snack tray at Good Will that we used for our collage materials. It was perfect because it had dividers for different materials and a lid for when we were ready to put it away.  The walls of my classroom were always covered in beautiful child-directed art!

Making interesting materials available to your students will enable them to explore their artistic expression.  Here are some ideas for materials that you can make available to your class:

  • Bubble wrap
  • Kitchen utensils to trace around or paint with
  • Toy cars and trucks to run through the paint
  • Marbles for rolling through paint
  • Dyed rice and pasta
  • Sponges
  • Toothbrushes
  • Felt
  • Aluminum foil
  • Q Tips
  • Muffin liners
  • Beads
  • Traditional craft items like pom poms, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, buttons, and glitter
  • Feathers
  • Gift wrap
  • Cups, straws, and paper plates
  • Tissue paper
  • Recycled materials like paper towel tubes, tissue boxes, and Styrofoam
  • Items found in nature like sticks, acorns, and leaves

It’s important to let kids get messy when they are creating, and that’s a concept that I share with parents from day one.  While I have kids wear smocks, I also tell parents that creativity will be happening in our class, and where there’s creativity, there is an element of mess.  Kids should come to preschool dressed to explore.  So unless it’s picture day, the “good” clothes should be saved for something else.

One of my favorite things to do when a child has made a piece of art is to write down what they say about it. I let the child tell me what they want everyone to know about their work, then I transcribe that dictation on a separate piece of paper and label the art with it.  I do not write directly on a child’s work because I don’t want to disrespect what they’ve created.

With all that being said, I do still enjoy and see value in a good craft!  There are plenty of reasons why crafts are a useful teaching tool in the preschool classroom. Through crafts you can teach children how to follow directions, understand spatial concepts, body awareness, color recognition, letter and number recognition, shapes, sequencing, sharing of materials, and problem solving, just to name a few.

The picture below is an example of a craft that I did with my personal children when they were 1 and 3 years old. Obviously this one was about the finished product, but we had a lot of fun during the process, too.  And let me tell you, crafts can hold a lot of value in a mom’s heart!


Sometimes, it gets tricky figuring out what is art and what is a craft–what is process and what is product, because sometimes, it’s a combination of the two.  Take a look at this finished piece.

This is a mural that several children made together.  I had an idea of what I wanted it to be, a mural that showed the roots, seeds, stems, and flowers, but the children had the freedom to paint the flowers however they chose, and they made the stems and leaves with tissue paper and paint, which they tore into the shapes they wanted.  There was an element of process in this activity, but it was mostly driven by the product and the intention that the children would use the elements of their art to show what they had learned about how things grow.  It is some art and some craft.

I plan multiple crafts, or combinations of art and craft, every week, but I also recognize that it’s incredibly important to allow children to create their own original art, too. Kids need the freedom to explore the materials and use their imaginations!

The take-away from all of this is that it’s best to plan a combination of art and craft.  In the Read It Once Again curriculum, you’ll find lots of ideas for craft activities that are related to the storybook.  These activities are not intended to be creative art activities, but they will provide children with the chance to paint, write, use scissor skills, and follow directions.  Art experiences should always be provided in addition to Read It Once Again activities.

Do you do a combination of art and craft in your classroom?  What are some of your favorite non-conventional art supplies to use?

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