I recently got a great compliment from a parent. At least I think it was a compliment. She said, “I love that you have these random art projects!” Now, as I said, I do believe she sincerely meant it as a complement, but it got me wondering. Certainly I can see how creating collages with seeds, fingerpainting with colored shaving cream , and dropping colored water on coffee filters may seem a little random, but random as compared to what? I think when most people envision preschool arts, they see the paper plate snowmen, the construction paper alphabet train, and woven paper place mats. These aren’t actually arts, they’re closer to crafts. Now I’m not saying crafts aren’t appropriate for preschoolers, I quite enjoy making paper plate snowmen and I think the children do to. I just hate to see crafts used at the exclusion of art. Let me explain how I see them as different.
A Crafty Plan. Crafts are more teacher directed. Whether for supervision, help with a technique, or providing step-by-step instructions, an adult’s help is usually needed for crafts. Though it is important to provide some kind of opportunity for variation and choice, crafts generally need to be done a certain way to create a certain “object”. There is a bit more emphasis on the outcome being something (a tree, a frame, an ornament). Often, we do crafts when we’re creating a parent gift with the children. We want it to be something so that it has a purpose as a gift. This has some benefits. It is certainly not a bad thing for children to learn how to follow directions, and they usually have a great sense of self-satisfaction when they complete their product. They also learn techniques that are often implemented in independent art projects later. But to do only crafts and call it art gives our children the short end of the stick. In fact, constant focus on crafts can muzzle creativity and leave children feeling discouraged.
Express Yourself. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t read Bev Bos’s book, Don’t Move the Muffin Tins, until recently, but I’m convinced that I was taught her philosophy for art by my own mentors during my undergrad. I think Bev distinguishes between the two best when she says, “I make my own distinction between “art” and” craft” by asking how much participation by an adult is needed once I have presented materials. When the activity is truly art and genuinely creative, all I have to do is to put a name on the paper or perhaps stand by to add to the supplies.” (page 2)
That’s how I judge my art activities. If I really want to foster creativity I simply need to focus on providing tools and media and watch how the children put them together. They don’t need me to tell them how the end result should look any more than Monet would! As a matter of fact, I have always taught and been taught that providing models for the children stifles their creativity and causes frustration, but I love Bev’s example of setting out something like a Van Gogh for teachers and asking them to copy it. That’s what it’s like for children looking at our own versions of their projects. It’s demeaning and intimidating. True art activities honor the artist.
Often times, the satisfaction and expression comes in the process of doing the art. It is not uncommon for children to spend tens of minutes on a project, and then show no interest in taking it home. They have mixed colors and tried every utensil and now that their paper is caked and finally dried, they tell you they don’t need it.
For them, it was about the experimentation, the sensory input, and the experience. They weren’t looking for something to hang on the fridge. They were looking for something to unload their feelings and energy on. They wanted something to explore. They wanted something to control. The “product” is often something only we adults see.
So take another look at your art activities. Do you see product or process? Mentally create a spectrum with “true art” on one end (child-driven, teacher simply provides and monitors supplies) and “complete craft” on the other(teacher directed, step-by-step with identical outcomes expected). As you plan, take time to evaluate where your art activities fall on that spectrum. For the benefit of your children, make sure you’re providing enough “random art projects”.