Killing Our Kids' Creativity: How We're Teaching Art All Wrong to Our Young Children
The Push-Down Curriculum in Arts Education Stifles the Imagination, Independence, and Initiative of Young Children
When my son was in kindergarten, his school had a program called “Art in a Box” whereby a presenter came to class, taught about a notable artist (Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse), and then had the children create something in that artist's style. Parents at the school raved about the program, so enthralled that their kids were being exposed to famous artists at a young age and were producing work worthy of being framed and hung in their homes. As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, though, I had my reservations, knowing the program was a prime example of a “push-down” curriculum and feeling sad that our young children's imagination, independence, and initiative were already being compromised. For Pete's sake, they were 5-year-olds who hadn't even touched on their own talents and expressions as creative beings and now they were required to copy someone else!
What Is a Push-Down Curriculum in Arts Education?
In general, a push-down curriculum forces children to learn as much as possible as early as possible so they perform well on standardized tests. In arts education, the push-down curriculum has greatly reduced or even eliminated many of the art activities that were once commonplace in preschool and kindergarten such as painting, drawing, coloring, and creating with clay. Teachers are pressured to present structured lessons, not provide hands-on experiences.
Art for Young Children Should Be About Expressing Themselves and Enjoying a Soothing Experience
I often hear parents talk about the push-down curriculum in our schools although they don't use that term. It frightens me how resigned they are to it, even though they instinctively know it's misguided. I'll hear them say what's now taught in kindergarten was once taught in first or second grade. I'll hear them worry that their kindergarten child is in the low reading group so they're taking her for after-school tutoring. I'll hear them boast about their kid using an iPad and laptop in kindergarten but knowing deep-down she should be painting, playing, and pretending. This push-down curriculum breaks my heart for our young learners in all subjects but nowhere more than in arts education. Children need opportunities to express themselves freely and enjoy the relaxing experience of creating, especially with open-ended art activities.
What Are Open-Ended Art Activities?
Open-ended art activities (coloring, drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpting with clay) promote a child's imagination, initiative, and independence. They're the opposite of the crafts we typically see in elementary schools: the tree made from a youngster's hand print, the alligator made from an egg carton, and a bunny made from cotton balls. While these projects are adorable, they're taught in a robotic step-by-step fashion so they all look the same and promote little creativity.
What Is the Purpose of Open-Ended Art in a Young Child's Life?
Only a small percentage of youngsters will grow up and make money from their artistic abilities. This economic reality, along with the pressure to do well on standardized tests, has led to the push-down approach in art's education and the decrease in opportunities for children to enjoy creative pursuits. But, now more than ever, youngsters need to reap the innumerable benefits of open-ended art. Here are some key reasons why:
Open-ended art lets young children express themselves in a powerful way when, perhaps, they don't have the words to do so. When they're asked questions about their art from parents and teachers, they practice communication skills, expand their vocabularies, and learn to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about something that's meaningful to them.
Open-ended art encourages children to take the initiative and be risk-takers, creating something truly unique that reflects who they are. It challenges kids to be adventurous, exploring new techniques and using diverse materials. It builds their self-confidence.
The process of making open-ended art is relaxing and stress-free. There are not pressures to score well or meet an academic standard. This is extremely necessary as rates of depression among teens and children increase and the school environment becomes nerve-racking with standardized tests, assessments, academic rigor, and less play.
Open-ended art enhances fine motor skills. Whether they're coloring, painting, or squeezing clay, kids are strengthening the muscles in their fingers and hands. This is helpful when they're ready to write, cut with scissors, and tie their shoes.
- Open-ended art lets children live in the moment, concentrating on what they're creating. Making something is joyful, and the finished product is secondary. The goal is for kids to continue the creative process throughout their lives as a stress reliever, a source of pleasure, and a way to enhance their well-being.
- Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor and early childhood advocate who wrote the marvelous book, She calls on parents to learn about developmentally appropriate practices for young learners. She says kids benefit both cognitively and emotionally from having long blocks of uninterrupted time to explore art materials such as paints, crayons, colored pencils, chalk, markers, clay, and collage stuff. She writes, “with open-ended materials children can work on concepts at their developmental level, bring their own narratives to the materials, and make just about anything they want or need.” Taking Back Childhood.
Kids Talk About Open-Ended Art and How It Empowers Them
What Are Teacher-Directed Craft Projects?
Teacher-directed craft projects have largely replaced open-ended art activities in today's classrooms. Teachers create a sample and then demonstrate to the class how to duplicate it in a step-by step manner. There's little imagination and initiative involved in the process and everyone's project winds up looking the same. While these projects look impressive on bulletin boards, they don't benefit students. There's no originality involved and the process is robotic, not creative.
Why Have Teacher-Directed Craft Projects Replaced Open-Ended Art Activities for Young Children?
The push-down curriculum is to blame for the decline in open-ended art activities. Teachers must focus on presenting the Common Core standards—preparing students for on-going assessments and standardized tests. While open-ended art does so many wonderful things for kids, it's also time-consuming as it requires both set-up and clean-up. Many educators don't have teaching assistants or parent helpers to perform those tasks. Sadly, many parents and school administrators don't see the value in open-ended art and think it's just a waste of time. Here are more reasons why teacher-directed craft projects now reign supreme:
Teachers need neat and tidy projects for bulletin boards. Parents, administrators, and fellow teachers praise these eye-catching displays to the high heavens, oohing and aahing about how magnificent they look.
Teacher-directed craft projects have become a goodwill offering from teachers to parents, leaving children largely out of the equation. Teachers do projects for numerous occasions throughout the year: Grandparent's Day, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Groundhog's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and so on. Parents like it because they have decorations to display in their homes and gifts to present to family members.
Most teachers have no background in arts education and learn on the job. They get over-the-top craft ideas on websites such as Pinterest but have no overall philosophy about teaching art and why it matters in a young child's life.
Surprisingly, many teachers in the primary grades have no education in early childhood development. If they did, they would know that young kids learn best through hands-on activities because their brains are ripe for these experiences.
- Some teachers don't appreciate that young learners need developmentally appropriate experiences that are meaningful to their lives. They've been brainwashed to think a push-down curriculum is a good and necessary thing for children to succeed in today's competitive world even though research doesn't support it.
- Some teachers don't understand that kids need to learn about themselves and their bodies first. That's why finger-painting and sculpting with clay are highly suitable. Then they move to learning about their families, pets, and homes and drawing pictures of them. Next, they expand their world by noticing their neighborhoods, schools, and communities. Going on a nature walk and collecting leaves, acorns, and twigs to make a collage is ideal at this time. While teaching about famous artists like Rembrandt and Monet is fantastic for older kids, it's largely meaningless for young ones. That's because they're in what Piaget called the preoperational stage of cognitive development and are very egocentric
Collage Can Be Simple or Grow More Advanced as Seen in This Tutorial
Questions & Answers
My daughter's preschool is all teacher-directed craft projects that they put into a portfolio. It shows little originality, and doesn't even look like my daughter's art. How should I address this with the teacher?
Sadly, your daughter's preschool is doing what many others do today. They've co-opted art portfolios from elementary schools who've co-opted them from high schools who've co-opted them from art schools. They did this because parents get easily impressed by portfolios, thinking they sound “grown up” and “sophisticated” and will give their child an early edge. Art portfolios, though, aren't developmentally appropriate and have no place during this time when children should be doing open-ended art at preschool.
Young children, exploring materials and techniques for the first time, need teachers who recognize that process is far more important than the product. Open-ended art at preschool—drawing, coloring, painting, printmaking, sculpting, and collage making—need to rule supreme while teacher directed craft projects should be minimized or even eliminated. Having high-quality art projects to place in portfolios so parents can ooh and aah at them at the end of the year destroys children's drive to express themselves through art.
When considering early education opportunities, parents should look for those that celebrate open-ended art at preschool. There should be easels (inside and outside), crayons, colored pencils, markers, and collage materials that are readily accessible, time throughout the day to create, and play-dough for children to pound, roll, and mold. When I visit preschools for my job, I love to see “creation stations.” These are a corner of the classroom set aside for kids to make sculptures from recycled materials: cardboard boxes, packing peanuts, straws, bottle caps, plastic utensils, etc. This is preschool art at its best as it promotes initiative and imagination.
If your daughter's preschool does not emphasize open-ended art, you have a tough battle in front of you. Unfortunately, many preschools today are uptight places that see their primary function as preparing kids for kindergarten. With that narrow mindset, creative expression gets put on the back-burner.
I'd suggest you talk to your daughter's teacher and let her know how much you value open-ended art at preschool (this is probably something she rarely hears). Tell her why you see it as important. Ask her how more can be incorporated in the school day. Most preschool teachers have no background in arts education and just pick it up as they go. Your questions and concerns will get her thinking about her philosophy on art education and, hopefully, get her to see the immense value of open-ended art at preschool.
Good luck. I admire you for recognizing how important art is for young children. As we see more mental health issues appear in children and teens (depression, anxiety, suicide, narcissism, a lack of empathy), it's important we realize that this increase corresponds to the decline of play and creativity at preschool, kindergarten, and at home. Too many parents see art as frivolous—something that will never lead to a job—but they're way off base!Helpful 2
© 2018 McKenna Meyers