Abilities vs. activities: Why children need authentic art
Penelope Trunk wrote about my book this week and she said this:
I am very achievement oriented, so I see no point in a project that does not come with a big achievement at the end. Pickert's book is more small-scale and reasonable — like doing art projects…
Penelope got it wrong in a few ways. One, projects are not “small-scale and reasonable,” even when done by three- and four-year-olds. A group of preschool-age children at my private school did a year-long project during which they wrote books, created posters, wrote and performed skits, made a roomful of models, built props, painted a mural, painted some large canvases, identified and labeled and organized seashells and deep-sea life, built a child-size boat with authentic details, created a ocean habitat that filled a stage, took multiple field trips, and on and on and on. That’s not small scale. And those were very young children.
Two, project work is all about achievement — but the achievement is defined by the one doing the work. The work is owned by the child, controlled and directed by the child, and assessed by the child. It’s not judged from the outside; the child develops the ability to assess his own work. A young child who sets himself to a task and meets his own self-set goals feels authentic achievement. There is a world of difference between receiving approval from someone else and feeling confidence and satisfaction from within. Project-based homeschooling focuses on the latter.
Finally, you cannot dismiss the importance of becoming fluent in authentic art as “art projects.”
Authentic art is of crucial importance for young children. They are not yet able to read or write fluently. Authentic art enables children to work actively with knowledge and build thinking, learning, and communication skills.
They learn while they create two- and three-dimensional representations. The act of creating, say, a physical model of a Mars rover allows them to examine photos, listen to books and news articles being read aloud, incorporate details they understand, compare their work to the work of their friends, and add new details as they understand them, as well as mastering the art medium itself: learning how to build a construction, how to make the wheels really turn, how to choose the best material for each detail, how to apply paint and glue, how to fix their mistakes and solve problems, and so on.
They express what they know. What they make reveals their understandings, their questions, their ideas. Talking to a young child, you can get an idea of what they know and understand; watching them create two- and three-dimensional art reveals much, much more. Art is an additional way for them to communicate; this is why Reggio treats each different art medium as a language.
They figure out what they don’t understand. As they draw, paint, model in clay, and build constructions out of cardboard and wire and papier-maché, they come across details that elicit questions. They find out what they don’t know. As they share their work with others, their peers’ and family members’ questions and comments reveal their knowledge and the holes in that knowledge. This process continually moves them to deepen their understanding until they become experts.
As children get older, they can add writing to their list of ways to communicate what they know. They can write stories and books, they can blog and podcast, they can create websites and wikis and films. This is, again, not “small-scale and reasonable” — this is real, authentic work done by someone who wants to know and understand and communicate with other people.
Education should be a ramp that takes a child from age 3 to adulthood. To respect that a small child is full of ideas that deserve to be shared means allowing them a multitude of ways to express themselves — authentic art and dramatic play included. As the child grows in ability and skills, he will fold in reading, writing, and technology. It should be a smooth transition, layering skills upon skills so that a child who is 13 is expressing his ideas and questions and opinions in the same way he was at age 3, but with new tools. The work he did at 3 helps him do the work he is capable of at 13.
Instead of crafts, children need to become fluent at expressing their ideas through authentic art. They will acquire real skills and abilities — not just how to paint, but how to express an idea clearly; not just how to sculpt, but how to make a plan and execute it. Compare this to the typical crafts that are offered to children — “cute” activities that keep kids occupied and produce an expected outcome. “Here’s what it’s supposed to look like” does not inspire the kind of creative expression and pride in accomplishment that authentic art offers. “Here’s how you do it” does not lead to meaningful planning or problem-solving. We need to spend less time preparing children’s activities and more time building up their abilities.
Many adults have a dismissive attitude toward the work children do. They can’t tell the difference between a piece of authentic, creative work that expresses an idea and a handprint turkey. To understand this requires getting on the child’s level and endeavoring to understand his thought processes, his questions, his ideas. It requires giving up your own ideas about what he should do and asking him what he wants to do. If you don’t believe children are capable of deep thought and hard work, it’s doubtful you’ll make the effort to see what they can do when allowed to make their own decisions, let alone what they can do when they are mentored and supported.
We have to commit to learning what our children can do. We can set them to a series of tasks or we can help them forge their own path. We can keep them busy with activities or we can help them build up their abilities. We can keep thinking of them as pre-adults or we can learn to respect them as strong and capable of building their own knowledge. It’s our choice. Our children will fit themselves to our expectations. They will see themselves the way we see them. So we should look as closely at possible — at them and at ourselves.