Abilities vs. activities: Why children need authentic art

Published by Lori Pickert on September 29, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Penelope Trunk wrote about my book 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 own ideas. 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.


Comment by Stacey B on September 29, 2012 at 01:36 PM

I agree with what you are saying here but I would add that some times exploring the medium itself can become the project. Last winter we spent a few months focusing on print making, primarily monotypes, the process of creating them and adapting our methods for the best results (all Alder initiated) was the focus. But there are very few finished pieces that he wanted to hold on to, for him coming up with a good method was more important.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 29, 2012 at 01:45 PM

“I would add that some times exploring the medium itself can become the project.” — yes, absolutely. and once you move beyond that project, that knowledge is carried forward and can be used for other projects. knowing how to make prints becomes a skill that can be applied in multiple situations.

good addition! ;o)

Comment by amy21 on September 29, 2012 at 03:51 PM

All this, yes. Crafts kind of make me grind my teeth, to be honest...UNLESS they are child-initiated, in that one of my children occasionally says "I want to make this," and the process of doing so is an important (child-led!!) experience. My 3yo saw a craft in her Thomas magazine she wanted to make, and honestly I think this was the first time we made a specific thing in that way. My first reaction was, Meh, no, but I kept that to myself, because she initiated it. We went over the directions together, gathered the materials, brainstormed on what we could use to replace mini-cereal boxes (which we don't have), solved the problem of regular glue not working (we used the hot glue gun). She painted the pieces and was all the way in charge of this activity, and she was quite pleased with "her" Thomas.

But...I don't introduce "craft time." This was something I did when I was a younger parent, and something I thought I should be doing, but it really went against what felt right, and eventually, instead, I was putting my efforts into exploring the various materials with my children in open-ended ways, for exactly the reasons you and Stacey say--so that when they need to express a certain idea they aren't limited.

And finally, my daughter recently told an adult she was studying mummies, and that adult proceeded to tell her about mummies, which was totally backwards. This person was very kind, and works with children, but I doubt she even gave a thought to the idea that my daughter, at 3, would have facts and information about a topic such as mummies that this adult didn't know. (I would bet a few hours sleep--my most precious commodity!--that my daughter knows more about mummies and mummification and Egyptian burial practices and religious beliefs than this well-meaning adult.) *Most* adults don't even consider the idea that they could learn from children.

Why is that?

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 29, 2012 at 07:36 PM


i think this is very similar to the screen time issue. children who take immediate ownership and control can handle it. offer them a craft and they shape it to what *they* want to do (if they’re allowed). but if they have a steady diet of this kind of inflexible, do-it-one-way, look-at-the-example kind of non-art that requires no creativity, no decision-making, no problem-solving, then they aren’t building any skills. they aren’t just losing the opportunity to develop their creativity; i think they lose their creativity, period. it’s something that withers without use or appreciation.

And finally, my daughter recently told an adult she was studying mummies, and that adult proceeded to tell her about mummies, which was totally backwards.

when we were using these methods at my school, we had to work to educate parents to NOT simply answer their children’s questions. i am convinced that adults have an anxiety response to not-knowing and not-understanding — they just want to rush to fill that void. whereas to a child, not-knowing and not-understanding is interesting and fascinating; it’s an adventure to look for the answers.

This person was very kind, and works with children, but I doubt she even gave a thought to the idea that my daughter, at 3, would have facts and information about a topic such as mummies that this adult didn't know.

*Most* adults don't even consider the idea that they could learn from children.

YES, i have seen this so many times. most adults have no idea what children are capable of!

Comment by Cristina on September 29, 2012 at 11:07 PM

I actually just read Penelope's review and then saw you had responded. Kudos to you for sending her your book. I am not that brave! I thought it was a pretty good review, even though she felt project-based homeschooling wasn't for her.

I know I've inadvertently practiced your method years before I knew I was doing it, but that is because I was raised with the freedom to explore my own art skills. I didn't give my kids many of the ready made crafts projects because I found them boring. My two older kids never followed directions when I took them to library craft events and that was fine with me. My youngest snubs these activities altogether. I've let them work with rasps and knives and razors from a young age because they wanted to learn how to carve stone or wood or cut intricate designs in paper. Sure, they've gotten cuts and bruises, but I think they were prouder of their accomplishments because they had the same tools I would use.

Appreciating art is truly a gift, especially appreciating children's art. Penelope Trunk's gift is pinpointing career opportunities and discovering ways to help people optimize their financial potential. These are two different perspectives, and that's OK. It's a matter of whether you are considering the process or the product. I'm process oriented. I'm guessing you are too.

If you haven't seen it, look up Vihart's wonderful YouTube video "They Became What They Beheld: Medium, Message, Youtubery”.

Peace and Laughter!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 30, 2012 at 07:53 AM


i’m process-oriented when it comes to learning, because process is where you learn. if you’re product-oriented with learning, it’s been proven again and again that the kids will risk less, learn less.

but i believe that even if your #1 goal was to have your child achieve, you would be better off helping them learn to direct and manage their own learning. forcing them down a certain path because in the *past* that was statistically more likely to mean career success is a dangerous gamble. things change. you can’t predict future success by what’s happened in the past. (ask anyone who invests in the stock market. ;)

the best way to guarantee future success for a child is to help them become the strongest thinker and learner and the best collaborator they can be, to help them know themselves and their own opinions and talents, and to help them acquire a solid toolbox of skills. *that* requires a focus on process.

the very, *very* best thing, of course, is to let them define success for themselves when they get to be an adult. but that’s just my opinion. :)

Comment by Sally Haughey on September 30, 2012 at 11:25 AM

Thank you for such a well stated case for authentic art experiences. I feel what you have to say is important for all educators and you state so well the ways that the arts provide a powerful context for children to express their understandings.

I am always reminded of being in a kindergarten in Switzerland. It was play-based with no formal academic instruction. No handwriting, no letters, nothing. What was so potent in the air was the TRUST in the children and their learning process.

Great blog! So glad I found you! (just this morning!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 30, 2012 at 11:33 AM


thank you, sally! i’m glad you found us, too! :)

it really is an issue of trust — trust for the children and trust for the learning process. i wrote a little about that here:


compare the school you saw in switzerland to the fact that we’re now testing K students as to their career potential. :^/  trust is important — but so it quality of life for children! they deserve to play. it’s how they learn, after all.

Comment by shelli on September 30, 2012 at 08:54 PM

Hi Lori - I just read Penelope's review and the comments there, and now your response & comments. You have handled her response very well, though I would concur that it really wasn't a bad review. It's awesome that you sent her the book and she wrote about it in the way she did! I'm sure it'll help you sell more! ;)

I haven't read your book yet, but that is because it takes me forever to get around to doing anything. lol I'm also on board the project-based homeschooling already. I know your book will help me envision what that will look like for my home better.

I rarely do crafts with my children because I'm not a crafty person, but I have done some because I've found them and had a feeling my son would like doing them, and I've always been right. In fact, he really liked a craft I just did with him that didn't require him to draw anything - he just colored the pictures.

My question for you is that while I encourage him to draw and create on his own, he sometimes gets very frustrated and upset at his abilities. No matter how much I try to tell him that "it's a work in progress," and it doesn't have to be perfect, and I like it a lot, or he can try again or whatever, I see him giving up and/or wanting me to do it for him. I usually do what he wants and I know that having him direct me is in a sense letting him be in charge. But I get the feeling he would feel much better about himself if he'd allow himself to be free to not be perfect, but I don't know how to help him get there.

I hope I have not done something to foster this.

Do you have any advice for me with a child who gets so frustrated? How should I respond? Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2012 at 09:00 AM


i agree it wasn’t a bad review! but i don’t think the book or the approach was necessarily represented accurately. through penelope’s lens, as it were. ;o)

...while I encourage him to draw and create on his own, he sometimes gets very frustrated and upset at his abilities.

you should definitely not do it for him. you need to project a calm expectation that his skills will improve with practice. then create a lot of opportunities to do that.

it doesn’t help to say “it doesn’t have to be perfect — *i* like it” because that doesn’t acknowledge his very real, *accurate* feelings. it’s okay for him to realize that he can’t draw as well as he thinks he should — then state plainly that he can learn to draw much better; he just needs to practice. the ONLY way you get better is to practice. that is true of almost everything in life.

i believe i write about this in the book. ;o) but in essence, you need to treat these skills the same way you treat learning how to read — you expect that he will master it and you build in time to practice. i don’t remember how old your son is, but teachers talk about the “fourth-grade slump” when kids are unhappy with where their skills are vs. what they know to be good, so they stop drawing. (and lately educators refer to the fourth-grade slump across all academics — it’s when kids stop trying.) if kids can get past this, they draw forever; but most stop because they hate that gap between where they are and where they want to be.

kids need to be mentored thoughtfully to deal with their expectations of where they want their performance to be vs. where it is. this is similar to “the gap” that ira glass discusses:


I know that having him direct me is in a sense letting him be in charge.

well, if your child is three and can’t cut heavy cardboard, for example, it’s fine to do it for him. but you should never do something for your child that they could do themselves if they are just dissatisfied with their own skill vs. yours. don’t draw for them. don’t let them wheedle you into doing their work. they’ll never progress.

there is no difference between this and his learning to dress himself, feed himself, etc. when it is something that you fully expect him to do on his own — and you are very assured that he will do competently with practice — then you would laugh if he wanted you to do it for him. this is no different! there is nothing special about acquiring art skills that makes it a separate thing from any other skill. a lot of parents are nervous about their own art skills, but that’s usually because they didn’t have the opportunity to practice them enough to become comfortable.

tell him, “you can do it.” emanate calm confidence in his abilities. when he complains that he wants you to do it because it will look better, tell him that of course you could do it better, you’re X years old; you’ve been doing it a lot longer than him. but the only way he’s going to get as good as you — or much better — is if he practices and gradually improves.

Comment by Stacey B on October 1, 2012 at 02:33 PM

"My question for you is that while I encourage him to draw and create on his own, he sometimes gets very frustrated and upset at his abilities. "

Have you tried changing what sort of materials he uses? Sometimes with my son if he is getting frustrated trying to make something exactly how he planned I pull him away from that by giving him something like oil pastels or watercolors where you can't be as literal or exact. For him it allows him to become more emotionally involved with the idea rather than the outcome.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2012 at 02:49 PM

that’s a great suggestion!

Comment by David on October 1, 2012 at 02:44 AM

I think it was on an episode of 'The Simpsons' where Lisa and her class were doing a 'craft' activity - a template where everything looked the same - and she put her hand up and questioned the teacher "But isn't this just pointless busy work?" ....A sad reality of many classrooms!
Authentic art experiences are so much more rich, multi layered and exciting - based on an incredibly strong image of the child as a competent and creative individual. I know I have mentioned it before but I just love Vea Vecchi's book - "Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia". Fabulous stuff!
Just today I had a 4 year old girl in my class explaining how the moon looks shining on the clouds at night. She chose charcoal drawing as the language for expressing her thinking and it is truly a beautiful piece...not only in its 'end product' form but also in the language and skill development involved in the all-important process.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2012 at 09:11 AM


lol the simpsons — lisa always nails it.

image of the child is key, and the difference between the kind of cookie-cutter art and craft projects i see in the local schools vs. the kind of work the children do in reggio emilia (i’m thinking of some of the pieces i saw at the 100 languages exhibit and in reggio child) reveals the difference in what the adults think about what the children are capable of.

i went to an “art show” where there were groups of 30 almost identical pieces of “art” in each display. the main lesson seemed to be learning how to follow directions.

the saddest thing is that reggio educators use art skills as a way to help children express their own ideas (like your 4yo girl and her moon), whereas the children doing the cookie-cutter art aren’t required to have any ideas at all. 

Comment by Jennifer on October 1, 2012 at 01:25 PM

What helped my 3-year-old over the hump of "you do it, Mommy" was me saying, "but if I do it, it won't be yours. It will be Mommy's drawing. I can give it to you, but it will be Mommy's drawing." She really took that in, and has been doing her own work ever since.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 1, 2012 at 02:46 PM

that’s a great approach to try with a very young child — they take pride in ownership! :)

Comment by shelli on October 2, 2012 at 05:57 PM

Thank you, Lori and everyone else who responded to my questions. I will print this out and reread it several times. My son actually does a lot of art on his own that he's proud of and wants me to hang up....he just turned six, BTW. We do use different mediums, and I hope to introduce more. But sometimes he asks me to make an animal out of paper for him, and I wish he'd try himself. (This is something we started when he was two or three.) I think that's a good idea to emphasize that it's my animal, if I do it for him...thanks! Then there are times he gets very frustrated he can't produce what he envisions, and he's just going to give up no matter what I do/say. It's at those times I'm not sure what to say because I don't want him to give up, but I can't force him to keep trying either.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 2, 2012 at 06:02 PM


maybe you can talk about a time when he persisted and eventually was successful — like learning to ride a bike or something similar.

make sure he knows that you’re proud of him continuing to try! reward him with your attention.

say, “this is just like learning how to read and write — you have to do it a lot of times before you get really good at it! if you keep working, you’ll be able to do it as well as i can or better!”

Comment by annethrallnash on October 3, 2012 at 07:28 PM

I had an interesting experience today that illustrated this idea of authentic art and it's benefits. My son, O, will be 5 in a few weeks and he had a friend over to play, D, who is almost 7. As far as I know D does not have access to many art or buliding materials at home. In the course of their play they wanted some spears ( they were playing at hunting antelope I think). My son initiated gathering up some PVC pipe, some rocks, and a few rolls of masking tape and started building some spears. He has had free access to tape for a few years and has used it a lot. He knew how to make what he wanted happen without my help. His friend tried to make a spear too, but he was obviously unfamiliar with masking tape, how to tear it and use it. His frustration level was pretty high, especially I think because he was the older kid. My son helped him build what he wanted, showing him what to do and all was well. But I really saw how limiting not being familiar with a pretty basic material can be. If my son hadn't helped him, I'm sure D would have given up. And at that age he might never really try again.

All this messes at 2,3, 4 years old really are worth it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 3, 2012 at 08:08 PM

specific skills (e.g., using the masking tape) but also just the general experience of having made something without directions or supervision as well! a child who feels comfortable digging in and making his vision happen — that’s an important skill.

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