Critique with children

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 10:25 AM


Critique can be a valuable experience that even very young children can participate in (although we may not call it critique). When my school’s preschool students (age 3 and 4) shared their work with their classmates (a daily occurrence), they would explain what they had made, then they would ask for “questions, comments, or suggestions.”

The other students would then raise their hands, and the presenter would call on them. They could ask questions about the work. “Why did you put that part on?” They could make comments. “I like how you made the ladder.” They could make suggestions. “I think you should make that part yellow instead.”

The presenter would then respond to them. “I put that there because…” “Thank you.” “I might do that” or “No, thank you.” It was up to them whether they wanted to consider taking someone’s suggestion; if they didn’t want to, they needed to politely say, “no, thank you.” If the child said she did want to make some addition or change to her work, the teacher would note that on a post-it so it would be remembered the next day.

Critique is not only for sharing and talking about works of art — it can be used for sharing any kind of project work.

Sharing your work with others is a crucial part of project-based homeschooling. We really know something when we can explain it or teach it to someone else. And it’s important to make a contribution to the community. When we are working on our projects, we draw on community resources (museums, universities, libraries) and other people (experts, community members, librarians, etc.). When we produce work and share it with others, we are making our own contribution. We give as well as take; we’re part of the big conversation.

We started doing critiques with older children when we had a summer photography class. Much like the preschool class, the students would stand up in front of the group and show their work (first choosing the pieces they wanted to share — narrowing down their work was the first step), talk about it, and answer questions.

Parts of critique that are very useful for a child to learn/experience:

- sharing your work with others — beginning to think about the person who is seeing/hearing/experiencing your work

- beginning to anticipate your audience’s reaction while you are creating

- thinking about someone else’s point of view

- thinking about why you made the choices you did

- thinking about your own process: putting it into words

- thinking about accidental discoveries as well as deliberate choices

- articulating what you think and feel about someone else’s work

- learning to say something helpful — not necessarily about what you prefer, but to help the other person achieve his goal — learning to make good suggestions

- asking good, meaningful questions; making relevant observations

You can lead a critique like this with any group, maybe even siblings — but it is a learned skill. Children have to learn to make useful, meaningful comments, and they have to learn how to respond calmly and politely to the suggestions of others. Commit to doing it on a regular basis, and you give them the chance to develop those skills.


- let the child control the process — speaking first, calling on people

- start by having them share their work, their intentions, their plans

- prompting “comments, questions, or suggestions” reminds them of what is useful to share

- don’t allow negative comments

We start laying the groundwork for critique when we talk to children meaningfully about their work. This can start when your children are very small.

Ask questions like

- What did you make/do?

- Why did you want to make/do this?

- What do you like about it?

- Did you have any problems?

- Is there anything more you want to do with this?

- Is there anything you want to add?

- Is there anything you want to change?

- Why did you decide to do X here? (Encourage them to explain their choices.)

When you talk to your child about his work, you encourage him to think about it more deeply.

You don’t need to save critique for when a work is finished. Sharing what they’ve made, talking about their work and plans, listening to what their peers have to say — all of things are helpful to a child who is in the midst of a work-in-progress. They firm up their own ideas and can decide whether to incorporate the suggestions of others. They pause while making to consider their plans, which may help make their plans more complex.

In this kind of active learning community, children learn to share ideas, think about their choices, help others with their projects, and seek out other opinions when they get stuck.

They learn to collaborate to solve problems, brainstorm possibilities, and look more deeply into their own decisions and the decisions of others.

Yes, the art teacher is the teacher, but a creative studio art teacher is confident enough to NOT make suggestions. Teachers model empathic critique expressing affirmative curiosity. They phrase open questions that focus thinking and allow a diversity of student responses. Students learn to learn to be their own decider in art. The creative teacher coaches students to experiment and find out for themselves what works by empathically asking each other what they see, why it produces the effect, what they think it means, and what purpose they see for the work. The creative coach encourages teamwork and student ownership by deferring to students for their input. The teacher develops student participation by affirming the phrasing of good open questions. …

We increase our learning when the questions build awareness and call attention to discoveries. Creative work always includes unintended outcomes and consequences. We find them. We use them. We build knowledge. We become artistic. Empathic critique is a commonly used skill for a successful artist and a successful life. — Marvin Bartel


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.


Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2011 at 04:32 PM

From Core77: “ Makedo [is] a system of connectors that lets the child join a variety of material together, paper cups, cardboard, empty boxes, and whatever else you've got laying around. A series of simple (and safely blunted) tools enable the child to perform primitive construction operations and modify materials to accept the connectors, truly reinforcing the notion that you can shape the world around you with a little imagination and elbow grease.”


Wreck this journal

Published by Lori Pickert on April 22, 2009 at 08:15 PM

Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal is full of prompts to help perfectionists and nervous nellies get over the fear of making a mistake and ruining a blank journal or sketchbook.

You could also just write a whole lot of journal prompts on little slips of paper and put them in a jar. Pull one out each day or just when you can’t think of anything to do or draw. We used to do this at school; in fact, I think I have a big jar of prompts somewhere around here.

Sketchbooks/journals are valuable tools for project learning — it’s good to build your skills by exploring everything you can do with them! The more comfortable you get with facing that blank page and filling it up, the better.


Sketching together

Published by Lori Pickert on April 8, 2009 at 03:40 PM

We’ve been going out twice a week to sketch together, driving the winding country roads till we see something we want to draw. I like the idea that when we’re done, it will be a book filled with things we see all the time, places we identify with home.

Art lesson: Handcarved stamp

Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2009 at 02:16 PM

Our telescope — what he drew.

The weather this Christmas prevented us from getting together with our family until almost a month later, so I had to hold back and not show you some of the great presents the boys made.

My 12-year-old son gave everyone moleskine cahier notebooks handstamped with a stamp he carved himself. Check it out!

First do your drawing, then outline it very heavily with soft pencil.

Lay your drawing on your carving block and press down hard to transfer the pencil marks.

Any words or letters in your drawing will reverse automatically for carving and look correct when you stamp them — if you draw directly on a stamp block, you need to reverse your own writing!

Use the pencil to fill in any spots that didn’t transfer well.

Be careful to carve away from your drawing — and your fingers!

We carved down about three layers to get a nicely raised image.

Ink it up with your stamp pad and test it on scrap paper — you can then carve away any problem spots.

finished notebook!

We loved this project! We were inspired by journals we saw on Etsy and Geninne’s wonderful rubber stamp carving tutorial here. We will definitely be carving more stamps!

A sample provocation

Published by Lori Pickert on November 2, 2008 at 04:15 PM


Inspired by Reggio-style provocations, Jan did a beautiful open-ended art class with her students in which they explored the materials without direction, moved from idea to idea to idea (painting paper, to painting leaves, to printing…), shared and extended each other’s ideas, and even excited their classroom teacher with their interest and engagement!

Check out Jan’s wonderful Reggio Emilia Lesson.

Image-makers and knowledge-builders

Published by Lori Pickert on October 28, 2008 at 09:20 PM

“The key to developing confidence in working with children begins with watching. Take time to watch. Observe children’s absorbed attention, their total concentration, their sheer delight as they play with colours and shapes. Watch their gestures and facial expressions. Listen to their words. Appreciate what they do.

Most importantly, give children time — time to look and ponder, time to explore materials, time to repeat things over and over again. And offer materials and tools of the best quality you can afford, materials that let children shape their own ideas and enable them to realise their potential as image-makers and knowedge-builders.”

— Ursula Kolbe, Rapunzel's Supermarket: All about Young Children and Their Art

Art history journal

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2008 at 07:47 PM

While looking through old journals for things to photograph, I found this journal made by my son when he was 7 and 8, during a year-long art history project. The pages were compiled separately and bound together at the end of the year. There was also a set of handmade note cards (cut card stock) on a ring filled with his notes on various books he’d read and works of art he’d seen during the year.

This project was done at our private school under the auspices of the world’s greatest studio teacher; our Reggio-inspired program had mixed-age classes, a project-based curriculum, and each class had its own full art studio. There are schools that do this kind of learning! I find that heartening...

I love these three-dimensional, complex, layered pages. I find them inspirational; I hope you do, too. 


Watercolor prints

Published by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2008 at 03:34 PM

Here’s a great project for your nature journal.

You can use your watercolor paints to make monoprints in your journal.

Select some leaves and flowers. If you are in a park or public place, be sure it’s okay to pick fresh leaves; otherwise, look for fallen leaves that are still flexible.

Paint onto the leaves. Be careful not to leave too much paint on the leaf. The first few you try will be experimental. You’ll learn as you go.

Sometimes a leaf is so shiny it won’t hold paint. Try painting the underside. Does it have a different texture? The underside usually has more prominent veins and might make a better print.

This is what happens when you use too much paint! The print is still beautiful, though.

Carefully lay your leaf on the page. You can just rub the back of your leaf, or you can use a scrap piece of paper to press it flat and rub gently over it.

How many different colors of leaves can you find?

Try mixing your paints to match your leaf exactly.

Is your leaf just one color? You can paint on a mix of colors.

Remember it will take a minute for your prints to dry. You may want to bring along some extra sheets of paper for practicing and for printing on while your journal pages dry.

Don’t forget to write in your journal where you were when you made your prints.

You can bring along guide books to identify plants, trees, and leaves; if you want to, you can label the ones you know.