Learning The Language of the Visual Arts in Early Childhood Classrooms / Gigi Shroeder Yu

The teachers and I, acting as a facilitator, at Christina Kent have been exploring the Reggio Emilia philosophy since 2010.  The use of “art” for children in our practice is a departure from what many teachers are taught, and challenges many assumptions about the use of art in early childhood classrooms.

In my experience as an early childhood art educator, many teachers are confronted with the dilemma of creating a balance between allowing for free expression and product oriented art projects.  Some believe that young children should be given lots of materials at once and then told to “have at it.”  For some children, this is confusing and they are unsure of what to do when given this much freedom.  On the other side of the spectrum, children are given limited materials and shown samples of what their project should look like when finished.  This approach is often called cookie cutter or product centered art.  The challenge for teachers is to find the space in between where children are allowed to experiment while still given some structure.

I see the learning of materials as a language just as one would acquire a new written language. This is done in stages.  First, children learn what a material can do by experimenting and becoming familiar with its properties.  The learning of a material and its properties is like learning new words.  Children learn that each medium has a different voice or speaks a different language.  However, the exploration of the material is not an end in itself.  Afterwards, children apply the material to communicate their understanding of the world around them.  The result is not only the exploration or the product, but also the processes by which children chose to express their ideas.

I asked Christina Kent teacher Amber how she approached teaching children to use the art medium of paint.  Amber has a background in the visual arts and approached teaching children to paint similar to her own experiences with the medium.  First, she said that she set some parameters and then allowed children to have freedom within those parameters.  “I allow children to break some of the rules within the parameters to learn in their own way how paint can be used.”

For example, recently she gave children two colors of paint and asked them to discover what they could do with those two colors.  As a result, children learned new colors and created new names such as “PB&J Purple, Purple Eyes, and Monster Red.”  Amber also described how children are learning literacy, social, and fine motor skills while they are negotiating their own learning through exploration of a medium.

In our work, children’s visual interpretations are collected and studied as parts of documentation that reveal their growing understandings of an interest that is studied in the classroom.  Amber’s next challenge is to have children apply this new-found knowledge of colors to their interest in moths that have infested the Albuquerque community.  Amber is extending their interest by asking them to create their own interpretations of the moths and their colors.  I’ll be writing about this project in my next post.

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