Through the course readings and lectures in Professor Judy Burton’s, Artistic Development of Children, I’ve learned to alter my preconceived judgments about children’s artwork and focus on retraining my mind to see their creative development through the lens of exploration and discovery. I no longer cast adult notions of design, composition, and expression onto a child’s artwork. Having the ability to see and understand how, why, and where a child’s mind is developmentally allows the teacher to expand on the student’s learning through the process of such activities as play, experimentation, and exploration with materials leading towards cognitive thought (Burton, 2016). Understanding the pre-representational learning stages of the child and how he or she progresses though artistic development stages may at first seem haphazard and chaotic, but once familiar with these artistic learning stages of the child, random actions and marks are now seen as, “products of the first set of organized artistic behavior” (Burton, 1980, p.7). The importance of seeing this from the perspective of the teacher is critical. It is more important to nurturer the child’s creative exploration of materials, rather than on focusing the child on adult-centered concepts such as figure, form, and composition. This can adversely stunt and inhibit the child from developing a personal connection with their unknown world and their ability “to make something where nothing was before” (Burton, 1980, p.7). This process of having made something where there was nothing, leads the child to having a sense of discovery and excitement where they can now begin to create and shape objects and give them meaning. Children learn how to encode and decode objects (Sandal, 2009) allowing for them to interject their own identity and sense of self into their artwork. Children are not born knowing. They accumulate knowledge based on physical experiences with their environments (Burton, 2016).
These initial concepts and activities of play and exploration will only enhance the child’s ability to explore, learn, and understand challenging and complicated concepts when they become adolescents and adult learners. In re-examining my art work made in kindergarten (see illustration 1) and having a better understanding of childhood development as it relates to art making, I now see a portrait of a young me exploring issues of pictorial space, as well as objects that I might have noticed in my environment. I used the paper to collect and group my living world, fitting it all into one place. I come away with the sense that grouping was something of importance to me at this time. Also, I see how I am beginning to use color not only for its emotional appeal, but also to represent the natural color of the objects in my environment (Day & Hurwitz, 2012). For example, in my illustration the color of the flower petals represent similar colors that might be associated with those of actual flowers such as red, blue, and violet. Additionally, the use of green and how it was used to create the plant stems and leaves is a color that commonly resembles plants in our natural environment. A child’s use of space, color, and the beginning of categorizing and building associations with these colors, shapes, and objects indicates the child is starting to build up a library for making and understanding what kinds of marks can be made and how they can be carried over into their future works (Burton, 2016). These complex notions that the child is working out intuitively without the assistance of technical skills for art making, show the extraordinary creative prowess of the young student in how they invent solutions to problems yet realized or discovered (Day & Hurwitz, 2012).
In thinking about how the artistic process informs the student as they advance beyond into pre-adolescents and adulthood, I am reminded of a question by Howard Gardner, “How do we prepare youngsters so that they can survive and thrive in a world different from one ever known or ever imagined before?” (Gardner, 2006, p.11). The visual library that a child develops during their early childhood will only serve to make them more informed, resourceful observers of their worlds. These skills of being able to apply imagination and autonomous thought onto a problem or an idea, allows the individual to possess confidence to try something new or recall ideas and think critically towards a particular question. This should be the goal that is set and fostered by teachers, educators, and parents for our children to aspire to. One might ask, how do we foster children as they learn to navigate their unknown, complicated world of newness without pushing our own preconceived notions of adult centered “right” answers onto their work and ideas? This is done by prompting, using appropriate student-centered questions, providing a positive and safe environment for exploration and play, and focusing the questions around the child and his or her interests. It’s critical that teachers, educators, and parents become conscious that “they are trying to empower children’s imagination with their own thinking” (Burton, 2016), as this leads the learner to cognitive thinking.
These platforms are perhaps the most delicate, challenging, and powerful tools that educators have regarding the role they play in fostering the child through their early development stages. Since “visual languages exist in both perception and pictorial creation” (Gilmour, 1986, p. 83-84) the teacher cannot create divisions between what is know and not known regarding a child’s understanding of an object or material. Rather, the teacher needs to guide and encourage the child to explore and move towards the notion that creative exploration leads to the transformation of establishing new visual meaning from his or her environments.
In revisiting my own early childhood artwork, I have rediscovered things that have made me ask, “Did I have this concrete idea or was I persuaded by a teacher to develop something that I might not have otherwise been inclined to draw?” Other observations included looking at how I problem solved such physical obstacles as creating a lid for my iguana sculpture that could support itself (see illustration 2).
My iguana sculpture marked a conscious turning point in my early artistic development. I had won the school art prize that year for this piece, and I distinctively remember feeling proud to have made something that was appreciated by others outside of my art class. This was perhaps my first concrete thought concerning themes about grouping, rules, and specifically how my artwork could elevate my sense of status in a community. I was now conscious of my name being attached to a piece of artwork. This was something I had never thought about, but within a very short period of time, I would become known as the school artist. Looking back, this title perhaps prevented me from further developing my pursuits of playful exploration and risk taking with materials. Instead, this became the start of a period where creating stylistic images that someone in the school community could identify with being done by “CJ” became my artistic intent. This frame of thinking and working with materials and ideas become the focus of my artistic development that I carried with me into the beginning part of my undergraduate studies in art school. It was in college that I was fortunate to meet and study under teachers who helped me to break free of a self imposed style and focus by seeing new forms and ways for exploring the visual and conceptual problems in my world.
This brings me back to the balanced role of the teacher and the many outcomes a comment, achievement, or failure can have on the developmental process and advancement of a student’s ability and desire to develop as a learner. For example, using a judgment such as, “I like it” or “I love that color” implies the possibility of a negative assessment and this can eventually create anxiety with the child (Smith, 1993, p.108). Don’t ask or comment on what you, the teacher, perceive the problem to be with the student’s artwork (Burton, 2016). Empower the student, for he or she has the ability to cover a whole piece of paper with lines and shapes of distinct colors arranged to form an interesting well-organized whole (Smith, 1993).
We must open the doors of our students’ ability to think, see, feel, and reflect on the known and unknown world around them (Burton, 2016). As a teacher in training, I am becoming fully aware of the fact that my own development is directly connected to that of my students, where our actions are actually interconnected (Burton, 2016). I need to learn and see what is possible and what children can do, rather then what they can’t (Burton, 2016). Most importantly, we are helping children understand how to see the world. Ivey, 2000 encapsulates the importance the arts has on young students in preparing them to be visually literate for a very challenging and subversive informational world by saying, “If we don’t teach our children how to visualize shapes, shapes will visualize them.”
Burton, J. M. (1980). Developing minds: Beginnings of artistic language. School Arts, 80(1), 6- 12.
Burton, J. M. (2016). Childhood Development. Teachers College, Columbia University, Class 4.
Burton, J. M. (2016). Childhood Development. Teachers College, Columbia University. Class 8.
Burton, J. M. (2016). Childhood Development. Teachers College, Columbia University. Class 11.
Gardner, H. (2006). Five minds for the future. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Gilmour, J. (1986). Picturing the world. SUNY Press.
Day, M. & Hurwitz, A. (2012). Children and their art: Methods for the elementary and middle schools. Wadsworth, Boston, MA.
Sandell, R. (2009). Using form+ theme+ context (FTC) for rebalancing 21st-century art education. Studies in Art Education, 50(3), 287-299.
Smith N. R., Fucigna C., Kennedy M., & Lord L. (1993) Experience and ART Teaching Children to Paint, Teachers College Press
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