Play to Make Art

Posted by Lesley Romanoff, Mar 21, 2013 5 comments

Lesley Romanoff Lesley Romanoff

The single most important thing I learned about building an appreciation for art in children, I learned from watching my children grow and learn and working with preschoolers and their parents.

Here it is…you have to walk away from paint and paper to have grand adventures before walking back towards paint and paper (and all the other options for creating art).

To fully embrace art as both an observer and a creator, I believe the process should begin with the great outdoors…city, town, neighborhood, or park. Wherever your outside is, begin there.

Experiencing the geography of the place a child lives begins an important conversation that is tangible. It is one of place, of body and mind. Distance holds meaning. Foreground is something that can be reached and touched.

The points where sky meets building or tree line and how these change depending on the light builds an experiential vocabulary for the child that can be connected directly through paint, clay, crayon, or oil pastel. While outside and moving, children are also increasing their gross motor coordination and stamina. This is true of all children moving and growing within the lovely range of abilities represented in humans. Each child will develop strengths and coordination in movement in his or her own unique way. Their efforts to connect and experience the world around them will tumble out into inspiration and more importantly provide them with the ability to express it. 

Parents provide these opportunities for their children every day and the focus of these excursions should be set for a single purpose—play. It is through play that children gain information about the world.

Playing with other children in child-created scenarios (imaginary play) is best. Imaginary play expands minds and hearts and is the lifeblood of creativity and problem solving. Creativity and problem solving are so important in moving from appreciator of art to creator of art.

We move purposefully towards creating art, but we still have not picked up a paintbrush! This is because we first offer children a range of materials to play with inside!

Teachers call these manipulatives, but a better name might be knick-knacks. These can be as simple as kitchen utensils to more exotic materials like ice and mud! Most of the materials we offer in our classrooms are not found in teaching catalogues. We have cut sticks, collected shells, and stones. Other materials are purchased in craft stores.

Clay is an option for preschoolers. Clay is an option for preschoolers.

Favorite items include glass pieces, marbles, and aquarium gravel. We set these out in bowls with spoons. A small collection of wooden blocks along with any other kind of materials that can stack are just the will complete the collection. Offering these kinds of materials builds the fine motor conversations children will need to move into the realm of creator of art.

Is it time for the brush? Yes and no. We offer materials like clay and play dough as a way to begin the art process. We may use tools with the clay and play dough, like scissors, rolling pins, wire, or sticks, etc. as these provide more variances and extends the exploration with the base material.

Then, when we finally move on to brush and paint or drawing materials, we have found that it is often helpful to sit down next to children and draw—not instruct them in what to draw, but to draw alongside them. This becomes a time of collaboration and grounds the activity in a place of treasured time. It becomes something that “we do together.” I do not often draw my own drawings, rather I attempt to draw how or what the child is drawing.

Beyond that, we must be prepared to embrace the many ways children express their ideas.

I often use this example with parents—I once asked children to draw a picture of their bedrooms. I supplied oil pastels and paper realizing only after I asked that this activity was quite limiting for some children. Some children would rather build their bedrooms from blocks, some can shape it from clay, others need tempera, and in the end, the oil pastels were certainly be used by some! Each resulting work, regardless of medium, had value.

Teachers and parents must be open to the full range of possibilities.

This openness and acceptance of the possibilities bring me to a final point. Advocating for art, in both the formal setting of the art room while still offering opportunities for art in the traditional classroom is the responsibility of every adult involved in raising and teaching children.

I have two ARTSblog posts (The Top 10 Skills Children Learn From the Arts and 10 Reasons to Support the Arts in 2012) bookmarked and saved in a folder named “Advocacy.” Please take the time to visit them and bookmark them yourself.

Think about how you can step outside, play, and then finally, paint.

5 responses for Play to Make Art


Lesley says
March 22, 2013 at 8:15 am

Thanks Rachelle (and right backatcha as I am a big fan of yours). Thank you for reading. It was a great honor to be asked to be included here.

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Tiffany Horton says
April 15, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I really like this article. Many people do not realize that the basic forms of art and artistic expression come from the simple things. With children it begins in free play or imaginary play. I am currently enrolled in a Teacher Certification Program and have observed children in a preschool setting. Everything I observed with these little ones is described in this article. I love watching them pretend and create art with various materials such as; straws, yarn, cotton balls, markers, crayons, sequins, tissue paper, etc. I am a mom to two beautiful little girls who love art, but I didn't realize the importance of free-play or imaginary art until I began studying to become an early elementary teacher. I believe every parent and teacher should have this information.

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March 21, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Hi Lesley,
I've been a fan of Takoma Park from afar, and it thrills me to read more about how you're putting your ideas into practice. And you're so right -- getting outdoors and building gross motor skills gives children fodder for the time they spend making art. The same can be said for adults, by the way. It's all about teaching the whole child and creating balance for growing minds. I also appreciate how you introduce children to materials in a way that honors their development. I hadn't seen your other ARTSblog posts and look forward to reading them.

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Victoria Hart says
April 15, 2013 at 11:47 pm

I agree with you completely about getting children outside to begin their process of creativity. Nature gives so much to the student’s senses and allows for them to experience something new every time, no matter where they are. It is with that experience gained can they begin to build and manipulate with their own thoughts and ideas as a base that they learned from doing something as simple as going outside. I also agree that play, especially imaginary, is a great way for children to gain knowledge about the world around them. They learn how things work and behave by copying and mimicking and creating the situations themselves. Children learn by seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and getting up and just doing things. It is from this do they get the experiences to create something that is as unique as their ideas.

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Elizabeth Hoyt says
March 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm

I particularly like your idea of working next to a child, collaboratively. In my work in special education I call this "mutual attention." I imitate what they are doing and then expand on their ideas. Gaining mutual attention teaches a child that we value their ideas, interests, and abilities. And underlying this is the acknowledgement that we value them! This is unlike a classic teaching model which is demanding, universal instead of individualized, and filled with expectations that may or may not interest them or be at their level. In this way, teaching becomes a dynamic conversation.

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