Students at the Woodland Cooperative Preschool probably take home fewer pieces of art than from any other preschool on the planet. And when they do it’s very often little more than a gray or brown smudge.
That’s because art, as we make it, is a process rather than a finished product.
Most preschoolers couldn’t care less about their artwork once they walked away from the easel, unless an adult is making it valuable by gushing over it. Without that, what draws children to the art table, and keeps them there, is the process. That’s where the learning takes place.
Take the simple act of applying tempera paint to paper. There are thousands of ways to do it: we use fly swatters and smack it onto the paper; we put it on balls and roll it across the paper; we put it into squirt bottles and spray in on. Observing this process as an adult, we watch them apply their paint until we see something beautiful or dramatic or unique appear on the paper. That’s where the professional artist stops, for instance, because the finished product is how he makes a living. And where we find ourselves, as adults, hoping they’ll stop, because we tend to think of art as something to hang on the wall.
When art is about the process, however, that unique moment of beauty or drama is just one of many phases between blank paper and a brown smudge. And even that isn’t the final product as many of our artists keep going until the paper itself disintegrates.
Early this year a mother was working the art table on the day we were using drinking straws to blow paint across paper. Before long, however, it had devolved into finger painting. She asked, “Is that okay?” There were 3-4 girls, up to their elbows in paint, swirling it around the paper, smiling at each other, talking.
Heck yes, that’s okay!
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