Art: Process Over Product

I can’t remember what advice book/article/blog post I was reading when my husband and I were looking for preschools a couple of years ago, but I remember coming across the recommendation to look for children’s artwork posted throughout the school space. It seemed like weird advice, but I’ve learned there’s a lot of thought behind it.

From a practical perspective, seeing art on the walls lets you know that, well, the kids do art. This matters because during the process (and that word—“process”—is important) of creating art:

  • Children strengthen their fine motor skills through using paintbrushes and writing implements, as well as by manipulating small pieces of paper and other art supplies.
  • Squeezing glue bottles strengthens muscles used for writing.
  • Children can explore the concept of patterning in art (one of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Math Objectives), and learn about light, shadows, and colors (an NAEYC Science objective). Plus mixing paint to create new colors—including that lovely purplish-blackish-brown color you get by mixing all the colors!—and playing with new mediums and mixing materials together is science, too!
  • The NAEYC also has Music and Arts Objectives, including learning to appreciate art and having the opportunity for children to express themselves creatively.
  • Art in preschool is linked to the development of problem-solving skills. When children are free to think creatively and experiment, they develop new ways of thinking.

Of course, some of these benefits assume that the art is done…well, “right.” And here’s where looking at the art is especially helpful. If you look at a group of paintings on display, do they all look the same? Like, exactly the same? It’s one thing if you can tell the children were working with a theme, but it’s a wholly different thing if all the pieces look exactly the same, which indicates that the children didn’t have control over the outcome of their work.

a starry night by Vincent van Gogh preschool edition

My daughter is in her third year of preschool. I can remember back to her first year, when half the time, she wouldn’t participate in the art projects at all. Kid has a love of (obsession with?) the housekeeping center. Anyway, on the occasions in which she would choose to participate, she was…well, let’s just say “a minimalist.” So, let’s take the time the class sang the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” learned about spiders, and created their own spider webs by gluing yarn on paper.  My child was persuaded to do the project, which she completed by squeezing a blob of glue on the paper, dropping a piece of yarn on top of the glue, and calling it done. Now, I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain spider webs are just wee bit more intricate. I wasn’t there for the lesson, though, so, you know, maybe I’m wrong.

Now in her third year of preschool, I’m still ridiculously excited to see my daughter’s artwork hung up with her friends’, since I know it at least means she participated! But I can almost always pick hers out because it’s still completed in her (slightly less) minimalist style. And I deeply appreciate her teachers and the parents who help out at our co-op for always letting her art be her art!

night and day painting
Night and Day Painting

I’m also lucky enough to now know the “fancy” term for what you’re trying to determine by looking for all that different art you’re supposed to find at a strong school: process over product. My in-a-nutshell definition: valuing the process of creating the art over the final product that is created. A kid learns more from creating their own snowman (even using pre-cut pieces they’re supposed to assemble) than they do from having “help” to create a perfect snowman. One of the saddest things I’ve seen was watching a parent during a post-storytime craft project at our local library guide his two-year-old in assembling a fish. My daughter’s fish had a Mohawk of fins and an eye on its stomach, but she was pleased as punch with her design. Dad was peeling all the backing off of the foam stickers for his daughter and guiding her hands in the placement of the pieces (which also denied her the chance to work on some fine motor skills), and correcting her if she strayed from his placement. At another one of these storytimes, the craft project was a watermelon. My daughter put the red part on upside down on top of the green part. Horrible Mom Confession: Because I’m a control freak, I did ask if she wanted to change them so they matched. She looked at me and firmly said, “No.” So. There you go. Upside down watermelon it is. But then the librarian came over and tried to take it apart to “fix” it! What. The. Hell?! Value the process, people.

Because I know I’m not the only control freak who struggles with allowing the creative process to unfold, here are some tips for letting that process happen, courtesy of the NAEYC (seriously, I love these people—check them out!):

  • REMEMBER THAT IT’S NOT YOUR ART. I put this in all caps. It’s that important. Channel Queen Elsa and…wait for it…let it go. Yeah, I went there.
  • Comment on what you see: “Wow! Look at the color you made by mixing all the paint together.” “I see you’ve made a lot of purple spots!” Don’t offer an opinion or judgment.
  • Make art a fun, open-play experience. Provide a variety of materials, let children use more paint or more colors, and let them make all the art they want to!

Art, whether at home or in school, should be a fun and creative process for your child. They are learning while they play, and you’re growing, too, as you learn to cede creative control to the wee ones!

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Christina lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter, and two English Springer Spaniels. Before becoming a reluctant stay-at-home mom, she worked in a variety of customer-service-oriented jobs while dreaming of living in the lap of luxury as a housewife. Unfortunately, having a child threw a wrench in Christina's plan to do nothing but eat bonbons while lounging in the Jacuzzi reading all day. Now, she spends her time looking for fun activities and crafts for her daughter and easy-to-prepare meals for her family, while trying not to land the kid in therapy when she grows up. Christina volunteers at several different places, and her particular passion is for her role as a sexuality educator. She loves to read, and to learn about--and share--new products and resources.

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