The art of early childhood learning

By Cheryl Whatley

There is more happening when a 3-year old takes up a marker than you might think. Two children sit down at a small table with a box of markers and some paper. Right away the negotiations begin with regard to who gets which color marker, which piece of paper is better, and whether there is room for a third child to join them-sharing and friendship at the art table.

At this time of year Jewish preschools are enrolling children into summer camp and even fall classes. What happens at the art table isn’t always the first question a parent asks about the program, but it is a part where unexpected learning takes place.

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For some children choosing a color comes first; for others it is the idea of what to “draw.” Drawing does not mean quite the same thing to a preschooler as to an older child. The earliest drawings are random, scribbling marks without meaning, but they provide interaction with the child’s environment. As the child explores intentionally, making marks on paper, he builds coordination. Large paper and large arm movements give way to smaller paper and a mastery of holding a marker or paint brush. The teacher provides new vocabulary by commenting on the circles, lines and colors appearing.

At this point it is all about the process. Paint, markers, crayons, and clay, handled with fingers and other utensils provide the children with a variety of tactile experiences on which to base their knowledge of materials and their ability to create. Tearing, cutting and gluing come later as the child builds fine-motor control. Applying these same techniques to various textures of paper or fabric and feeling the difference in clay that has sand mixed into it expands the little learners’ art-and science-concepts.

When children’s efforts become more purposeful, even if they still look like scribbles or unidentifiable blobs, the child chooses the color to use and decides what to draw or sculpt. She now labels the artwork, saying, “I am making a cat; this is my Grammy’s cat.” Explaining to others what she is drawing requires storytelling, vocabulary and imagination. It also builds companionship as another child looks and listens and then shares her ideas or maybe even expands on the first by drawing her version of a cat, “This is a mommy cat, and now I’ll draw a baby cat.” A teacher might show them an assortment of Hanukkah menorahs and find that some children are trying to replicate them in their artwork.

As they build their love of art, preschoolers are also expanding their concepts of shape, color and texture. They are communicating with others about ideas. And ultimately each develops a personal style of expression.