Children’s Art: more important than ever

“I forgot to get the pictures I painted,” says my 5-year old Maggie, leaving me to wait at the preschool pick-up as she races back inside the building. My eyes scan the parking lot now filling up with cars. I glance at my watch. Another few minutes and it will be packed with moms and dads. When Maggie returns she’s carrying a stack of papers.

“What’s this?” The top sheet is still damp. A white paper coated with blue and green wavy streaks.

“I painted a lake.”

“I can see that.” My patronizing tone does little to disguise my real concern–the cars pulling in behind me, filling up the lot—we need to go before we get parked in. “Come on, let’s hurry,” I say taking the pile of papers.

She inhales sharply. “No. I forgot one. I’ve got to go back inside.” Her voice is as stoic as a soldier’s. Unwilling to leave one of her own behind, she takes off running.

“Hurry back,” I call after her.

I wait, gazing at her drying lake, the paint still glossy in patches. The shades blend together in dark marine hues, the colors the middle-deep of the ocean. For a moment I forget the cars, the traffic, the whatever-I’m-doing-after-school and look at her artwork. Really look. I’m astounded.


Each drawing, collage and picture means something. They’re expressions of her growing personality, her style—whimsical and thought provoking, her views of the world.

Days before I’d read a sign on the wall of the coatroom. This is what it said about children’s art…

“Through making, looking at, and talking about their own artwork and the art of others, three-, four-, and five-year-old children are doing the following…”

Expressing their feelings and emotions in a safe way.

Practicing and gaining fine muscle control and strengthening eye-hand motor coordination.

Developing perceptual abilities.

Being given the opportunity to make choices and solve problems.

Seeing that others have differing points of view and ways of expressing these than they do.

Becoming aware of the idea that, through art, culture is transmitted.

Experiencing success.

Making connections between the visual arts and other disciplines.

As a child, I was lucky to be the subject of a study by two well-known Penn State art professors, Brent and Marjorie Wilson, co-authors of the book Teaching Children How to Draw. (Now in its second edition, the book is the definitive work on the subject.)

I spent several weekends and evenings in their Soho-esque home art studio, engaged in conversations as I drew. Sometimes they’d want me to draw an object. Other times we’d play creative art games starting with something like…me drawing a fish, Brent adding to it, then me drawing, then him, back and forth, telling a story with our pictures until the page was filled with wild details. The portraits I drew of him, five different expressions, is included in the book. It never occurred to me I was learning about emotions or what it meant to be fearful, silly, angry, sad or surprised, it was just plain fun.

I also gained self-confidence; adults were listening to me, even encouraging my thoughts! Brent and Marjorie were vocal proponents of the children’s art movement–nothing radical for their times…these were the 70’s. Nobody was none too worried about art education back then. Every school had an art teacher, every classroom a stash of Elmer’s glue, markers, crayons, and scissors. We even got a free pad of paper and a pencil on the first day of class. Who could have imagined a future without art?

Fast forward to post 2000…

Our family moved to California just as the housing meltdown was turning volcanic. Schwarzenegger was governor (still married to Maria) and educational budgets for public schools had tanked. There was zero to zippo money for art. (And these were the good schools.) Worried my kids were missing out, I volunteered as an “art helper” in my eight-year old’s classroom. What I discovered both amazed and disturbed me.

These young elementary kids were hungry for art yet, without much previous experience, many felt uncomfortable drawing or creating something of their own. I’ll never forget one little boy who cried tears of frustration because I asked him to draw a simple picture of his choice on a blank sheet of paper. That white sheet might have been the most frightening experience of his young academic career. The children lacked confidence. They’d sit patiently, waiting for me to come around to help them. In some instances, I had to put my hand over theirs and guide them to begin.

During the course of that year we painted like Michelangelo, lying on our backs, coloring papers we taped to the bottom of their desks. We cut paper like Matisse. We made paintings consisting of only dots like Seurat. While they came to enjoy the lessons, I never felt it was enough to make a real impact. There were always the few who agonized over the creation process, upset if their project didn’t turn out as planned. I tried to make this part of the lesson too. We all fail sometimes, but we learn in the process. This was perhaps the toughest art lesson of all.

To create is to risk. Art is the best medium for children to test the outer most boundaries of their limits. To fail is to learn how to succeed the next time.

As human beings we must create or lose the part of ourselves that feels and interacts with the world at large. Art is universal and ageless. Art requires nothing but imagination.

Bob Bryant has written, “Today’s students are inundated with data but are starving for meaningful learning…. an effective education in the fine arts helps students to see what they look at, hear what they listen to, and feel what they touch.” Kids need art, as much as they need math, science and reading. Brent and Marjorie Wilson had no idea how radical they really were.

I’ve got Maggie’s lake on display in the kitchen, along with her fairies, fish and other creations. Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” When I look at Maggie’s artwork I see her world, a child’s world, something better than my own. She reminds me of what is good and beautiful and possible. If nothing else we need children’s art to remind us how to dream.


5 Comments on “Children’s Art: more important than ever

  1. This is so true. Art is such an individual way to express ourselves. Maggie does gorgeous work! I was goofy enough to frame my children’s work–hundreds of $ in frames! Oh well. I still love them. Art communicates like nothing else. Music too. And writing. I love letting children pick what best speaks for them.

    • I framed several pieces of my boy’s art when they were little. I still love to see them up on the wall. Cheery, bold colors. The $ is worth it!

  2. Your article is wonderful and thought-provoking. I like the way you describe your own transition from mundane pressures to mindful consideration of what Maggie is experiencing – she, too, felt her own pressures to gather up what is meaningful and precious to her. To not “lose” part of herself!

    Dr. Wilson was one of my father’s (Dr. Paul Edmonston) colleagues at Penn State. I remember him keeping an art journal during church.

    My father was a proponent of Vicktor Lowenfeld, a Viennese-educated professor, who viewed art education as a “dialogue between teacher and student.” Growing up, my Dad always wanted me to talk to him about what I created: “What were you thinking about? Did you feel sad or happy when you drew this?” Like you mention above, it is the PROCESS of creating art that’s emphasized and learned from vs. the end result of the visual. Typically, the two are separated into Art Education vs. Fine Arts at a university.

  3. Lana – this is amazing. I must pick your brain on this topic a bit more when I see you next.. You have really inspired me here.. I’ve got a toddler who is a bit too inhibited when it comes to art, which makes me wonder where that comes from..

    • I think of art as a conversation with children. It’s self expression. If it’s more comfortable for them, you can start the dialogue. Begin with a wavy line or how about an image of a dinosaur? (Kids love dinosaurs.) It doesn’t have to be perfect, think Picasso. Just make it fun and inviting. Ask them questions…what is this dinosaur going to do? Kids always have good ideas. Let them show you on paper. Then you can add some more. Back and forth. It’s a game, but they’re gaining confidence.

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