Art is such an important subject. It offers opportunities for individuals to explore both imaginative and creative theory and application. Furthermore, it has the potential to release the expression of what may be most important to a person. Art can both affect change on an individual as well as a society. It can challenge both cultural norms and our perception of ourselves and those around us.
It is really interesting and exciting for me to write about art and children. On my journey this year it is something that I have been thinking about a lot. Children are arguably the most liberally imaginative humans on the planet. And this creativity deserves acknowledgement and critical attention. Fine art and crafts are taught to children across the globe. However, it is important to question whether the art that children access is restrictive or liberating, narrow or wide. It is the difference between whether children are nurtured and supported to explore their creativity and emotions, or if they are nurtured to perfect their skills. Is it skills-based learning or emotional/creative growth?
It might be easiest to think about this question by considering two different ways to approach art: skills and creativity. A good example is drawing. Children learn to make marks when they are young and as they mature their marks begin to represent meaning.
Do educators then allow children to represent their own version of say a tree or do they teach the 'correct' way to draw a tree. Do they take either the skills approach or the creative approach, or do they somehow strike a happy balance between the two. Do adults appreciate the diversity of imagination in young minds or do they inadvertently sometimes squash that creativity with their own idea of what it should look like.
These are interesting questions that I would challenge all educators to really think about when teaching art to children. It is often easiest to teach the skill than to let the child have free reign over their work. The adult perception of presentation and what things should look like so easily creeps into a child's world. I am certainly guilty of this at times. It is often easier to teach practical skill than to somehow challenge and nurture a child's creative work. It can be hard to understand what a child is trying to express when what they have created has no meaning in our adult world view. But that makes it no less precious and valuable.
Artistic skills are incredibly important. Learning to represent what you see, how to hold a pencil and to mix colours correctly are essential skills for any budding artist. However, I would love to challenge my own practice as well as call on other educators to question theirs, to establish a true balance between skills-based and creative learning and teaching.
I have been lucky enough during my stay in Sri Lanka to be able to observe and help out in a children's art studio. The Little Fingers studio offers dedicated art classes for children to attend out of school time. I would encourage you to take a look at their website as they have an impressive pedagogical stance and express the importance of art.
In Little Fingers' classes children of mixed ages are invited to draw something of their choice. The child decides what they want to draw and they work specifically in one medium, for example oil pastel. The child has ownership of the colours and the way that they draw. Their teacher will support and challenge the child to draw in a way that may improve their artistic skill. For example, children learn to blend, mix colours and to outline as well as retaining their own artistic power and choice.
The classes that I participated in were both small groups of children aged three to seven years. It was lovely to witness the routine that the children attending exhibited.
They were clear on their choices and were able to concentrate well. The children worked on one drawing each for the full two hour session and were engrossed in their accomplishments. This was impressive to witness and it was a privilege to see the artistic achievement from starting with a blank page through to completion. Given the time scale, children were able to show real care and attention within their work.
The youngest artists in the group are supported for the first few sessions by their parents. I was impressed to see the level of skill and attention shown by all of the children, young and old. Each child knew exactly what they were drawing and were able to explain their colour choices and the marks they made, even the 4 year olds.
I really enjoyed spending time with the classes and the children were friendly, engaged, and the outcomes of their work were very beautiful. But most importantly of all, they were proud of their artwork. They executed their work with minimal support from the adults and were able to freely express exactly what they wanted.
It is also worth saying that the process of drawing together is very therapeutic and mindful. As someone who loves to draw myself, it was lovely to be in a creative space as a group, working side by side on individual projects.
It is also important to think of the atmosphere in which children (and adults) may be best able to express their creativity, and to feel the calm and concentration that can be achieved. Little Fingers art studio is spacious and children sit together at a big table within a quiet room. Space is an important part of being able to be artistically free. The environment around us can act both as a space to achieve artistic endevaours but also as inspiration. In the case of the Little Fingers studios, both in Colombo and Negombo, the space is light, colourful and has inspiring artworks displayed on the wall. Children are free to chat and the conversation had a natural ebb and flow as the children paused to chatter before continuing with their drawings.
Little Fingers classes occur in monthly blocks with weekly offered to children. On my visits I sat in on drawing sessions but children also receive have craft and cookery classes. Little Fingers not only offers classes to young children, but also for students up to A level. It was interesting to hear that the A level students actually study the syllabus produced in the UK. This is a syllabus that I myself studied at A level and from what I remember it is a very loose and empowering exam. Students are given a topic or word and are expected to interpret individually and justify and produce their own portfolio of work surrounding their theme.
It is interesting to ponder if, as educators, we provide young children with open-ended opportunities for expressive creativity. Do we give children project-based work and encourage them to create individual artwork, or are they simply supported to produce carbon copies of the teacher's examples? Are skills sessions and creative projects interwoven or distinctly separate or is there an emphasis upon one more than the other?
Arguably class size might be one consideration. In the UK we can have class sizes of up to 30+ children. Supporting that many children to each follow their own creative journey certainly poses challenges.
It was a privilege to be able to witness the process of children planning and executing their own artwork stemming from their own interests at Little Fingers art studio.
I would argue that both skill and creativity are necessary and work symbiotically for artists to produce meaningful and powerful works. Both skill and creativity can flourish in an individual but it is our job as educational providers to be able to support and to enable these important aspects of a child's artisticness to grow.