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Is it Arts AND Crafts or Arts OR Crafts?

Earlier in the year, I started an art program at the KidsUp! Parent Child Center on Bainbridge Island.  I began with craft-type, direction-based projects every other Tuesday afternoon. I ran into a number of obstacles, one being that the afternoon wasn’t an optimum time for younger children, then, choosing a craft for ages 0-6 was very challenging.  However, parents seemed to respond to the catchy titles and project descriptions and attendance was good for a new program.

The projects resulted in an esthetically pleasing finished project and the parents were happy. Unfortunately, while the children enjoyed the very simple projects (glue googly eyes on a pine cone), they were overwhelmed by multiple directions combined with the opportunity to think creatively. They struggled through the project and left the table as soon as they could. Not the vision I had for developing a preschool art program that would build a lifelong platform for making and appreciating art while learning fundamental skills like eye-hand coordination, creative and imaginative thinking, and enjoying self-reflective projects.

In response, I started an open studio – one table for clay or Play Doh, one for easels and painting, one for collage and oil pastel drawing. No directions, minimal supervision, just a room dedicated to art materials and exploration. This was loosely based on the Reggio-Emilia idea that a child should be provided a stimulating environment and learning should happen independently as the child explores without guidance or direction. Wow – what a difference.  Children were running into the art studio when they were ready to make art, choosing the medium they wanted to use, and on their own, deciding what they wanted to make. Oftentimes, parents were relaxing outside of the room and the same kids that wouldn’t sit though a 15 minute art project were spending 45 mins to an hour painting and sculpting.  When the pieces were completed, children not only titled their works by describing what they had made, but would tell long, involved stories about the painting. Some children even painted in series. This was exactly what I was trying to do….build an enthusiasm for art which would grow in the years to come, allowing children to find a quiet peace when they sit down with a paper and paints or clay, and grow into adults who through all the busy, panicked dealings of everyday life can sit down for a few minutes and escape into their imagination to re-center their focus.

So why did the latter work while the other was such a failure (for the children)? A preschool teacher told me the other day that they had difficulty helping a child with an art project because they didn’t always know what the child was thinking and when they tried to help, the child got very upset because they were doing something that the child wasn’t trying to do. Then it clicked. As adults, we like to have a process that leads to a result. We try to categorize and define things in an attempt to find a logical and efficient solution. When we provide projects for our children, we are giving them opportunities to learn, or we are teaching them something. Teaching is a method, so it only makes sense that we revert to process=results. We want the children to have a good-looking result because, as adults, that is how we judge success. However, success for children is not necessarily results-based until they learn that results are important.  Success is about achieving what they intended in their minds, not ours. Often what is successful to them is not esthetic to us. But I believe that success in preschool art is achieved when the child feels he/she has been successful because that is what will create the enthusiasm for the next project.

So how, as adults, do we guide children with art, without directing them from their original intent? It clicked for me the other day when I was speaking to the preschool teacher. I had a moment after I spoke to her when I thought, “Why were you interfering with her art project?” Then I realized that they were actually doing more of a craft project so the child likely needed assistance with the tools or method to reach the intended result. What if we are able, as adults, to label preschool projects as art OR craft – not arts AND crafts? We can make a specific distinction.  Crafts are projects with exact instructions, which when followed will lead to a defined result. Crafts are important because they teach us to use tools, follow directions, work with colors, develop eye hand coordination, etc… These are things that we use in every aspect of life and also the foundation for making art.  Art is an experience.  The materials provided are used to exchange thoughts and ideas, a basic and effective means of communication.  Art allows the artist to interpret his or her environment while delving into the depths of the imagination. Art is something that doesn’t need assistance and does not rely on a finished project.

These definitions made the direction of my art project at the center and projects with my 4-year-old son very clear. Some days we will make crafts; some days we will make art. Crafts will have themes and specific goals; art will be completely (adult) hands off, providing only materials and a peaceful environment to create. With any luck, the crafts will build the skills that will grow the art. And I, as a parent and teacher, can take a deep breath and feel like I know what I’m doing for a change, which is what I consider success for me.

Laura Kessler
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