Art in Early Childhood: Curriculum Connections

By Jill Englebright Fox, Ph.D., and Stacey Berry, M.Ed. (Part 1)

Art has traditionally been an important part of early childhood programs. Friedrich Froebel, the father of kindergarten, believed that young children should be involved in both making their own art and enjoying the art of others. To Froebel, art activities were important, not because they allowed teachers to recognize children with unusual abilities, but because they encouraged each child's "full and all-sided development" (Froebel, 1826). More than a century later, early childhood teachers are still concerned with the "all-sided" development of each child. Our curriculum includes activities that will help children develop their cognitive, social, and motor abilities. As Froebel recognized, making art and enjoying the art of other people and cultures are very important to the development of the whole child. The purpose of this article is to discuss the importance of art in young children's learning and development and to describe elements of an art program within a developmentally appropriate early childhood curriculum.

Art and Socio-Emotional Development

Young children feel a sense of emotional satisfaction when they are involved in making art, whether they are modeling with clay, drawing with crayons, or making a collage from recycled scraps. This satisfaction comes from the control children have over the materials they use and the autonomy they have in the decisions they make (Schirrmacher, 1998; Seefeldt, 1993). Deciding what they will make and what materials they will use may be the first opportunity children have to make independent choices and decisions.

Making art also builds children's self-esteem by giving them opportunities to express what they are thinking and feeling (Klein, 1991; Sautter, 1994). Sautter (1994) stated that when children participate in art activities with classmates, the feedback they give to each other builds self-esteem by helping them learn to accept criticism and praise from others. Small group art activities also help children practice important social skills like taking turns, sharing, and negotiating for materials.

Art and Cognitive Development

For very young children, making art is a sensory exploration activity. They enjoy the feeling of a crayon moving across paper and seeing a blob of colored paint grow larger. Kamii and DeVries (1993) suggested that exploring materials is very important because it is through exploration that children build a knowledge of the objects in the world around them.

Activities centering around making art also require children to make decisions and conduct self-evaluations. Klein (1991) described four decisions that child artists make. First, they decide what they will portray in their art—a person, a tree, a dragon. Second, they choose the media they will use, the arrangement of objects in their work, and the perspective viewers will take. Children decide next how quickly or how slowly they will finish their project, and finally, how they will evaluate their creation. Most often, children evaluate their artwork by thinking about what they like and what other people tell them is pleasing (Feeney & Moravcik, 1987).

As children grow and develop, their art-making activities move beyond exploring with their senses and begin to involve the use of symbols. Children begin to represent real objects, events, and feelings in their artwork. Drawing, in particular, becomes an activity that allows them to symbolize what they know and feel. It is a needed outlet for children whose vocabulary, written or verbal, may be limited (de la Roche, 1996). This early use of symbols in artwork is very important because it provides a foundation for children's later use of words to symbolize objects and actions in formal writing.

Art and Motor Development

While making art, young children develop control of large and small muscle groups (Koster, 1997). The large arm movements required for painting or drawing at an easel or on large paper on the floor build coordination and strength. The smaller movements of fingers, hands, and wrists required to cut with scissors, model clay, or draw or paint on smaller surfaces develop fine motor dexterity and control. With repeated opportunities for practice, young children gain confidence in their use of tools for making art and later for writing.

Making art also helps children develop eye-hand coordination (Koster, 1997). As children decide how to make parts fit together into a whole, where to place objects, and what details to include, they learn to coordinate what they see with the movements of their hands and fingers. This eye-hand coordination is essential for many activities, including forming letters and spacing words in formal writing.