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I have never made any secret of my disdain for stencils and structured, adult driven craft experiences being labelled as art. Whether you like these experiences and routinely offer them to children, or call for the burning of such atrocities, or sit somewhere in the middle, believing everything in moderation,  to call them art really is an insult to art. Art is defined as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”  (www,oxforddictionaries.com)

I would like to think that the majority of educators would not refer to a reindeer footprint, where a child has been used as a human stamp and then an adult has craftily drawn in a face and other “reindeer parts”, as art. There is clearly very little creative skill (definitely not on the child’s behalf) and imagination (particularly when 25 children all have the same reindeer). It is a very adult directed experience. 

Art on the other hand is free. Art does not need to be an experience, simply a creative exploration of materials and techniques. When children engage in art, we see things that we would never see in a craft experience. We see the world through their eyes. 

With this in mind, I created an art space for my daughter who is almost three. She asks to paint almost daily and draws constantly. I wanted a space where she could access materials and be free to create. Today was the first time she used it and she was delighted. As for me, I found myself walking a fine line between guidance and interference. I wanted to show her how to wash the brush. I fought the urge to explain that if she didn’t blot the brush after washing it, water would drip down the canvas. I resisted stopping her from turning each colour in the tray into a delightful shade of brown.

The whole time she was painting, I had this internal struggle between guiding her and showing her technique (which was well intentioned and is a genuine part of learning) and actually interfering in her creative process. Perhaps dripping water down the canvas was part of her process. Maybe she intended to create lots of variations of brown! 

As educators, this internal struggle is a good thing, a sign of critical reflection. It is important that we really think about just how free and creative and imaginative we enable children to be when exploring art. While stencils and product focussed craft activities are not my idea of a quality early childhood experience, I think we need to remember that they are merely a symptom of an adult focused, controlling attitude that lurks within some of us. If we take that attitude into creative art opportunities with children – we may as well be using stencils! 

So, take some time to reflect on your attitudes to art. Do you allow children to manipulate ,materials in ways that they are comfortable with? Do you encourage them to learn trial and error? Or do you feel the urge to yell out “no, you’re ruining it!” when they paint over their lovely flower with black paint?!

i would love to hear your thoughts… And as for me,  I will get back to washing paint of the floor!
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