The Art of Art

Question: My consultants keep talking about “child-directed art” and how I don’t have enough of it to satisfy ECERS requirements. What exactly is the difference between “child-directed” and “teacher-directed” art?

Answer: That’s a topic that often confuses teachers, because it can seem so subjective. Here are some guidelines and examples that might help you:

Generally, child-directed art refers to an art activity where children get to choose the materials and how they use them.  This doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all of toddlers marking up the walls, of course. It might, though, look something like this:

  • Giving 3-year-olds pieces of paper and being allowed to choose their colors and paint with brushes or hands as they see fit.
  • Giving 4-year-olds a pile of magazines, sequins, paper scraps, and old buttons, along with some glue and scissors, and the freedom to create whatever they want.
  • Offering cotton balls, white paint, glitter, or some combination, and inviting children to “make snow.”

These experiences are offered with close supervision, of course, both for safety and for encouraging language development, planning, and thoughtful expression. The key piece is to not overly direct what they choose to do.


What child-directed art DOES NOT look like:

  • a teacher dabbing glue on some paper and directing a child where to put three cotton balls to “make a snowman.”
  • giving children worksheets or coloring book pages.
  • pressing their hands in paint and then on a paper and telling them to go wash.

Granted, teacher-directed art projects like these can be very cute, and parents love them, but they don’t give children a chance to learn through exploring or expressing themselves creatively.  Some teachers limit teacher-directed art to special occasions like holidays in order to make gifts for parents, and then focus on child-directed art the rest of the time.

Child-directed art benefits children in many ways, the biggest of which is often simply motivation: children enjoy the chance to make their own decisions and explore materials freely much more than they enjoy following step-by-step adult directions, and they can take more pride and ownership in their finished products as well. This enjoyment motivates them to spend more time developing the creativity, attention span, and fine-motor skills that art experiences help build.


Down in the Dumps

Down in the Dumps – February 3rd, 2017

Question: My center is going through rating scales, and my consultant keeps talking to me about how I need more materials in my 2-year-old room. I’ve tried to give my kids more things to play with, but they just dump everything out or break things and lose the pieces. Can I just get what I need and put it out when the window opens?

Answer: Anyone who has worked with toddlers or 2s knows they are exuberant dumpers, and don’t always know how to treat toys appropriately. Many teachers handle this the way you have – by limiting the materials kids have access to. Unfortunately, giving children a bunch of new materials right before an ITERS assessment to meet the requirements is a recipe for disaster. Raters can tell if children don’t typically have access to materials: they tend to mob anything new, fight over it, and they clearly don’t understand how to use it. Chaos quickly descends, which opens up other rating issues related to discipline and teacher interactions.

Your better bet is to do everything you can to actively TEACH your kids how to play appropriately, regardless of ITERS. That means sitting with them on the floor, modeling appropriate use of, say, blocks, by building, talking about what you’re doing, and encouraging them to try things out. If children are using materials in a way that’s dangerous – such as hitting with the blocks – it’s okay to put them up for a little while or to remove the child to a different center for a short period to help convey that this behavior is not safe. But it’s equally important to let them try again as soon as possible, and reinforce appropriate behavior with lots of praise and attention.

Also, remember that 2s at the beginning of the year are different animals than by the end of the year, and different materials are often needed as their abilities and interests shift, so you don’t need to have all possible materials out all the time. In fact, it’s often best to rotate toys in order to provide some novelty and to observe how they interact with materials differently as they grow.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that even though you can’t expect 2s to know how to clean up after themselves, you can start guiding them in that direction by using buckets or bins that are clearly labeled with pictures of what’s inside them, and identical pictures on the shelf. Showing them these pictures – and a lot of repetition — helps them begin to understand the idea of what goes where. Giving them very specific tasks at clean up time can help build these skills – not “everyone clean up!” but “Chloe, can you please help me put these potato heads into this bucket.” Arranging your shelves and furniture so there are clear boundaries and centers can also help contain the mess, as children often will tend to run or roam more in wide-open spaces.

It’s a natural part of children’s development that they love to dump, and that can create a stressful situation for teachers. Sometimes it helps to give children an appropriate outlet for this interest, such as providing purses and shopping bags they can put things in and carry around, or big plastic pitchers and bowls they can use to pour things back and forth. Actively playing with them can give them new, more interesting alternatives, too.

You might find that the more children have to play with, and the more time you spend interacting with them around their play, the fewer behavioral problems there will be. Boredom can spell disaster for a room full of 2s, but children with enough to do to engage their interest are usually too busy to get up to much trouble.