The first step toward doing meaningful arts and crafts with young children is understanding the difference between art and craft.
To craft is to make something beautiful that you will use. To knit a scarf or build a chair is craft, because you will use those items to meet a practical need. One needs to keep warm, and one often needs to sit.
To make art is to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty. A painting or a sculpture does not keep you physically warm, and a photograph is not very useful if you need a place to sit. We make paintings and sculptures because they are beautiful and not because they meet a practical need.
ARTS & CRAFTS WITH LITTLE ONES
Let me describe a typical craft that I see in early childhood classrooms and daycares during this time of year. A teacher or parent passes out a coloring page featuring a picture of a turkey. The child is instructed to color the turkey and to then glue colorful feathers onto the tail as per the teacher's (or parent's) example.
This is not art, and it is not a craft. It's not a bad activity, and the children will most likely enjoy it. But it is not craft, as this turkey picture will not serve a purpose, and it is not art, because the child is not being asked to create.
It is actually more of a math project, as it teaches spatial skills and 1:1 correspondence. The child is required to look at an object and how it is put together, and then match the teacher's example. This is not creating. Coloring a turkey is also not art. It may help to develop spatial skills and build fine motor skills, as the student must fill a space between lines. But it is not creating.
These kinds of activities are completely okay, especially if your kiddos really enjoy them. But a classroom (or home) arts & crafts program should not be built around these kinds of activities.
A teacher or parent who wants to teach art to young children (that includes babies and toddlers!) should center their program around these two types of art: exploratory art and representational art. These are the types of art that children need to do.
In exploratory art, children are learning how to use the media and tools that they are provided with. They slap their paintbrushes around the page, mix paint colors, stab their paper with markers, and pour on tons of glue. Children will engage in this kind of art anytime they are introduced to new media and new tools. During this kind of art it is your job to teach the appropriate use of the tools and media that they are given. You will teach how to hold a paint brush, how to squeeze just a little glue, how to gently draw lines with markers, and how to hold a piece of paper so that it doesn't move when they are drawing. You don't need to give them an assignment. Let them play and explore, they are learning!
When a child feels comfortable within a certain art medium, they will begin creating a second kind of art: representational art.
Representational art is when children begin using art tools and media to recreate the world around them. Young children recreate the world in order to understand it. They will draw planes, dogs, their families, a favorite character from a television show they like, and more. You can support this type of learning by offering them "research materials" on subjects that interest them: paintings, photographs and realia (real things.) You can set up representational art "invitations" for them: A small table spread with beautiful photographs of flowers and a vase of fresh flowers along with high quality paper and water colors is an invitation to paint flowers. They don't have to paint the flowers but they are invited to do so. Once again, they don't need an assignment. Children are very good at assigning themselves engaging and challenging art projects.
An important part of any early childhood art program is craft. Teach children how to sew, knit, build and carve with wood and form clay into cups and bowls. Teaching children how to make useful things empowers them, and allows the opportunity for some pretty awesome social studies discussions. How are things made? Who makes them? How were things made in the past? How are things made in other countries, other cultures?
For your next art lesson, why not ditch the turkey feathers and try something new? Let the children have free exploration with a new medium, or set up a representational art invitation. If you have any crafting skills such as crochet or woodwork, invite the little ones to try their hand at that craft. Have fun!
For more ideas about doing meaningful arts and crafts with
young children, check out these books: