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The Goal of Elementary Art

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

One of my biggest struggles during my first year teaching elementary art was in worrying about what the classroom teacher was going to think of their student's art projects. Some classroom teachers are great, they know what their kids are capable of and they have joy when they see their kids creativity. Others expect the art to all look good in an adult's eyes. But this is never my goal. My goal as an art teacher is to develop brave artists. Creativity is the number one trait that I seek to unleash in my students. A creative artist is a brave artist. Experimentation should always be encouraged and different outcomes should be expected. Let's stop making cookie-cutter art!

Kindergarteners come to us with all the creativity in the world. First graders as well. Slowly around 4th grade something happens to kids. They begin to see themselves more clearly in the eyes of others. Some begin to worry about what others think of them, they start to feel an intense desire to fit in. I have seen a child look at their friend's drawing, and even though theirs was more creative they want to start over and make it just like their friends. Creativity goes by the way side as they struggle with an intense desire to conform. I have seen this start as early as second grade. We need to protect the part of the child that doesn't censor and judge their own art. How do we do this? We do this by not having expectations of art looking the same or "good" in the eyes of an adult. We have to embrace variety and experimentation. Process art is one way to do this.

We also have to be very careful with criticism with elementary aged children. I'll never forget when I was in kindergarten and my teacher traced our bodies onto a large sheet of white paper and then instructed us to color them in. I looked through the crayons for something that looked like my skin color, the closest thing I could find was brown, so without thinking much of it, I colored my skin brown. My kindergarten teacher came by later and seemed horrified by my choice. She told me I did it wrong, my skin color wasn't brown. All of a sudden my drawing seemed bad to me, I did it wrong, I felt ashamed for getting it wrong. Luckily I had parents who encouraged my art, so I bounced back and eventually grew up and became an art teacher. Still, I will never forget that feeling of shame that my teacher put on me for choosing a "wrong" color. I've seen so many teachers unintentionally shame students about their art.

We should always approach our students with curiosity. Instead of saying, "Your skin color is wrong." We could say, "Are you happy with your skin color?" By saying this a teacher can find out if a child painted something the wrong color by accident, or if it was intentional. In the end, all that should matter is if the child is happy with the result.

When a parent or teacher overcorrects a child, the child begins to doubt themselves. They start to think, "I'm not a good artist (writer, reader, surfer, etc)." Some children will just give up and stop trying. They will begin to procrastinate. At worst, by the time they are in high school they will be the student who does nothing in art class. (If you have been a high school teacher, you know exactly who I'm talking about.) I believe that if we keep art fun by focusing on the process throughout elementary school and even into high school, we can perhaps avoid this self doubt, creativity killer trap.

You cannot teach creativity to a five year old, but you can teach the creativity out of a child. Let's not do that. A five year old can teach creativity to you, just sit back and watch them play or draw without inhibitions. All we can do as parents and teachers is give them the tools and technique to create. Real creativity comes from within each of us. Kindergarteners are the bravest artists out there, let's keep them that way.

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