Conversations on Paintings
By Tom Limbert, Head Teacher
As the first few weeks passed in West PM and the children grew more and more comfortable exploring our classroom, the teachers were watching and listening closely for a communal interest to emerge that we could build into a long-term project. Before long we noticed that we had a group of children who consistently enjoyed painting. For many children it was their entry ritual. Each day as they entered our room, they would venture over to the easels with their parent or guardian to create and discuss. Others would make a stop later in the day, on their way out to play or coming in for some downtime. Every day both of our drying racks were filled with masterpieces of all kinds and from all kinds. The teaching team decided to take a closer look at the paintings and have the ideas and the work be the focus of our classroom community.
We began by taking more time to ask the children about their work, write down their words and ideas, and document their finished products with digital photos. We compiled the pictures of their paintings in a book and had them share their work with the class at storytime on a daily basis. Tanner explained his painting simply, “I put lines here and here.” For Evan, it was more about color recognition and experimentation, “I drawed black on the purple. Look, little dots right here. Now I’m using purple again.” Other paintings were more representational or even sparked storytelling. Julia K. told a teacher about her painting, “Once upon a time there was a bear in the house and there were two little people and they were scared and a little fish came and the bear was crying. I’m done.” We hoped that by asking them about their work, by having them share their work and by documenting and displaying their work, the children and their parents would see that we all have different ideas and, more subtly, that we proceed differently in developing as painters.
As the teachers discussed our project, I was impressed with their sensitive and careful responses to the children’s art. Cathy Weisman Topal explains in Children and Painting that “children go through fairly predictable stages as they develop abilities to use paint and express themselves.” Our goal was not to rush the process for any of the children, but rather to provide each one with the time and the means to explore each stage and each painting experience. For years, I had been taught not to force representational art onto a child by asking of a painting “What is it?” I was instructed to ask more open-ended questions, such as
“Tell me about your painting,” and this approach always made perfect sense. But, as we discussed in a staff meeting, even that seemingly safe and innocent response to a child’s work can carry a subtle influence toward representation. When it was pointed out that most of the children who had been sharing their work at storytimes were older and were displaying representational art, we made an effort to display the work of children who were more involved with colors, patterns, and lines.
Responding to the children’s paintings was a topic of discussion at several of our staff meetings and the occasion for professional growth. We read “Suggestions for Talking with Children about Their Art” from The Colors of Learning by Rosemary Althouse, Margaret H. Johnson and Sharon T. Mitchell, who encourage teachers to focus on specific elements of children’s artwork and to help children focus on how they used the art media. It was enlightening to discover that asking children how they created their art invited them to reflect on the process — a useful cognitive challenge and a tool for the artists’ future endeavors. The children picked up on this vocabulary and the practice of discussing their artwork. At storytimes it was not uncommon to hear a child ask another child, “How did you make the wheels?” or “Why did you use blue on top?” When the artist answered plainly, “I just went like this with the brush” or “Because that’s my favorite color,” the children took another’s perspective for a moment and seemed to accept and understand.
Responding prudently, sensitively, and specifically to children’s artwork can be difficult, but the exchange is appropriate, necessary, and valuable for focusing on the children’s ideas and their work. Everything we teachers learned about responding to children’s art can be used by parents and caregivers as well. The next time a child hands you a painting, ask about the specifics, the details, the shapes, and the colors of the painting.
At times, you’ll want to acknowledge the effort the child obviously put into the work. An older child may be ready to discuss the creation process. Just try to resist the judgment (“It’s beautiful”) or the call to representation (“What is it?”) or even the open-ended question (“Can you tell me about your painting?”) This last one may elicit an elaborate tale of knights and princesses, but it could also elicit the response I got from Venkat one afternoon: “Yes, you can put it here to dry.”