By Lauren Melendres, Assistant Teacher
What parent or teacher has not been invited by a child to observe and comment on his or her artwork? Drawing, painting and other forms of art are certainly a form of expression and communication at any age. But, as was emphasized at a favorite presentation I attended at the 2003 National Association for the Education of Young Children, when armed with the right “tools” discussing a child’s artwork with the child can help provide the means for developing a child’s artistic literacy.
Thousands of early childhood educators from all over the country attended the more than 1,000 sessions offered at the annual NAEYC conference, which covered a wide range of topics and themes. Bing Nursery School was represented by 12 teachers, several of whom made presentations.
As a first-year teacher at Bing, I was offered the opportunity to attend the conference. I was shocked at the sheer magnitude of the event. It was held Nov. 5-8 at the Convention Center in Chicago. It was a bit difficult to select which sessions to attend among the many choices. In the end, I was able to attend a number of sessions, all of which had something valuable to offer. I chose to concentrate on one presentation that gave me insight into talking with children about their artwork (an area of great interest to me).
Rosemary Althouse, professor emerita of early childhood education at Winthrop University, S.C., Margaret Johnson, associate professor teaching art criticism and art education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, N.Y., Alicia Johnson-Grafe of Brixham Montessori Friends School, York, Me., and Sharon Mitchell, preschool teacher in a public school in Fort Mill, S.C., presented “The Colors of Learning: Applying Vygotsky’s Theory of Learning to Young Children’s Art Experiences.” Their presentation was based on The Colors of Learning: Integrating the Visual Arts into the Early Childhood Curriculum, by Althouse, Johnson and Mitchell. Their book was published in 2002 by Teachers College Press and NAEYC. The presentation stressed the importance of children developing aesthetic literacy. According to Lev Vygotsky, a famous Russian psychologist and scholar, higher forms of mental activity are constructed and transferred to children through dialogue with other people. Specifically, Vygotsky’s philosophy focuses on four key points:
• Children construct knowledge
• Development cannot be separated from social context
• Language plays a central role in mental development
• Learning can lead to development.
Teachers are able to assist children’s cognitive development by discussing the children’s artwork with them and asking appropriate questions. The presenters outlined six categories of appropriate questions including the process of making the artwork, materials used, ideas expressed, knowledge (concepts, vocabulary, artists studied), reflecting upon artwork and discussing future artwork with the child.
They also encouraged teachers to learn about artists and their techniques. Incorporating these aspects into young children’s artwork extends their language development. For example, the presenters suggested featuring Henri Matisse as a selected artist to study. Young children can easily relate to the bright, bold colors of Matisse and the many geometric shapes in his artwork, specifically his collages. The “art talk” that may accompany his work are topics such as line, shape and hue. A teacher may ask a child simply to tell him or her about a shape, or name several shapes, or perhaps, ask the child to tell what he or she sees in the artwork. Other artists the presenters suggested using were Jackson Pollock, known for his action painting, and Claude Monet, famous for his landscapes and portraits. Children can gain much knowledge from these paintings by focusing on the elements (color, line, shape, texture) and principles (balance, pattern, proportion, unit/variety) of design.
The presenters shared with the attendees a list of suggestions to keep in mind when discussing art with children. The list was valuable, as it allows teachers to gain new insights and generate fresh ideas as well. The handout was shared with all Bing teachers upon returning from the conference. I felt as though this presentation offered me the most at the NAEYC conference and, in turn, allowed me to give back more to our children at Bing.