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rethinking arts and crafts: a reggio inspired approach

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I have had many revelations about getting to know my children.  Their intensities and personalities.  Who they are and what they desire from life and me and themselves.  One of the subjects I am attempting to figure out is the world of arts and crafts.  I wrote about this previously in What is art : a Reggio-inspired approach.  I don’t want my children to feel trapped in any learning quicksand.  Stifling my son into painting because I asked him to does not benefit anyone, even if it does produce a semi-pretty art picture.  Demanding my daughter keep the paint out of her mouth or on the paper, at age two, is not embracing her developmental abilities.

Some children’s art feels hollow

When I taught kindergarten, there were children that loved to color for hours during their free play time.  And there were the ones who squirmed in their seats while I set the task of coloring or gluing in front of them: “color the school bus! we’ll put it up in the classroom and then you’ll take it home!” “Glue these leaves onto this tree!”  After the work, most of the children, even the reluctant ones, felt proud of their work and were happy to have it hung up or bring home to show parents.  But how long did that joy last?  A fleeting moment?  Did they care about what they did?  Did it go right into the trash without another moment of thought?

When teachers lead or when teachers dictate

There are wonderful teachers who knows that most students will end up being happy with an accomplishment.  A work of art, a written piece, a song or dance.  And I am not, in any way, trying to put down the work of amazing art teachers, for early childhood and beyond — they inspire children to create.

During my teaching days, I saw many teachers make sure that their children completed “artistic” tasks, but tenfold.  One of the kindergarten teachers I worked with made her children all color in straight lines.  Do you remember, back and forth, back and forth, so the coloring pages all looked “perfect” and “uniform.”  I thought this was awful.  Her whole classroom was decorated with the same pictures and the same lines.  She would even comment on a child’s artwork that didn’t conform, “Oh, he just is a troublemaker.”  This broke my heart.  Her walls were hollow.  They were empty of meaning and personality and creativity and true childish beauty.

I knew that I’d never want to make my students or my children conform to a certain standard of art.


Imperfect art is full of wonder

I’ve seen the perfect crafts and “kids artwork” on Pinterest.  Make THIS for your Father’s Day gift.  Or THIS for Fourth of July.  Doesn’t some of it seem stale?  All the perfect lines?  The perfect colors and paints?  Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing (ah-mazing) bloggers, who show true childish art.  The messy cutting, the globs of paint, the squiggly lines that don’t really look like a cat, but it’s oh so precious.  It’s oh so filled with wonder and beauty and remind you of your child’s cheeks as they smiled when they made it all by themselves.

This is the art I want to create with my child.  Watch my child create.  We filled our backyard with art this past summer — with no piece of paper to “show” for our time, but the memories, and thankfully pictures, of discovery.  Discovery of colors, textures, touch, space.

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We don’t like to make crafts.

Crafts are few and far between here in our household.  I appreciate them, I truly do.  Especially the seasonal ones — like right now — apples and leaves for fall {see some fall activities we enjoy here}.  Or the literary ones — creating a picture to correlate with a recent book reading or book study.  We do make {well, I make} felt animals for every letter of the alphabet {see our ABC Felt Animals here}.  My son has invested interest and excitement in these, and I enjoy creating and making them.  But what if the interest is only for the adult “in charge,” be it a holiday or themed or random craft, and what if the child is not being challenged, or is not enjoying the studied subject?

John holds zero interest in gluing flower petals onto a flower or gluing a squiggly tail on a pig.  John just turned four years old — children this age are at different skill levels — but usually, they are still not comfortable cutting lines or circles or anything more difficult than paper.  And they are still working on the fine motor skills necessary to glue on, or create, the tiny details that some crafts require.  This arts and crafts time can be a valuable time of learning these important fine motor skills.


And crafts are sometimes just the teachers’ idea and creation

Many of my kindergarten children loved crafts.  “Look, it’s a little paper mouse with a pompom nose!”  They were eager to make a project — they usually correlated to the letter or book of the week.  This furthered their literacy learning and I felt good about it.

But for some crafts, the adult is doing all the work.  Cutting the pieces, gluing the pieces.   I don’t want the art to be just a glued together creation of mine, to always cut out their pieces and glue for them. What is left for the child to do?  Draw a little with a marker or crayon on the back?  Of course this depends on if you are working with a three year old or a six year old.  The older a child gets, or the more practice, the more developmentally ready they are to complete some of the craft-making tasks.

But what about the child’s interests?  Will the child care about the pompom mouse at the end of the day?  The end of the week?  Will it leave a lasting impression?  

So what to do?

Lots of questions are rambling through my head since reading more about the Reggio Emilia inspired approach to early childhood learning.  I am especially inspired by More Working in the Reggio Way by Julianne Wurm. {This is the companion book to Working in the Reggio Way, and is out later this month; I was given a copy by the author.}  In the Reggio classroom, things happen much more organically.  Let the children decide to make a painting of the nature objects they just found on a nature walk.  Or to sculpt the symmetrical objects they just created when cutting fruits in half.  These ideas, that can be kid-driven, but still teacher or parent-led, seem a better fit for my family.

This is not to say that we won’t make leaf men again this year or won’t do a nursery rhyme craft or make our felt animals.  I certainly think directed crafts and projects are worthwhile when they are related to learning, especially for a literacy or mathematics or science (etc) activity — these things keep the learning memorable for the child.

But will the child enjoy it, talk about it, savor it?  Every child is different, so every answer is different.  But I do know that every child can create.  Can they be led to direct some of the learning?  This requires the teacher to always observe, always prepare, and always document the child’s next anticipated move.  It is more difficult, in a sense, but the reward is that the child wants to, and thinks of, the creation.

Lori Pickert’s Project Based Homeschooling advocates, whether in a school or homeschool, that children direct their own learning and we simply support them with tools, environment, questions, to further their self-directed time of project building.  We allow the child’s interests to direct their learning — in all their decisions, mistakes, and creations, and they will build something that they savor and love.

Our own project-based learning

We are trying our hand at project-based learning with a sword and weapons unit {of course} for my son right now.  My son loves to be Peter Pan and always has a sword.  Whether it be the pretend sword from grandma {not invented by him} or the invented swords that he prefers — sometimes it’s a marker, and sometimes it’s a Fort Magic sword or a stick or a piece of paper.  We’ve had lots of learning moments with this unit, which I’ll be sharing more about soon!


What are your opinions about arts and crafts? Have you allowed your child to lead their arts time?

more :

what is art?

playdough exploration

our nature table

we use this edible finger paint recipe

 See our Reggio Inspired Pinterest Board:
Follow Amy – Wildflower Ramblings’s board Reggio-Inspired Learning on Pinterest.

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  1. My daughter has always been more interested in exploring the art materials than making anything recognizable out of them. Sure, it doesn’t make for great photos, but I love seeing her explore and create in her own way. Wonderful post!

  2. I work in a preschool setting with 12 three yr. old students and no assistant. My “work” which you might call arts/crafts is always related to whatever we are reading or studying. Most of the time I am trying to develop a fine motor skill or let them explore in a new medium. Because I have to be prepared with materials it is not feasible to let the child lead in the project. It is the Process NOT the Product that the child needs to lead. If I provide the materials and we have read a book (usually the motivation) the child is then free to create.

  3. I appreciate this article SO Much! I am an artist and an early childhood educator and hardly ever do “crafts” with my kids. We do lots of messy art that focuses only on the process. My kids are so creative and I never want to stifle that. I’m like you and get so annoyed seeing the “art” ideas for kids online. No, no, no! Let kids experiment and be creative!

    1. Thanks Kayla!! Yes, children can be creative on their own — don’t you just want to yell it from the rooftops!? I know there are some children who just love making those types of crafts…. my daughter may be one of them, but it gets a bit excessive, no? So happy to hear from an artist’s perspective :)

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