As early childhood educators and parents we know that hands-on experiences with creative activities and materials is what the children call the “good stuff” of learning. Young children learn science, math and literacy academic skills through art, music, movement and drama activities.
The Arts are not an extra or frill activity… to be played with after all the curriculum activities are complete…but a fundamental learning tool that can be woven throughout the curriculum. Sadly, in this time of standards there are getting to be more and more preschool and kindergarten programs that do not have easels, dramatic play or blocks!
Children love to “play with” learning by exploring all possibilities they can invent with something as simple as a piece of paper or a puppet. Studies show that children learn a variety of essential skills through interactions in creative, problem-solving activities with concrete materials. As you well know, you can’t get much more creative and concrete than the Arts!
The process of learning and exploring with art, music, movement and drama is the “glue” that holds all the learning standards together. Young children use the arts to make sense of what they are learning and to apply the concepts to both practical and creative experiences. One way to look at this is to see it as the difference between a multiple choice test and an essay test. We can teach children skills and facts that they can represent on worksheets and/or we can invite them to take what they know about something and apply it in a creative expression with the Arts. This application process with the ARTS is much like what we have to do in an essay test. That is to take what we know and communicate or represent it in a new way. This builds higher order problem solving and critical thinking skills that will be fundamental to later learning in upper elementary and beyond. As the old adage says, “It’s the process not the product!”
Learning Standards have become a part of Early Childhood education. At their best, they provide teachers with a framework for choosing appropriate goals for their preschool and kindergarten children. Unfortunately, some teachers are feeling the pressure for student achievement, even at these young ages. This can mean that the Arts take a back seat to more didactic methods with direct instruction and worksheets. But the Arts are the perfect tool for teaching standards. There are many different standards being used in Early Childhood. Your school may have its own set of standards or use a state or program model. Let’s take a look at a few general examples of standards in each curriculum area to see how well the Arts teach the standards.
Use senses to explore and observe materials and natural phenomena. Hands-on experiences with art and natural materials invite children to explore with their senses. Activities such as finger painting with a variety of textures and substances, printing and sculpting with natural materials and creating dramatic play masks and costumes from nature all require children to notice the differences and similarities in the materials and request them to problem solve how to use them.
Describe the effects of forces in nature (e.g. wind, gravity and magnetism). Creative movement activities require children to explore the use of their bodies in space, and to deal with the forces of gravity and flow. Add a prop such as a scarf, a balloon or a fan and children are now exploring the effects of wind. Art activities with straws to blow paint, balls to make rolling paint trails, or magnets to drag metal objects through paint all build curiosities and understandings of how these natural forces work with a familiar object…paint!
Show an awareness of changes that occur in themselves and their environment. Visual art is all about “change”. It is the process of taking a material such as paint, clay, and paper and changing it in some way. Art activities that focus on the effects of sun fading paper or melting colored ice on absorbent paper give children hands-on experience with these basic science forces in their environment and on themselves.
Show understanding of and use comparative words. Music and movement are wonderful learning tools for using comparative words. Many finger plays and songs invite children to explore “great big” and “eensy weensy” with movements and sounds. When children are asked to make big and little, long and short, high and low movements they incorporate an understanding of these terms into their muscle memory. Songs that ask children to make loud and soft sounds, and use long and short words builds comparative vocabulary.
Recognize, duplicate and extend simple patterns, such as sequences of sounds, shapes and colors. The Arts are filled with patterns. There are repeating patterns in storytelling, songs, and dances. Children learn these patterns quickly and use them to build memory and the basic math skills that are needed to count, add and subtract. Visual art invites children to observe the differences in shapes and colors to create and replicate patterns.
Sort and classify objects by a variety of properties. The key math skills of sorting and classifying are an important part of visual art. Activities that invite children to explore a variety of materials they are using for collage, sculpting and painting build a concrete and understanding of the properties through problem-solving.
Retell information from a story. Creative movement, dramatics and puppet activities are an essential way to inspire children to retell a story. The process of taking the story “off the page” and into free expression helps children to not only learn the basics of story sequence and vocabulary but also helps to build their self-esteem. These are all precursors to writing!
Understand that pictures and symbols have meaning and that print carries a message. In the early years, children use everything they can to make meaning of what they are reading. They read the shape and color of signs and use illustrations to read a story. Activities with visual Art materials encourage children to use drawing, scribbles and writing to convey meaning and information. Encouraging children to dictate stories and titles for the art demonstrates to them how their spoken words are represented in text.
Begin to develop phonological awareness by participating in rhyming activities. Music and movement are indispensable for teaching rhythm and rhyme. Children love to participate in repetitive and predictable rhyming songs such as “This Old Man” and in the process build an experiential understanding of rhyming words. Song “inventions” where children are asked to create new lyrics and add new rhyming words helps them use phonics in a purposeful and fun activity.
Most of all, it is the teacher you weaves the magic of the arts throughout the curriculum and standards. While free exploration with materials is essential, the teacher’s intentional interactions and questions move the experiences from pure play to playful learning. Ask questions such as What do you notice? How many ways can you? How these same and different? Can you do it another way? What would happen if?
It is your ability to see the teaching and learning in each arts based activity that makes the difference between a fun art project and a learning based one. You don’t have to have one or the other…the goal is to have both!