Step into Shandra Patton’s pre-K classroom at Augusta Lewis Troup School in New Haven, and several things become immediately clear, just by observing the physical space: (a) Children, their interests, and their needs, are the center of the classroom, rather than the teacher; (b) learning is viewed as a process, not an end product; and (c) art is one of the primary means through which Shandra’s students are constructing and sharing knowledge. Although these messages are communicated clearly in many aspects of the classroom – from the materials offered to children to the way the space is arranged – nowhere is it more evident than in the children’s artwork displayed around the room.
To the untrained eye, much of the art might, frankly, look unformed. For those of us who, through our own upbringing or training, have come to understand art as a final product, we may expect for art to look a certain way: recognizable shapes and forms. So often, this means that young children are shown a sample piece of art and instructed to make a copy to the best of their abilities. Not too long ago, Shandra says, her own classroom more often featured artwork that all looked the same, or had slight variations depending on the child’s ability. Now it looks like this:
Rather than starting with an end product and expecting the children to replicate it, Shandra starts with an inspiration from materials…or a book…or techniques. In fact, the starting point is just as likely to come from a child as it is to come from her or her colleagues. The children in Shandra’s room are especially interested in layered art at the moment. This began when a little girl took down her art that was being displayed on a bookshelf and started putting a new medium on it. Over the next few weeks, Shandra and the children were inspired to explore this technique further by layering drawings with tempera paint, paint dots, tissue paper, sticks, remnants from woven baskets, pinecones, cloth, tape, or any material that could be transformed. Shandra will often offer the children materials and simply ask them, “What can we do with these?” The children take it from there, and the art becomes theirs.
Other times the inspiration comes from a book. Have You Seen My Cat? invited some layered paintings in the style of Eric Carle.
Green has generated endless art and science experiences, including the one seen here:
Every morning, Shandra asks a child to choose a particular green named in the book, such as “shaded green” or “wacky green,” and make it using food coloring. They then pour the green liquid over cubes of ice that Shandra has placed in the tall clear tubes, and watch to see how the ice and the shade of green change over time.
Why this shift from product art to process art experiences? For Shandra, this had everything to do with child development and individuality. Process art, she feels, allows for children with various interests and of all different levels of development to participate in a way that is meaningful to them. Children who are just emerging from the sensorimotor stage of development will engage in the experiences on primarily a sensory level, mesmerized by the water changing colors as they rinse off paint brushes, intrigued by the feeling of silky fabric against rough corrugated cardboard. Those who have entered into preoperational thought may be more interested in the planning of a project: Where exactly the tape would go in the tape-chalk work, what medium they would add next to a personal piece of art, even measuring to get just the right amount of paper to make a bear cave. They may be more reflective about their artwork, attempt to represent ideas, people, or things with images, and be able to more fully understand an abstract concept being explored in the classroom (i.e. camouflage, changes of state) through their art experiences.
We know that a child’s development is never strictly by the books, nor is it always in a forward direction. Process art supports children’s development by providing multiple entry points into experiences, such that the child’s individual needs at that moment determine the learning that occurs for him or her. Shandra has found that she has had to do some educating of parents and professionals alike to help them understand the learning taking place through this approach to art. It is not quite as easily unpacked as a word wall or a monthly calendar on display. She knows her child development and district goals, though, and has no difficulty telling you what standards were addressed in a given art experience. When I asked her to explain this piece of art to me, for example,
she rattled off connections made to books, language expressed by the children during the process, the math involved (including how the children learned to orient one of the sticks so that it would fit on the paper, counting the paint dots, shapes, etc.), the science of how the colors changed when wet materials interacted, and the fine motor skills that were practiced. Armed with this thorough understanding of the learning taking place through these art experiences, Shandra is entrusted to support her students’ development in the way she knows best.
Yet it is not just the cognitive and physical development that is nurtured – process art also supports children’s social and emotional learning. Despite my visiting Shandra’s classroom on a morning when the children had a particularly exciting event occurring (they had visitors coming with live animals), the children were calm, relaxed, focused, and proud of their work. There was no shouting out, “Can I be done?” or “I can’t do it!” (How often have you heard that when your students are engaged in a product-focused art experience?). Children seemed to feel successful and capable. All around the room, the children were working in pairs or small groups, sharing their ideas and problem solving together. Much of the artwork displayed was actually created by the class as a whole. Under Shandra’s guidance, and supported by regular process art experiences, these children are well on their way toward personally understanding their essential question, “What is our community, and how are we part of it?”