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Early childhood visual arts curriculum: freeing spaces to express developmental and cultural palettes of mind.

Currently, the field of early childhood education is greatly focused on literacy, numeracy, and assessment, much to young children's detriment. Policymakers further set the stage for early childhood learners to become formally engaged in academic instruction and often direct administrators and teachers to do the same. Teachers become de-professionalized by this push to hasten children's learning (Aldridge & Goldman, 2006; Katz, 1993; Kohn, 2001; Ohanian, 1999), which concentrates on cognitive functioning at lower levels, such as emphasizing memorization and fact recall. Placing such pressure on young children solely for academic success results in stifling the vital experience of creative, critical verbal reflection that naturally occurs with youngsters. Such pressures also lead to a movement to create a one-size-fits-all national curriculum (Association for Childhood Education International [ACEI], 2001; Novinger & O'Brien, 2003).

As these pressures on academics persist, young learners lose vital opportunities to effectively construct meaning and concepts through a developmentally appropriate curriculum of discovery. Developing language and interpreting experiences through social verbal emotional and cognitive interactions within a caring community of learners are characteristics of a young child's natural experience (ACEL 2002; National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 1996). Children seldom have opportunities to pursue their own interests in activities that allow thought and language development to occur within naturalistic and developmentally appropriate environments (ACEI, 2001; Kohn, 2004). Because aesthetic education, particularly in the visual arts, are commonly absent in early childhood educational settings, the "push-down" curriculum intensifies.

NAEYC's 1996 position statement maintains that children thrive when they experience learning in relevant, cultural contexts focused on language development. It further avows that social physical emotional, and cognitive growth are interrelated, and their development within a high-quality, caring community of learners results in an appropriate early childhood setting for optimal growth. When young children experience a constructivist, discovery-oriented curricular approach to early education, the whole child is formatively educated (Dewey, 1966).

Unfortunately, passive learning appears to be the norm in schools today. Although holistic approaches to learning are crucial to children's construction of knowledge (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 2005), many schools utilize approaches that are programmed and/or isolated from the learning process. It is totally inappropriate and irrelevant to break learning into insignificant parts that are not meaningfully related.

The Global Guidelines for Early Childhood Education and Care in the 21st Century (ACEI, 2002) acknowledges that young children need a sense of belonging within safe physical environmental spaces. The document outlines how opportunities for interaction, play and movement, exploration and discovery, with and among other children and caring adults, are requisites for adequate growth and development. The word "play" is spread throughout the document in conjunction with such words as: "create," "extend," "materials," "constructive," and "active." Early childhood environments should be attractive for children, provide myriad occasions to notice color, surfaces, and visual dimension, and present opportunities for tactile experiences. This article focuses most on the visual arts.

ACEI's Position on Teaching the Visual Arts

The ACEI document (2002) also states that exemplary early childhood settings furnish an abundance of materials to promote problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity so that children develop innate talents, abilities, and potential through play, curiosity, and discovery. Offering young children experiences with art, music, dance, and drama helps them to cultivate and develop self-identity and integrity about their own culture(s). ACEI considers the arts essential to optimal self-development.

The Importance of the Visual Arts

Early childhood education loses its "heart" in an all-academic curriculum. Young learners are increasingly shortchanged of spontaneous play, creative discovery, and, especially, art education (Eisner, 1992, 2007). Skills in art development are infrequently afforded (Greene, 2001). Consequently, children lack opportunities to form positive social attachments with peers and adults or to develop fine and gross motor skills.

Art education often is relegated to the affective do main, or maybe the social realm (Greene, 2001). Yet the visual arts do have a proper place in an academically oriented curriculum that is focused on the cognitive realm. The arts awaken the senses, enable encounters for discovery, stimulate wonder, cause questioning, and add dimensions of reflection for the early childhood learner. Implementing the arts through experiential and playful means taps into higher order cognitive skills.


Visual arts naturally prompt young children to raise questions. Information is gathered from observations. Interpretations and inferences are made, and theories are developed about art. Various points of view are considered as other children's ideas are discussed. Textures are noticed. This is the nature of thought development.

Art education is promoting an awareness of beauty and an inventive, creative, personal action. The imagination is stirred. Booth (1999) reminds us that art is not just a noun--it is a verb as well. Art may be defined as "putting things together." The work of an artist does indeed put things together. Observers, too, make meaning from the artwork, as they, too, "put it together" when constructing meaning from their personal and historical connections. It is conscious, wide-awake participation, leading to an exchange of creative energy between the artist's work and the perceiver (Dewey, 1934; Greene, 1995). Perceiving, or attending to, a work of art elicits emotional connections for the observer and touches the entirety of the observer's domain responses--emotionally, socially, physically, and cognitively.

In Patricia Wolfe's (2001) Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice, she explains, from physiological and educational research, that humans assimilate more information from visual stimuli than through any other sense. Observers of art perceive colors, spaces, lines, patterns, sounds, sights, messages, memories, and textures. Young students of aesthetic education learn holistically by developing their unique inferences through multiple opportunities to interact, with guidance, with artwork.

Art Is Intrinsic

Specifically, art education is an intentional and simultaneous endeavor to nurture young learners while they develop a sense of knowledge about themselves in connection to the world. According to Maxine Green (1995), one aim of education is to help young learners become committed to reaching beyond self-interests and developing into responsible citizens.

Visual works of art can be paired with literature and music to build prior knowledge and deepen the connections that students make. For instance, The Empty Pot by Demi (1990) can be paired with a Chinese work of art, such as "The Moon Rises Over Nine Provinces." A piece of art such as this can be used to promote dialogue about a particular Chinese culture, historically and currently, while ultimately enhancing comprehension with the text. In this way, students have opportunities to examine their own interpretations of art and text with peers, de-centering their perspectives as they accommodate others' thinking.

Art Is Cultural

Educative events allow even the youngest of students to listen and understand how others express thoughts and impressions about artwork through their cultural perspectives. John Dewey (1934), in Art as Experience, explains that "abeholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent.... Without an act of re-creation, the object is not perceived as a work of art" (p. 54). Artwork is one way to propogate social and cultural constructions. Of course, values differ from culture to culture (Anderson, 1999). Arts education helps young children begin to learn about accepting others' cultural and social perspectives and to rethink their own (McArdle & Piscitelli, 2002).

Children become aware of other cultures as they experience art and connect their budding identities to artists' work. Seeing and hearing about representations of other cultures can fill in the spaces between themselves and others. Discussing and seeing art is a channel by which students become aware of historical contexts, and evaluate what the related art means to them. An initial art activity can be extended to multiple integrated, self-selected interests. Here is where language development occurs within naturalistic and developmentally appropriate environments.

For example, as a supplement to a civil rights discussion centered around The Other Side (Woodson, 2001), students can examine newspaper articles, art, music, and drama that depict the turmoil that enveloped many parts of the United States during that time. One work of art that can be used to promote discussion on this topic might be "New Kids in the Neighborhood" by Norman Rockwell (1967). Using written and visual works of art together builds stronger connections with one's society and culture.

Art Is Transformational

Art is universal. Indisputably, aesthetic experience(s) are necessary in early childhood, elementary, and secondary education. Art is essential to life; it is for everyone. That is what makes art a powerful means for understanding others (Anderson, 1999). Furthermore, art is not just for people of privilege; art is for the enjoyment of all people, of every age, walk of life, and socioeconomic status. Everyone is welcome at the art museum. Anyone who enters a museum can experience the freedom offered by engaging with works of art.

Whether in a museum or a classroom, students can be presented with a particular work of art and questions that will build "engagement before interpretation," one of Booth's (1999) aesthetic principles. When discussing a work of art with students, you might ask such questions as:

* What is going on in this picture?

* What do you see that makes you say that?

* What can we tell about the people, objects, location, and time?

* What types of lines were used by the artist? Were the lines thick, thin, wavy, straight, or curved?

* How is color used in the art?

* What story can you tell from the work of art?

* What do you think the artist is trying to tell us?

When we use questions to promote classroom discussions, children feel valued and respected, connected to each other and society. Exposing children to societal issues through the arts promotes an awareness of the need for advocacy and change. When begun early in schooling, this seed of transformative learning yields a call to action in classrooms and communities.

Art Is Freedom

Art allows the viewer to interpret through personal lenses and contexts. This freedom of contemplation and interpretation enables students to become more attuned to their inner voices and expressions of ideas. As students routinely engage with works of art and accompanying discussions, making connections to their own lives, they are no longer bound to the ideas of programs and teacher-directed activities, which tend to limit abilities. Maxine Greene (1988) tells us that art education emancipates, offering young learners ways to understand others' points of view and experiences, not just through the art piece itself but through discussion as well. Open-ended questions promote this type of critical thinking and help children look at the world through many lenses.

An example of a good book that promotes discussion about freedom through photographic illustrations and text is The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese American Internment Camp (Tunnell & Chilcoat, 1996). Through the diary format of this book and accompanying photographs, children see and learn about an important time in the history of the United States. They learn, through poetic and narrative words and actual pictures of the children in the internment camp, about what life was like when individual freedoms were removed. Teachers can use photographic works of art and text to engage youngsters in discussions about difficult times in their country's history.

Art Is History

Young children often have difficulty in understanding historical experiences that have shaped today's society (Levstik & Barton, 2005). Art can bridge this gap as students examine particular works of art in the context of their conception. Children's literature or art can enrich children's knowledge and emotions surrounding particular events. This is key to historical understanding.

As children study and discuss art, they ask questions and become aware of a sense of identity and of belonging to a community of learners (Anderson, 1999; Dewey, 1934). In addition, children become more capable of recognizing work by particular artists, and so they can make connections among artists.

Early childhood settings can be places where children learn to make inferences through social, emotional, and instructional means, such as finding out about historical events experienced by a particular artist, as well as by the people depicted in the works of art. Many websites feature, in a child-friendly way, information on artists. One such example is the Whitney Museum, which houses Jacob Lawrence's work ( Art masters from under-represented ethnic groups, or from earlier eras, may not be staples of museum exhibits, yet their work continues to tell stories of struggle that need to be told and heard (Greene, 2001).

The following instructional ideas are designed from William H. Johnson's artwork and Gwen Everett's children's book, Li'l Sis and Uncle Willie: A Story Based on the Life and Paintings of William H. Johnson (1993). The historical context of the author, text, and work of art is important to the instructional ideas.

William H. Johnson was a Harlem Renaissance artist born in South Carolina. He perfected his talent in the Harlem section of New York. He lived in the United States and Denmark, where he married a Danish woman. His prolific collection is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

In Everett's story, Uncle Willie comes to visit L'il Sis and grandmom. Uncle Willie happens to be the famous artist William H. Johnson. When he visits her South Carolina home, 6-year-old L'il Sis and Uncle Willie establish a close bond. They maintain their relationship through letters over many years.

Young readers are immediately drawn to this story of a special relationship. What makes this artwork and story particularly developmentally appropriate for early childhood teachers to utilize again and again with young learners is that the African American historical and geographic experience of a particular era is explained from the perspective of L'il Sis. The vibrant art reproductions of William H. Johnson illustrate the story, which explores such topics as the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, and the toils of cotton picking during the time of African American enslavement.

As early childhood educators know, young children come to our classrooms with a broad range of experiences and varied abilities and knowledge. Richness in diversity and varying socioeconomic levels bring added levels of interest, joy, and sometimes challenges to discussions about art and narrative. Connections always can be found that provide opportunity for all young learners to share. A masterful and effective educator responds to each child's thinking, enabling verbal contributions so that other classmates learn different points of view. As most early childhood educators know from experience, young children are able to organize their thoughts and feelings (ACEI/Moyer, 2001). They are capable of comprehending diverse points of view.

Because most young children enjoy artwork that depicts a story, the text and works of art used in the previous instructional idea related to L'il Sis and Uncle Willie help learners develop language through discussion, find out about historical people and events, and ask critical questions. Depth of content is added as early educators:

* Envision issues that students may or may not have encountered or considered previously

* View life or issues from another's perspective

* Study historical details about an era

* Learn the geography of the place portrayed in the artwork

* Reflect on changes in the way they view the artist's work

* Give opportunities and recommend ways to share the information learned with others

* Offer solutions to solve a social issue that students identify by studying the artist or persons portrayed in the artwork.

Furthermore, language development will naturally occur through reading and discussing a piece such as Li'l Sis and Uncle Willie. Beyond the historical and geographical concepts that can be explored and explained, words specific to visual art can be introduced. Color itself can be described in many ways, such as warmth and hues. Details from the foreground and background can be described. Johnson's composition is full of genre and gesture (the implication of motion in a shape). Many of his illustrations depict a horizon line, and the landscape is essential to many of his pieces of art. Important themes resonate throughout that are ripe for further study.

Once students examine works of art from the past or from another culture, teachers can ask questions that promote critical thinking, using such words or phrases as: "compare," "look for patterns," "explain," "connect," "design," and "invent." Teachers can ask children to share their perceptions about gender roles and power relations, and about people traditionally marginalized, excluded, or even alienated. They can ask whether or not students sense these issues as features of the artwork. Key events or persons portrayed in the art can be researched with the teacher's assistance. Related literature about key persons or events in history and the broader historical context of the time period are still other supplementary materials.

Through art, early childhood learners can live vicariously in different eras and geographical areas, which leads them toward historical understanding (Dewey, 1934; Levstik & Barton, 2005). Engaging in aesthetic experiences allows children to study particular locations and historical figures related to historical concepts. Consequently, children build a relevant sense of geography and can relate to important people and events in the past. Learners are able to "try on" slices of historical figures' lives. As they engage in detailed observations and are led in critical discussion, students engage in a depth of learning.


Early childhood educators who bring aesthetic educative offerings to young children give myriad opportunities for them to soar, through aesthetic instruction that is developmentally appropriate. Making sense of the world through the arts leads to increased awareness of its beauty and stirs the imagination. Bringing art to early childhood education is taking action for social justice by countering the passivity of the present standards-based early childhood curriculum. Art education does help youngsters "put things together." It connects self to history, geography, art, and literature. The aesthetic experience is freeing (Greene, 1988). Aesthetic education is self-connoisseurship, as Elliot Eisner (1991, 2007) terms it, and it is, indeed, where our young children are freed.


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Lois McFadyen Christensen is Associate Professor and Lynn Doty Kirkland is Professor, Curriculum & Instruction, School of Education, University of Alabama, Birmingham.
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Author:Christensen, Lois McFadyen; Kirkland, Lynn Doty
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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