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American folk art in the classroom.

Throughout history, man has had the desire to create, to enrich his environment and add beauty to everyday objects. This need to express visually is evident in American folk art.

In simplest terms, American folk art consists of paintings, sculptures and decorations of various kinds characterized by an artistic innocence that distinguishes them from works of "fine art" or the formal decorative arts. Folk artists are usually self-taught craftspeople or artists with an interest in design rather than optical realism. Their work is characterized by vigor, honesty and imagination.

The study of folk art can be a significant component in an early childhood art curriculum. Children on this level can relate to the naive, whimsical aspects inherent in many types of folk art. They are intrigued by the bright, lively patterns of patchwork quilts and the sprightly carved animals which adorn weathervanes and furniture. Through various forms of folk art, children can explore design elements, reinforce fine motor skills and broaden their appreciation of the art of Early America.

The following activities have been developed and implemented at the Early Childhood Center, School #57, of the Rochester City School District, Rochester, New York. At School #57, children receive art instruction once a week. The art program is carefully planned and integrated with the classroom instructional program.


Quilting is an art which has been practiced for centuries. It has its origins in China and was brought to the colonies by the English and Dutch settlers. Quilting is a method of stitching layers of fabric together to form a padded or thick section of material. Knights in the Middle Ages once used this method to quilt undergarments worn beneath their armor for warmth and protection.

In America, the craft of patchwork quilting was created from necessity. Because cloth was scarce, families saved every scrap of material and stitched these scraps into colorful designs which became thick, warm blankets.

An introduction to the art of quilting can serve as the basis for numerous art activities in the early childhood classroom. By looking at examples of quilts made throughout history, children can explore design elements such as shape, color, pattern and size. Creating quilt designs, whether from paper or fabric, can allow children to practice the motor skills of cutting, pasting and manipulating various types of materials.

The range of activities based on this artform is extensive and can result in artwork which is as exciting as the art of quilting itself.

Activity: Quilt Collage

The student will create a quilt collage by cutting and arranging triangle shapes on a background sheet of paper.

Materials: Construction paper--assorted colors cut into 3" (8 cm) squares and 12" x 18" 130 cm x 46 cm) sheets; crayons or markers; scissors; glue or paste.

Procedures: 1. Introduce children to the word quilt. Discuss quilts that students may have on their beds at home, and look at pictures of quilts throughout history, commenting on the shapes, colors, patterns and sizes of quilt elements.

2. Teach children how to cut triangles from squares. They may also trace triangle patterns and cut them out. Approximately 12-15 triangles should be cut.

3. Show children how their triangles can be arranged in different ways to create quilt-like designs. Have children "play" with their triangles until they create a design that they like.

4. Have children glue their designs into place on their 12" x 18" (30 cm x 46 cm) sheet of construction paper.

5. Display the finished quilt collages. Discuss the colors used and the patterns created.

Variations: 1. Triangles can be cut from a variety of papers. Wallpaper scraps provide interesting colors, patterns and textures. Children enjoy using foil papers also.

2. Working with an aide or teacher, children can practice patterning skills. They can try to copy the pattern made by the adult.

3. Children can create a cloth quilt by creating a simple design on paper using fabric crayons. With adult supervision, the design is ironed onto cloth. After a group has completed the project, the pieces can be stitched together to form a class quilt.

4. Simple sewing skills can be reinforced as children stitch squares of fabric together and watch a quilt grow.

5. Examples of contemporary quilts which often use fabric scraps to create recognizable images can be looked at and discussed. Children can try to make recognizable images using their triangles.

Hex signs

The folk art of hex signs added color and beauty to the countryside barns of southern Pennsylvania. The art is attributed to the Mennonites and Amish people who created these signs in an attempt to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to their families and farms.

A hex sign is a circle containing symbols and geometric patterns. The most common colors used were red, yellow, green, blue and white, and common symbols included teardrops, stars, hearts, doves and tulips. Hex signs are easy and fun to create and use a variety of materials and skills. Common symbols are: teardrops--water and rain; a pointed star--luck; a circle--the sun; a dove--love; a heart--love; a tulip--faith and hope.

Activity: Paper Hex Sign

The student will create a hex design on paper by tracing a circle, cutting it out and decorating it using traced geometric shapes which are then colored with markers or crayons.

Materials: Cardboard circles (pizza boards work well as tracers); markers or crayons; patterns of varying sizes and geometric shapes; rulers or straight edges; scissors.

Procedures: 1. Introduce students to hex signs. Discuss why they were made, where they were found and the type of decorations found on them.

2. Give students circle tracers and have them trace the circle on paper and cut it out.

3. Ask children to create a design by organizing shapes and symbols in the circle format.

4. Have children decorate using crayons or markers.

Variations: 1. Children could use watercolor or tempera paint to deco rate their hex signs.

2. The class could work in small groups to create hex signs with each member contributing to the design.

3. Children could create a hex sign design using cut paper shapes.

4. Children could work with an aide or teacher and play a matching game with different hex signs.


Early Americans were busy with the chores of daily living, leaving little free time to explore hobbies. Settlers who were interested in art and painting were self-taught; art schools were virtually non-existent.

Untrained professional artists were called "limners." They traveled from town to town painting portraits of individuals or families. They were usually painted rapidly, as few people had the time to sit for any length of time. Portraits were usually full face and showed little detail or action. They were painted in oil.

Children enjoy looking at Early American portraits. Many appear funny-looking, and children aren't intimidated when trying to create their own portraits.

Activity: Self-portrait

The student will create a self-portrait using tempera paint.

Materials: paper-white construction, approx, 20" x 20" (51 cm x 51 cm); paintbrushes--small and large sizes; tempera paint--assorted colors.

Procedures: 1. Show students Early American portraits. Discuss reasons why they look the way they do.

2. Ask students to draw an oval on paper which will become the head of the portrait. Then have them add a neck.

3. Have students paint the neck and head with the appropriate skin tone.

4. While the paint dries, review the parts of the face with students.

5. Have students paint faces, making sure that they have included all parts of their faces.

6. Hang finished portraits and discuss.

Variations: 1. Children can paint portraits of their friends or a guest, such as the principal or a parent.

2. Children can look at Early American portraits and make up stories and names for the people in the portraits.

3. The teacher can take a photograph of each child and he/she can paint the portrait using the photo for reference.

4. After painting portraits, children can make portraits using different materials, such as clay or fabric and fabric crayons.


Bacon, Lenice Ingram. American Patchwork Quilts. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1973.

Chase, Pattie and Dolbier, Mimi. The Contemporary Quilt. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.

Colter, Lynn R. Junior Art Museum. Cincinnati: J.A.M. Printing Co., 1977.

Lipman, Jean and Winchester, Alice. The Flowering of American Folk Art. New York: The Viking Press, 1974.

Lord, Priscilla Sawyer and Foley, Daniel J. Folk Arts and Crafts of New England. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.

Nancy Nevinskas is an elementary art teacher at Westwood Early Childhood Center, Rochester, New York.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Nevinskas, Nancy
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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