Saturday, April 24th, 2010
Teaching art to young children
I’ve been eyeing a local Audubon Society art contest for my daughter since she was 3-years-old. We’ve viewed a gallery of contest entries for the past two years at a spring birding festival.
Now that my daughter is 5-years-old, she qualified for the minimum age limit. You pick a bird, draw it on 8×11 paper and submit it. Simple. She picked an American Robin because we often “watch it eat lunch in our back yard.” She drew the Robin from a photo as part of her bedtime routine, drawing the same bird each night for five nights. Each night her bird looked better than the previous evening. We offered to give her a different photo to study, but she wanted to retry the same one each night.
She won second place in her age category. She was proud at winning. I was pleased. (The image above was scanned after the drawing was folded and mailed back to us.)
In the build up to the contest, I had lobbied a couple parents in her school’s Parent Teacher Organization with the idea of having the whole school participate next year. But at the birding festival, I became bothered when looking over the winning drawings. I realized birders value technical drawing — realism — in depicting birds.
Ehhh, that’s only one type of art. So, a better idea struck me.
Hey, our school should host a regional art contest for schools in our area and invite local professional artists to judge the entries. We could easily rustle up prizes that outdo the Audubon Society, and we could choose a theme that highlights our school’s educational focus, something about world cultures.
From a logistical standpoint, it is doable. From a school spirit standpoint, it would energize our school. From a publicity standpoint, it would draw a lot of attention to our school’s art program which is taught by a parent-funded ‘artist-in-residence.’
I mentioned both contest ideas to a gallery curator for whom I perform some media publicity (I’m a publicist). He has a kindergartner too. I thought he’d be tickled by the idea.
Umm, no. Here is his response:
“I am opposed to kids so young competing for awards. It is so arbitrary and meaningless yet they all care who won and who didn’t and how their friends did. Who is to say at that age what good art is? No one. And realism and scientific illustration seem to be the standard for what is good art. That is complete garbage.”
He went on to mention that his daughter, unbeknownst to him, was entered into the bird contest by her school. She won an honorable mention, but he hasn’t talked to her about it. The award is apparently not in her thoughts. The family didn’t attend the award ceremony.
“I don’t want the award or acknowledgment to be what motivates or deflates one’s interest in art. At this age, a child has an intrinsic need to please their parents and teachers. Art needs to please the maker first. They are just too young to cope with the award thing in an objective way. As the kids get older and more confident and independent then my opinion may be different. The reward is simply with having shown up to do it and make an effort to observe and try to render what they see and feel. Showing their work is great, by why make it a competition?”
His response knocked me on my ass. I completely agree with him.
Oh, okay, after thinking about it for a while, I agree with him 90 percent.
I thought about how we’ve tried to teach our daughter that enjoyment comes from an experience, not from outcomes. This idea is most evident in our playing board games. If you enjoy playing Connect Four, you can lose to Dad 20 times in a row and still want to play. And she does.
So, could she lose an art contest and still enjoy viewing a winner’s gallery? Could she still enjoy drawing, knowing that some people believe other kids draw better than her? I think so. I hope so.
Most of her creative drawing at home is to create and give things to other people that she dreams up. For the contest, she was excited to be working on a specific subject that was loosely defined by someone else. It was sort of a right of passage for her being old enough to participate in a big kid activity. She was excited to see her work steadily improve, something that doesn’t see happen when she creates one-time-only drawings. All in all, the contest was a positive influence.
And, she was able to look at ‘losing’ drawings in the contest gallery and say she liked them.
However, I can see other kids not being that way.
Art lessons in school are a special thing. It’s the one time during the day when everyone in your class, the top performers, the lowest performers, the sporty, the geeks, and everyone in between, operate on a level playing field. With a good art instructor, there is no right or wrong as long as you try. It becomes the most favorite part of the day or week for many kids. Why muddle that up with a competition?