Teaching art to young children

My daughter's drawing of an American Robin done in colored pencil. It depicts a Robin in flight, having taken off from a wooden post.

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?


9 Responses to “Teaching art to young children”

  1. June says:

    I am really struck by your last paragraph. I’d ask you this: WHY is art special in this way? Some kids are undoubtedly more artistically talented than others, but in this area (unlike any other) we have chosen to ignore the distinction. If this is a good thing in art class, why wouldn’t it be a good thing in math or gym class?

    April 24th, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  2. AJ says:

    In physical education, there are students who obviously excel above others… able to do more and faster push-ups, hit a ball farther, and so forth. You can’t easily hide those differences from students.

    In academics, I agree with you. Our school has a twice-a-year award ceremony. I don’t believe in incentive-based learning, nor the need to congratulate top performers at the expense of not acknowledging the work every other student has done.

    In art, if the subject is taught properly, a student can see something worthy in every other student’s artwork and the instructor can find something to praise.

    April 24th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  3. Emily says:

    We tend to allow some things to be worthy of competition, but not others. Team sports are prized over individual accomplishments while some children are better at solo activities and do not get celebrated as often.

    We ran an art contest for 1st through 12th graders (not all competing with eachother, but in age classes). Often the art I considered the most technically correct was not the art chosen by the judges.

    Art is subjective, no question about that. But young artists need to feel a sense of accomplishment just like young athletes.

    The benefit of art over athletics is that children can choose what type of art to do and therefore, what type of competitions to enter. Like realism? Like abstraction? There are opportunities for everyone. They can find a niche and a place they “fit”.

    but in T-ball, there is only one way to win.

    April 24th, 2010 at 5:37 pm

  4. Mags says:

    Having just recently exited college myself, I gotta say, I agree that award ceremonies are not necessary. Example: in elementary school, I always excelled in reading. Every year I got an award (by myself) for reading the most books and blah blah blah. But that didn’t make me feel any better about sucking at math and staying seated while all my friends got math awards and parents took pictures! Fast-forward to high school. At this point, I decided that if the only point to doing well was to get an award, I didn’t care anymore. I spent less and less time studying because I didn’t care about being one of the few to not get academic awards. Of course, this wouldn’t have happened if my parents cared enough to verbally praise me for anything. I’m rambling now, but the point is, school should be about learning because you want to. Not because our best friend in math class is gonna tease you for not getting a certificate.

    April 24th, 2010 at 6:36 pm

  5. HappyMom says:

    Despite the fact that this is ancient history, I well remember getting an award for drawing in third grade (in a city-wide competition), and getting the visual arts award in at high school graduation. I loved all the arts, and being acknowledged for that was a very special experience, and a highlight for me. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but it sure felt good.

    April 24th, 2010 at 10:58 pm

  6. Sherri K. Edman says:

    Hmmm, I don’t know.

    I don’t know any kids who are only interested in drawing for the praise they get. In my experience, children love creatively representing the world around them without having to be encouraged. So I doubt that participating in a contest would ruin that.

    What kids (and grownups) don’t like to do is practice when the practice seems boring and the long-term goal isn’t immediately visible. We have to be trained and motivated to do that. It seems from the way you described it that your daughter just learned an great lesson regarding self-motivation by drawing the bird over and over and seeing visible results as a reward for her effort.

    And if art is all subjective, why wasn’t the drawing she made the first time good enough? She clearly gets that she could make a better drawing, and she clearly has an idea of what “better” is, KWIM?

    Part of my resistance to the idea of art being subjective is how important I think it is. I don’t think we ought to relegate art purely to the realm of recreational any more than reading or math. We read for fun, of course, but we also read and study the great poets, even though it’s difficult at first, to know and appreciate what they’ve done and to know what great poetry looks like. I wrote a lot of rotten poetry in high school, and through that process I learned how difficult it is to write really amazing poetry and to appreciate the accomplishments of Wordsworth Yeats and Angelo and Hughes. It didn’t make me feel bad about myself; it made me appreciate and joy the good stuff that much more. As with poetry, so with visual arts. Shakespeare is a better poet than cummings, and some of Shakespeare’s poems are better than others. Michelangelo is a better sculptor than Zurab Tsereteli, and part of learning to appreciate and enjoy art is to learn to discern the difference. So motivating kids to the practice and study of art by whatever means works isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my book.

    Although maybe not at five. :)

    April 25th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

  7. Amy says:

    Ask most adults about art and you will find a unifying theme. Most of them loved creating art in elementary school and somewhere around middle school they abandoned their inner artist because they weren’t good enough, they’ll say they weren’t talented. The creative process is so personal that it takes very little negativity to crush that good feeling that makes everyone love art class. Even adult artists struggle with criticism. Our society compounds the problem by deeming that some people are just “naturally talented”. No matter what your given talent the only way to nurture it is to practice, train and hone your gift. But for some reason society doesn’t place art in the same arena as baseball. Its so sad because art is really the best avenue for training young minds to think creatively. And creativity is one of the few life/job skills that will never be made obsolete by a new piece of software. Creative thinking is creative problem solving and everyone could use more of that. It’s the combination of technique/skill and ideas that make great art.

    So I would say don’t muddle it up with a competition but do have a gallery where each child can display the best of their creativity.

    April 27th, 2010 at 1:28 pm

  8. theblondeghost says:

    nitpicking: It’s “rite of passage”

    April 27th, 2010 at 6:32 pm

  9. sharon cory says:

    As a professional artist and gallery owner, I’ve had it with the idea that art appreciation is subjective and that “we’re all artists”. Change that to “We could all be artists”. As in all cultural pursuits there are standards to Art, not to be confused with styles or level of education. I am in constant dialogue with artists who bring their work into the gallery, hoping to display it and I’m forced to critique it, or explain why it’s not ready to sell. In most cases they have no experience with critical assessment, not even their own, and have no idea how to improve their work.
    I would love to see more art competitions in schools. So what if the judges’ ideas reflect their own taste or likes. That is part of viewing Art and can easily be explained to unhappy “losers”. In the adult artist’s world, there are all kinds of judges….gallery owners, curators, clients, etc. It helps to have rhinocerous skin when you’re showing your work and there’s nothing wrong with starting to grow that when you’re young. It’s part of finding out that not everyone will be as enamored with you and your efforts as your Mom and Dad.
    Art is a visual conversation, not a monologue. It should be out there for people to see and comment on. A necessary step to improving one’s Art is to listen to what people say about it and go back and digest those opinions. An artist doesn’t have to agree with what’s said about their work, but so many times, an objective eye can provide insight.

    May 18th, 2010 at 8:23 am

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