Life Lessons Through Children’s Art: How they learn to represent their world, and how that learning can teach and inspire us

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The wonderful thing about children’s art is that it is detached from the socioeconomic structure of the “adult” art world and most importantly, it gives us a unique glimpse into their emotional and cognitive state of mind.  A child’s drawing, painting, sculpture in clay (or other material), or a doodle in their notebook is largely an unrestricted form of expression. If you’ve ever had the experience of listening to a young child talk about their art, it is most refreshing to hear them describe their process. In fact, a large part of early artistic learning comes from prompting them to explain and develop a narrative (imagined or real/representational or non-representational, but always at their own pace and from within) for their works of art as they’re working. This process, is actually more important than the “finished” product, because it shows us as educators, that they’re self evaluating as they’re creating and are making insightful connections by exploring with the material(s) they are working with.

Children begin their art-making journey through an exploration with the material at hand. They discover the material’s properties and how their physical actions change the material. Their discoveries then lead to insights, and sure enough, they’re making associations between what is in the paint (or clay, or paper collage, assemblage, etc.) to experiences in their own lives. This whole process is achieved in a playful, yet serious manner. From the get-go, children begin to understand that art-making is a potent form of communication, and they have a lot to say! Children are also naturally curious and will ask big questions, which show they are eager to take part in the many facets that confront us in our contemporary lives.

This unbridled form of expression and inquisitiveness is why so many great artists, from Chagall, Klee, Dubuffet, Picasso, the CoBrA group and Jean-Michel Basquiat, looked at children’s artwork as inspiration for their own paintings. In fact, Basquiat was so inspired by the aesthetics and expression within children’s art that he had to unfairly assert to the art world and culture at large that “believe it or not I can actually draw.” However, it is the rawness and unfettered nature of his paintings that set him apart from the conceptual (and structured) art that dominated the 1980s art scene. Basquiat’s strength was in his ability to passionately and prolifically make associations between his life as an African-American and the collective experience of African-Americans. His ‘childlike’ style, which spurred from frequent “doodling,” afforded him freedom to combine and reflect a multitude of poignant imagery and ideas within a single canvas. Basquiat combined text as well as images in a body of work that addressed issues of racism, urban life, personal identity, as well as celebrated the contributions, which black individuals made that have shaped American life. Other contemporary artists such as Donald Baechler, Michael Scoggins and Brian Belott, also harness the immediacy and playfulness of children’s artwork and curiosity in order to make strong and serious statements about the sociopolitical environment that affects us as a culture at large.

Professional artists, who have gone through the full spectrum of artistic development, understand the importance of breaking the rules and routines of contemporary adult life, which can often become monotonous and far too restrictive. By embracing the more explorative, inquisitive and subconscious side of themselves, individuals can return to the spontaneity and excitement that they experienced when making art during their childhood years. This is why it is so important that children are offered the opportunities to explore materials, techniques and make unique works of art at a very young age. Their creativity should be applauded and their excitement and enthusiasm for making art should be scaffolded by their teachers and caregivers so that they hold dear the many positive qualities (empathy, inquisitiveness, eagerness to participate in events, etc.) and habits of mind (improvisation, thinking outside the box, turning mistakes into successes, etc.) that art making reveals.

Even the most serious of artists, such as Picasso, knew this when he said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” (Peter, 1977).

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