Teaching Art: Process or Product? Authentic or Crafty? Right or Wrong?

Melissa Smith Teaching in Early Childhood

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Throughout my teaching career, I have seen various ways to approach art with young children. Before receiving my master’s degree in early childhood education, I received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Concordia University Chicago. Upon graduation, I could not find a full-time job, so I worked part-time teaching junior high Spanish and part-time in a preschool classroom. Needless to say, my preschool experience with art was minimal, and I spent that time observing and learning. Five years later, I took a position at a new school, where product art was practiced and valued. I quickly got swept into this type of instruction. Then, I hired a former colleague and friend of mine to join our preschool team since our program was growing. She was, and is, a process-oriented art teacher. It was exciting to watch her implement exploratory art with three-year-olds. Honestly though, I can’t say I was completely on board with solely teaching process-focused art experiences. Fast-forward several years later, and I am a professor of early childhood education at Concordia University Chicago, and God is still teaching me lessons about art.

This brings me to the point of this blog post! After all my years of teaching experience with little and big kids alike, I am still “undecided.” I see how a balance of both process- and product-art experiences can be positive. So, where do you fall on the spectrum?

Process-focused art experiences:      

  • No step-by-step instructions.
  • No sample for children to follow.
  • No right or wrong way to explore and create.
  • Art focus is on the experience and on exploration of techniques, tools, and materials.
  • Art is unique and original.
  • Experience is relaxing or calming.
  • Art is entirely the children’s own.
  • Art experience is each child’s choice.
  • Ideas are not readily available online.

What you might hear children say: “I’m going to do another!” “Can I have more time?”

Product-focused art experiences: 

  • Children have instructions to follow.
  • Teacher creates a sample for children to copy.
  • There is a right and a wrong way to proceed.
  • Finished product in mind.
  • Children’s finished art all looks the same.
  • Children experience frustration.
  • Teacher might “fix mistakes.”
  • Whole class takes part in an art project at the same time or in small groups.
  • Patterns and examples are readily available online.

What you might hear children say: “Is this right?” “Can I be done now?”

Tips for keeping projects authentic and age-appropriate:

  • Approach art like open-ended play—provide a variety of new and interesting materials and see what happens as the child leads the art experience.
  • Don’t be afraid of having children use paint and provide a variety of colors!
  • Provide plenty of time for children to carry out their plans and explorations.
  • Let children come and go from their art at will.
  • Notice and comment on what you see: “Wow! Look at all the yellow dots you painted!”
  • Ask questions so children can use oral language to describe what they are creating.
  • Say yes to children’s ideas.
  • Play music in the background to support emotional creativity.
  • Take art materials outside for children to explore.
  • Display children’s books with artful illustrations, such as those by Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and Javaka Steptoe.
  • Let the children choose whether their art goes home or stays in the classroom.
  • Remember: It’s the children’s art, not yours!


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About the Author

Melissa Smith

Melissa Smith is the Assistant Professor and Coordinator for the Early Childhood Undergraduate Program at Concordia University Chicago. Melissa is a former Lutheran school teacher, early childhood director, and assistant principal. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and a Lutheran Teachers Diploma from Concordia Chicago, a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Northern Illinois University, and will soon be starting her dissertation in order to obtain a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education. Melissa resides in Chicago with her fabulous husband and has a passion for weight lifting, playing tennis, and singing in the band at church.

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