THE NATURE OF ART / An occasional series
Adults and young children have very different ideas of what art is all about
By W. George Scarlett
Watch preschoolers at play, and you’ll likely find an artist. Or so it seems as they paint, create stories, design buildings, and dance. Paul Klee, the Swiss-German painter, took note of young children’s artistic ways — their lack of concern for conventions or for producing realistic scenes. And Klee joined the little folks by breaking conventions himself. As an artist, he said, “I will be as a newborn child.… Then I will do something very, very small.… My pencil will be able to put it down, without any technique.…” Frank Lloyd Wright was another artist who drew inspiration from fledgling creative efforts, claiming that his architectural career began when he played with blocks as a child.
But what Klee and Wright may not have realized is how differently adults and young children conceive of art making. Where adults may view art as an end in itself, young children tend to use art as a vehicle for pursuing other interests. Those interests could relate to the real world (weddings, babies, fast cars) or to a fantasty world (witches and potions, castles and monsters). An artistic medium — crayons, paints, modeling clay – gives young children a tool to heighten and satisfy their interests and fantasies, much as toys do. In fact, their art making is really just an artful form of play.
When Klee and Wright engaged in artful or any other kind of play as young children, they probably had no concept of pleasing an audience. Nobody was critiquing them on style, beauty, inspiration, technical prowess, or other qualities. And so there was no need to focus on the product. All that mattered, very likely, was the process of fulfilling their interests.
Sylvia Feinburg, an artist and child development specialist, observed this happening with her then five-year-old son, Douglas. Like so many young boys, Douglas was fascinated by battle scenes and war play. Paper, markers, and paint became his preferred medium for indulging those interests. As she recounts in her classic essay “Combat in Child Art,” Douglas would begin his play by methodically making color and design decisions, “but once the battle began, it was quite another matter. Essentially, he entered the combat as a highly active participant, moving his body ferociously to simulate the destruction that might be imposed upon a single human being or piece of equipment, pounding with his fists….” Astutely, Feinburg referred to this activity not as “picture making” but as “dramatic play.”
And lest there be any question about which was more important, the finished product or the activity itself, Feinburg tells of the time a fat mosquito landed on Douglas’s paper as he was drawing. “Without pausing, he destroyed the insect with his crayons, rapidly working its remains into the picture. There was no preoccupation with the sanctity of the paper or cardboard either. If it tore or folded, it simply became integrated, and penetrations of the surface were common.”
There’s a second major difference between young children’s artful play and later art making. Adults take it for granted that art can be divided into different categories according to medium. Some artists work with paint, some with words, some with movement, some with sound, some with building materials, and so on. And some work in multiple domains, switching consciously from one medium to another. But young children don’t often think that way. A simple experiment demonstrates the point.
First, draw two balloons — one inflated, the other going pop! In all likelihood, you will draw one nice, round balloon and one balloon that’s shriveled or in pieces, perhaps surrounded by little lines to suggest popping. You might even add the word “pop.”
Now give this task to a child between two and a half and three years old. I guarantee this is what will happen: The child will draw a nice, round balloon, followed by another nice, round balloon. Then the child will pick up the marker and stab the second balloon while shouting “pop!”
The young child is fully aware that a drawn balloon isn’t the same as a real balloon. What the child is showing is that, for him or her, there are no clear boundaries between media. The child is saying, in effect, “I’ll carry out the task using drawing, gesture, and sound – no reason to stick to drawing.”
So while there may be art in the young child’s play, it isn’t art in the sense of a product that someone has worked mindfully to create using a particular medium. You are perhaps wise to let go of any romantic view you might hold of childhood as a time when “everyone is an artist.” But still, there are plenty of reasons to rejoice in the artful play of a child.
Artful play can lead almost anywhere (including, sometimes, to becoming an artist later on). The joy of puzzling over how to use a marker and paper, or a pile of blocks, to express one’s interests leads one to thrive in the present, to understand one’s surroundings better, and to be open to friendships. And there is no activity that children carry out with greater enthusiasm and spirit.
The derivation of those two words — enthusiasm and spirit — has to do with a holy presence. That is what comes to mind whenever I see a young child happily mushing together mediums and domains.
You may call it art. I call it divine.
W. GEORGE SCARLETT is a senior lecturer and Tisch Fellow in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. He is the founder and editor of the web magazine Tomorrow’s Earth Stewards, which helps adults nurture young people’s environmental awareness. He has published books on children’s play, classroom management, and religious and spiritual development across the lifespan. His granddaughter, Sadie, age 15 months, likes to “cook” with a small spatula, and his border collie, Abby, likes to chew up Frisbees and spar with raccoons. He lives with his wife, Shirley, in Carlisle, Massachusetts.