Using Art as a Tool for Communication
8/31/2021 | Sasha Kopp
In my last blog post “Creating a Socially and Emotionally Responsive Environment,” one of the ideas to support the transition to this new school year was creating opportunities to engage in discussion about feelings with your students. Many students have never spent time with caretakers outside of their immediate family and because of the pandemic may not have socialized to the same degree as previous first-timers. One way that centers should consider supporting their children – and all children – is by having opportunities for children to deeply engage in art.
Visual art gives children the ability to create, explore, and imagine. Art enables them to see something evolve from a blank space to a design that has personal meaning for them and for others. Both the process of creating art, as well as reflecting on the final product is important for the social-emotional development of children as paths to process their experiences, work through feelings, and share their stories.
Art supports children processing their own experiences
Your school’s children are being exposed to a lot of change at once — new adults, a new environment, new routines, and peers outside of their social group and art can help them process this newness in developmentally appropriate ways. Children will often draw what’s important to them or what’s on their mind, and while these drawings might not be representationally accurate, even two-year-olds are able to share who their marks and scribbles represent.
Talking to children about their artwork gives adults insights into how a child might be processing the world around them. Experiences like a new baby joining the family, a visit to see their grandparents or, even a trip to a doctor’s office (which can also be great scenarios for dramatic play). As a follow-up, you can ask opened-ended questions such as “how did you feel when that happened?” When jointly reflecting on their art with trusted adults, children hear how adults react to their depictions through direct feedback that reinforces what’s noticed about their art: “I see you drew two big blue circles – tell me about them!” When adults share curiosity about children’s art it gives children the opportunity to re-process what the art is depicting. This results in rich conversations that help adults form bonds and understand their students in a new way.
Art supports children working through big feelings
Newness and change often bring big feelings and emotions. When this newness and change is worrisome or confusing, children may channel their feelings and emotions into behavior as a form of communication. When you see children becoming sad, angry or, frustrated, encourage them to make art about it!
When making art, some children are attracted to representational drawing where they can share the different inputs (people, places, activities) that contributed to them feeling their big feelings. Other children instead feel more comfortable using sensory input art materials that help them slow down, relax and, refocus. Art that is grounded in sensory input such as finger paint or clay can help children focus their energy on the artistic process. Focusing on the process of creating art, rather than the product of the art created helps children learn that art can be a tool that they can use in any setting to help them work through their feelings and calm their bodies. It also helps them learn that art can be created just for the joy of creating it! One doesn’t have to have an end-product in mind to appreciate the magic of finger paint or the process of watching a ball of clay shift shapes.
Art supports children telling their stories socially
Children have a lot to share, and many stories to tell! Engaging in art gives children the opportunity to share with each other about their lives. Sharing can either take the form of creating a piece of art that itself shares a story or perhaps they might make a piece of art to give to a new sibling or a friend that moved away and the act of sharing the art tells its own story. Also, while children are actively creating art they often connect and talk about their art, the people in their lives, and find out new similarities between classmates. The social aspect of creating art is often overlooked, yet the process of creating art with peers holds endless possibilities for continual social development.
Children love creating art that shares experiences they have had such as a vacation, a trip to the park, or a fight with a sibling. But it doesn’t have to be pulled from real life, children love to make up stories and characters, stretching the imagination and overlapping these worlds. Three to five-year-olds can illustrate their own books and dictate words for teachers to help add to their illustrations. The physical act of putting a story into form helps them understand that there is a beginning and middle and an end to their experiences. The concept of sequencing is important for storytelling and is often reinforced throughout the artistic process. It is exciting to see what their imaginations come up with and through art, they can help communicate their ideas and their stories with others.
Art is one of the many languages of young children and by exposing them to multiple types of artistic media and experiences, we can give them a variety of opportunities to process their experiences, work through their feelings, tell their stories, and so much more. We are giving them a gift to be able to learn new tools to understand themselves and the world around them.
Sasha Kopp is a community early childhood and family engagement consultant for The Jewish Education Project and an adjunct professor at American Jewish University. Sasha has worked in a variety of teaching and administrative roles in early childhood programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. You can connect with Sasha through her website at sashakopp.com or through Twitter @SashaKopp.