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The aims of this module are:
- To develop familiarity with the course and modes of delivery including the online discussion forum
- To explore the areas of learning that are supported by the visual arts
- To reflect upon your own beliefs and practices in relation to the visual arts
This will involve:
- Watching an introductory video
- Reflecting on your personal beliefs and values about the visual arts
- Reading about children’s learning in the visual arts
- Watching a video in which Dr Sarah Probine explores some common beliefs and values that teachers hold about teaching the arts
- Writing a reflection on your personal early experiences of learning about the arts and the impact these have on your practice
- Having a go at creating some visual art for yourself
You might also like to introduce yourself on the discussion forum for this module, and spend time reading the introductions of other participants in this course. There is also some additional reading listed at the end of the module for those who would like it, including a guide to working theories and a research paper on teachers’ beliefs in relation to children’s art education.
Watch a video
In what way do you view the visual arts? What words, concepts and ideas come to mind when you think of visual arts? Make a list before reading on.
What did you come up with?
Your ideas about art will depend to some extent on your own experiences, education, family and culture, and it can be good to reflect on these and challenge yourself to view the visual arts through other lenses. We might sometimes be limited by thinking about the visual arts in very specific ways.
Compare your list to the one below, and see where the differences lie.
Are there some words here in our list that you hadn’t considered?
Are there some you don’t agree with?
What does this exercise add to your understanding about the nature and importance of the visual arts as a curriculum tool?
As you read, note the different ways that the visual arts can be connected to a range of learning outcomes in the early childhood curriculum.
An introduction to the visual arts in early childhood education
The visual arts encompass an extensive range of visual modes that children utilise for expressing, communicating, mediating their thinking, engaging in aesthetic exploration and research. What is defined as visual arts is shaped by cultural and social values. Some common examples include painting, clay work, sculpture, collage, weaving, construction, photography, wearable art, carving, printing and ephemera, although there are many more modes of visual expression and exploration.
How do the visual arts support children’s learning?
Thinking of the visual arts in early childhood education can initially evoke an image of a child standing at an easel, thick stubby paintbrush in hand with bright acrylic poster paint spreading quickly across the page. However, research has shown the visual arts to be a rich domain through which young children can explore and represent their experiences, think through and deepen their working theories, and develop their creative thinking. It is through the visual arts that children learn about the symbolic systems of representation and communication valued by their communities. The visual arts support children’s learning in a number of ways:
For pre-literate children, the visual arts are a primary means through which they can explore and share their perceptions of their world. The visual arts can help children to communicate ideas that cannot be expressed verbally, which is particularly important for children with English as a second language. The meanings of children’s art works are not always obvious but, in some cases, the act of creating art can encourage children to talk as they work. When this occurs, both the artwork and the dialogue that occurs alongside are equally important in helping teachers to better understand the child’s thinking.
The visual arts also support children to communicate with each other, particularly when teachers create opportunities for them to work on shared projects or to explore common interests together. Such opportunities encourage children to exchange ideas, consider solutions and develop shared meanings through collaboration. These experiences may also encourage children to develop their verbal language.
Researchers have built upon Vygotsky’s theory that language acts as a tool to mediate thinking to suggest that visual arts could work in a similar way and found that children’s visual representations are more closely connected to thought than verbal language is. When children create visual arts in groups, the act of representing thinking visually allows them to share their ideas with others. This supports them to transform their understandings through co-construction. In such an environment, children can try out new ideas as well as strategies for working with visual media, inspired by their peers, which they internalise and then draw upon later in different contexts. In this way, the visual arts support children to develop their metacognitive capacities.
Developing an appreciation for diverse points of view
A wonderful aspect of the visual arts is that there is never one right answer. The visual arts offer multiple solutions to a problem or ways that an idea can be expressed. When children have opportunities to view each other creating visual arts, and to talk about the ideas they are exploring through their art, they can develop an appreciation for different perspectives and an understanding that knowledge is subjective, that there is no one ‘truth’ or correct answer.
Developing cultural knowledge and fostering identity formation
Researchers also assert that the visual arts, alongside other arts domains, are a primary means through which cultural identity and associated values are shared with young children, and argue that it is important that teachers develop understanding of how the visual arts are valued by families and communities as a basis for creating culturally responsive visual arts curriculum. For children, experiencing the visual arts valued by their cultures within their early childhood settings can transmit powerful messages about how they and their families are valued. It is also vital that children are exposed to many different examples of the visual arts so that they can develop an appreciation of a range of culturally diverse art forms within their early years. This can be achieved by connecting with local community organisations such as galleries, artist studios and important cultural sites like the local marae.
Promoting creativity and imagination
The visual arts allow children to enter imaginative worlds, to be creative and to engage in playful thinking. Developing children’s imaginations is important for learning to show empathy for others. Creativity is the capacity to develop unique ideas and solutions that are of value. The visual arts invite experimentation and exploration, and as such, support the development of creativity and what has been described as ‘possibility thinking’. Fostering possibility thinking develops key dispositions of learning such as problem solving, perseverance, collaboration and seeking support from others.
Exploring aesthetics and the language of art
For some children, visual arts are a means to explore colour, texture and the possibilities of visual media. These children relish opportunities to develop skills and techniques. Research has highlighted how important it is that children have opportunities to conceptualise their own art making in addition to opportunities to create in group contexts. This allows them the space to immerse themselves in aesthetic exploration should they wish.
Developing critical literacy
Teaching children to interpret or ‘read’ visual modes of communication is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century as children are constantly exposed to visual texts and multimodal texts. Multimodal texts are those that include two or more ways of conveying messages, such as combining text and image. Some researchers argue that it is crucial that teachers talk with children about the images they encounter in their everyday environment, discussing how meanings have been conveyed by the artist or illustrator. This helps children to understand that images, like stories, are constructed and that they communicate messages. This is the first step in developing the ability to critically analyse visual texts, a vital skill in a world saturated by images. Talking with children about images also allows them to understand that they too, have the capacity to create images, to communicate ideas to others, or to explore ideas for themselves.
Offering emotional support
For some children, art making is their primary means of processing their experiences. For these children, engagement in visual arts can impact their emotional wellbeing, allowing them transition into the day, or into a new centre environment. Research has also found that art making has the potential to significantly reduce stress levels: it is important for children to have access to tools for art making throughout the day and particularly in the morning as a means to support these children to settle into the day.
As this reading makes clear, the visual arts support a broad array of learning outcomes across the early childhood curriculum. Do you notice how many of the opportunities for learning within visual art experiences involve children’s cognitive development and language skills?
Exploring the links between the visual arts and cognition forms an important part of this course, as we advocate for using the visual arts as a way to support, engage with and extend children’s thinking.
Read this short section on how the visual arts support learning dispositions and working theories, the two principal learning outcomes of New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum document, Te Whāriki. Note that there is a link to more information on working theories in the further reading section.
Working theories and dispositions
Key outcomes for children in the early childhood years relate to the development of working theories as a form of cognitive development and for building subject content knowledge, and the development of dispositions that support children in positive learning habits. The visual arts promote both these outcomes.
Dispositional learning through the arts
The visual arts give children opportunities to develop important learning skills, such as observing carefully, engaging in problems that interest them, and persisting when they find something difficult. They learn ways to communicate ideas and feelings, to collaborate with others and to interpret ideas communicated visually. They show initiative and intention, and are able to set goals for their artwork. They learn to reflect on their artwork and on their working processes, and to plan more complex and effective strategies and activities. The dispositions children may develop include engagement, persistence, envisioning and creating, humour, expression, and reflection. These dispositions can be relevant and desirable in other areas of learning. It is important that visual art experiences are integrated into wider topics or projects related to children’s interests and that incorporate a range of disciplines.
Using the arts to construct and modify working theories
As children create and explore using different media to represent things and ideas, they draw upon and modify their existing working theories. Working theories can be modified and developed when teachers encourage children to represent and reflect upon their theories using the visual arts. It is also possible to use artworks to introduce children to the working theories of their peers, and encourage them to compare, clarify and even modify their ideas. For example, a working theory that mummies and daddies are bigger than their children, or that friends always hold hands, might guide their depiction of the important people in their life. Children can adapt their drawing and develop their working theories about how to draw people when they try to draw a person from a side profile, for example, and work out that this might mean only drawing one eye, one arm and one leg.
As you are no doubt coming to realise, these possibilities for supporting a range of learning areas and outcomes make the visual arts a powerful tool for curriculum implementation. When teachers initiate, provoke and observe visual arts experiences in relation to children’s interests, they have opportunities to support children to communicate ideas, explore points of view and extend their thinking, which can promote creativity and imagination as well as cultural awareness and an understanding of self.
As we go through the course you will see different ways in which our three case study early childhood centres link the visual arts with children’s various inquiries and interests across the entire curriculum, with a specific focus on extending children’s thinking and skills while listening to children’s voices and co-constructing curriculum with them. In this course we are not going to be looking principally at how to teach the visual arts (although there will be a little bit of this) but at how the visual arts can be integrated into curricular plans to boost learning by making it more complex, creative and connected.
Watch a video
Dr Sarah Probine is a senior lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology, teaching in the areas of the arts, creativity, and inquiry-based learning. Her PhD focused on researching how children come to value and use the visual arts in their early childhood centres and at home, and her current research explores the impact on pedagogy when teachers develop new knowledge and confidence to personally engage in the arts.
Here she talks about how teachers’ values and beliefs about teaching art impact on their practice, and the steps that teachers might take in order to be more responsive and engaged in children’s visual arts experiences.
Sarah encourages teachers to reflect on their memories of learning or doing art, especially if they involve negative experiences. Even if your early experiences were positive, leading you to become an enthusiastic artist in your spare time, it can be important to think about your memories of being introduced to and involved in art experiences, and the feelings that accompany those memories. Spend some time to write these down. What can you learn from your memories of art experiences that will impact on your teaching? How does this reflection support you to determine how you want to teach the arts in your own practice?
Relate your learning to practice
Have a go at some art making for yourself. You might take Sarah’s suggestion to try out ephemeral art. Mark out a space for your art, and begin to explore and position materials in the space. These might be things you have gathered from nature, or from your recycling box! Alternatively you might like to try permanent marker pens and watercolour paints, and explore drawing and filling shapes.
Each module features some questions to focus your online discussions with other participants. As you finish this module, we encourage you to introduce yourself on Module 1 online forum, which is also shown in the sidebar for easy reference. Tell us how you would describe your current level of confidence and familiarity with the visual arts in early childhood provision? What are you hoping to get out of the course?
Learn more about working theories in this resource.
This paper describes research into teachers’ common beliefs about art education for young children and makes a case for more intentional teaching roles in the visual arts. It explains the approach to visual arts teaching we will promote later in the course, and briefly discusses the pedagogies of Reggio Emilia, which we will introduce in part three of the course.
The important points to take away from this introductory module are:
- There are a variety of beliefs and perspectives on the nature and importance of the visual arts.
- The visual arts provide powerful support for children’s learning, supporting them to develop creativity and imagination, cultural identity and knowledge, awareness of diverse points of view, and critical visual literacy skills.
- The visual arts also facilitate children’s ability to communicate ideas and feelings. Children develop important learning dispositions and have opportunities to construct and modify their working theories through the visual arts.
- Teachers’ own art experiences and their beliefs around art teaching will impact their practice, so it is important to be highly reflective about these.