Module One, Part 1 (of 1)


    Notice: Trying to get property 'ID' of non-object in /var/www/ on line 80

    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:

    1. Watching an introductory video
    2. Reflecting on your personal beliefs and values about the visual arts
    3. Reading about children’s learning in the visual arts 
    4. Watching a video in which Dr Sarah Probine explores some common beliefs and values that teachers hold about teaching the arts 
    5. Writing a reflection on your personal early experiences of learning about the arts and the impact these have on your practice
    6. 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

    Introducing me

    Tenā koutou, tenā koutou, tenā koutou katoa, Ko Vicki Hargraves ahau.
    Tēnā tātou katoa e huihui nei i tēnei rā
    Koia nei te kaupapa mō ā tātou akomanga.
    Kia kaha tātou ki te mahi tahi i roto i te aroha.
    Kia whai whakaaro ki ētahi atu me ō rātou whakaaro
    Kia mahia ā tātou mahi i roto i te koa me te tōiriiritanga
    Kia honoa tātou hei whānau ākonga kotahi.
    Tēnā anō tātou katoa

    Welcome to the course.

    My name is Vicki Hargraves, and I’m really delighted to be guiding you through this course on visual arts and inquiry. I have many years’ experience as an early childhood teacher and as an early childhood centre leader, and for most of that time I’ve been really passionate about learning about children’s thinking and their theorising. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the early childhood centres of Reggio Emilia in the Reggio Emilia region of Northern Italy, and I’ve also completed a PhD, and part of that I focused on the different ways that we can think divergently and creatively, and the kind of tools and materials that help us to do that. I’ve also dabbled in the visual arts for my own enjoyment and interest over the years, but even so, I’ve been challenged by some of the ideas and concepts that I’ve come across as I’ve put together this course for you. So I hope that you also have the chance to revise and review and expand your theories and practice and pedagogies for the visual arts, and as you’ll see from our fabulous case studies that we’re going to share with you during the course, the possibilities for complex thinking, learning and art making are awe-inspiring!


    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.

    Art is: 

    • Creativity
    • Self-expression
    • A problem-solving tool
    • Skill
    • Technique
    • Language
    • Communication
    • Aesthetics
    • Play
    • Exploration
    • Experimentation
    • Free
    • Elite
    • Frivolous
    • Thought-provoking
    • Emotive
    • Display
    • Cultural practice
    • Knowledge
    • Process
    • Product
    • Structured
    • Critic
    • Individual

    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:

    Facilitating communication

    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.

    Mediating thinking

    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. 

    Building teachers confidence engaging with the visual arts 

    Sarah Probine, Manukau Institute of Technology 

    What are the values and dispositions that teachers need to develop in themselves to support visual art experience for children? 

    I think that we need to begin by thinking about our images of childhood and our images of ourselves as teachers. Often, we talk about the confident and capable child, but when we actually look at our visual arts’ experiences, some of what we offer can be very teacher directed. And then at other times we might feel really uncomfortable to engage with children's art making, and so take on a position of being an admirer and provider of materials. Both positions, I think, don’t really reflect this image that we talk about so often. The teacher-directed approach that positions the teacher in the position of power - in a position where teachers stand back and observe children's art making because they're worried about overly influencing their work - also positions the child as someone who's overly influenced and too susceptible to all of the other things happening around them. That's the first thing I think is really important to think about is, who is the child? How do they learn? What is that image of education? 

    The other thing I think we need to think really carefully about, is what is our role as a teacher. And if we think about other curriculum areas - how we work with children in the sand pit, or when we're considering science concepts – we think about how we engage with children, how we have conversations, provide materials, extend on that thinking, challenge children, help them to evaluate their learning. And then if we think back to what we're doing in the visual arts, often those things make us feel really uncomfortable, so those would be the first two things I think about. I think dispositions-wise, we just need to be curious and open to new experiences and possibilities in the visual arts. 

    Do teachers need specific visual arts knowledge? 

    Felicity McArdle gives this really fantastic example of maths, and she says, you know, you would never hear a teacher say I know nothing about maths, and yet we know in order to be able to teach maths’ concepts, we need to know how to count and we need to know some ideas and some strategies for working with numbers and number concepts. And the same thing happens for the visual arts, we need to have some kind of idea of the purpose of the visual arts, but also some of the challenges and techniques and skills for working with them so that we can have authentic conversations with children. When we don’t have that knowledge, teachers can find it really hard to have those conversations apart from saying “that's really lovely” or “I really appreciate your artwork”. But when you've made art and created it, and making art can be really challenging, you can begin to say, “Gosh, that’s a really interesting technique you're using there! I find when I use this kind of brush that this happens”. You begin to have these conversations that are really authentic and also based on co-constructing knowledge with children rather than the teacher having to take on this position of just admiring and watching. 

    How can teachers develop confidence to engage in arts experiences with children? 

    I think there are two really important things that teachers need to do. The first thing is to really think about why they lack that confidence. So, for many of my student teachers, and also teachers I've talked with over the years, their fear or their lack of confidence has actually arisen from their own educational experiences. So, they might have encountered a teacher where they were overly directed or overly controlled so they felt like they had no autonomy in their art making, so they withdrew from that. Or they might have been criticised by a peer or a teacher, or they might just not have had opportunities to engage in the visual arts throughout their education. 

    So, what can happen from that point is that once you lack that confidence, or you begin to think about your ability to engage in the visual arts in a negative way, you can avoid further learning in that domain, and that's a real concern. So, I think spending time actually thinking about those memories and thinking about what happened, and how it felt and also reframing those stories, I think that's really important to think, “OK, this happened to me, this is how I felt. What does this mean for my teaching? What does this mean for how I want to teach the arts in my practice?” And I think that's a really powerful way of turning around those memories and stories from our pasts. So, that's the first thing that teachers need to spend time doing. 

    The second thing is just to make art. To actually engage with materials and play with them and try not to put yourself under too much pressure to make something that looks amazing. I make art in my spare time. I paint and I draw, and I make a lot of bad art before I can make good art, so I think it teaches me to understand that art making is a skill. Learning to draw is like learning to write or learning to count. It's something we can all learn and it's not a special thing that just a few people in the world can do. We can all make art, and we can all use art making in our learning, in our practice. It's a really powerful tool to discover things about ourselves, but also about the world. 

    So, I think taking the pressure off and just playing with art materials and enjoying them is really important. For teachers wanting to do this, and they might not have a class they can go to, and they might not have an expert in their centre, I would suggest starting with something like ephemeral art. Every teacher, every person I know is actually an experienced ephemeral artist because we've all made sandcastles. We've all played with leaves at the park, and so engaging in ephemeral art with natural resources and just beginning to play around with materials can be one way of actually beginning to make something and enjoy the creative process. 

    The other thing I really love about ephemeral art is it doesn't lend itself to being representational, so you don't have to feel that you've got to make something that looks like something. You can just enjoy pattern-making or creating balance or contrast or symmetry. And those are really important elements of art making. So, that’s one place you could begin. 

    Another thing I think is thinking about materials really carefully, so have a play with the materials in your center. Some of the materials we offer to children are truly dreadful - wax crayons don't make satisfying lines or beautiful colours, but, other materials, like willow charcoal or watercolor paint, create beautiful lines and incredibly rich colors, so playing around with those materials is a really wonderful beginning for both children and for teachers who are wanting to build their confidence in this area. 

    How can building teachers’ visual arts knowledge inform pedagogy? 

    I think the most important thing about learning about the visual arts and understanding its possibilities for exploring ideas and supporting both teachers’ learning and children's learning, is that once you understand that and you've got knowledge of a range of mediums and how to use those mediums, teachers can really thoughtfully plan how to integrate the visual arts into curriculum. So, you might have a group of children who are really interested in monarch butterflies, and they might have noticed the beautiful patterning on the wings. And so, in that case, a teacher who's got that knowledge might be able to thoughtfully suggest materials to children to explore and observe and represent these, so they might offer children graphite pencils and paper. In contrast, the teacher who might not have that knowledge and skill of the visual arts might turn to Pinterest or such websites to look for an activity on butterflies, and that kind of activity has actually got no correlation with the curiosities and the questions of the working theories that groups of children have around butterflies’ wings. 

    The other really important thing about the teacher who's got that experience of the visual arts, is that they can have what I talked about before, those authentic conversations with children about their art making. So, they can suggest materials, they might create alongside a child. And when they're doing that, they can talk about that child’s strategies and problem-solving strategies for art making. But they can also talk about their own strategies, and I think it's really important that children see that adults actually make art - that they engage in that process, but they also have problems. 

    So, when you're creating a piece of art alongside a child, you might say “I'm finding this really hard to blend these colors. You know, when I get frustrated when I'm making a piece of art, sometimes I walk away from it for a while and then I come back. Or I might ask a friend for help”. So, you're beginning to create this culture of learning where children and teachers are co-constructing knowledge through the visual arts, and I think that's really powerful. 



    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. 

    Discuss online

    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?

    Further reading

    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.