Curriculum, Visual Art - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy (2023)

Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Visual Art

Visual art curriculum has held a central role in the United States early childhood curriculum since its inception for most of its history. Although theories and practices of what constitutes an appropriate art curriculum for young children have changed over time, most early childhood programs have encouraged young children to explore materials and create artwork using a variety of art media. Individual teachers draw upon a variety of art theories and recommendations in their work with children, resulting in the broad spectrum of practices seen in early childhood classrooms today. As U.S. teachers experience an increased need for accountability to meet state-wide and national standards, some may question how art can be integrated into the daily life of the classroom. New light has recently been brought to the subject of visual arts in the early years by the world-recognized accomplishments of Reggio Emilia.

Historical Background

The tradition of emphasizing art in early childhood curriculum may have begun in the Frobelian kindergarten, where children were encouraged to create practical items such as woven placemats and punched paper designs (see Froebel, Friedrich). Nursery-school teachers of the early 1900s encouraged children to represent their ideas using a variety of basic materials such as crayons, clay, and paint in order to foster children’s freedom of expression, thereby benefiting development. In the 1930s, John Dewey’s influential contribution to aesthetic theory, Art as Experience, argued that art plays a critical role in society. Dewey argued that art illuminates common human experience and that every citizen deserves the right to aesthetic experience. During the 1940s and 1950s, Viktor Lowenfeld’s (1947) Creative and Mental Growth outlined a developmental stage approach to children’s artistic development that was influential in keeping the arts central in early childhood curriculum while keeping the role of the teacher limited to the provider of space, time, encouragement, and materials.

In the 1960s, work by Howard Gardner and the Project Zero researchers outlined the relationship between children’s art and cognition and confirmed the importance of fostering children’s creative thought and expression. Continued support meant that the arts at this time were more valued in some classrooms for young children. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, increasing emphasis on achievement in isolated academic skills resulted in shifting interpretations of the role of the arts in early learning environments. This trend is apparent in the rise of state and national curriculum standards, frameworks, and increased standardized testing. These changes in curriculum focus have directed attention away from the arts in higher grades, and have affected the early childhood curriculum as well. Nevertheless, visual arts continue to be an integral part of most curricula for young children.

Theories of Children’s Ailistic Development

Theories on children’s artistic development have informed the development and implementation of art curriculum throughout the twentieth century. There are currently four widely recognized theories which account for children’s artistic development: developmental, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and perceptual.

Developmental theorists posit that children develop artistic skills by proceeding through a predetermined linear series of stages. During the 1940s, Lowenfeld described five stages of artistic development as the unfolding of a genetic process, thereby discounting the ability of the teacher to further artistic growth in children. Rather, the teacher was viewed as a guide. Wolfe and Perry refined the idea of developmental stages in art during the 1980s, defining each stage by drawing systems with distinct characteristics and purposes. However, developmental theories have received extensive criticism for their failure to account for individual and cultural differences. Golomb has criticized the lack of cultural context considered when assessing children’s artwork in developmental stages, and developmental theorists have also been criticized for their “hands-off” interpretation of the teacher’s role.

Cognitive theorists, such as Goodenough and Harris, argued that children draw what they know and that therefore, the creation of art is dependent upon concept formation rather than the developmental level of the child. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences supports cognitive theory by linking children’s symbolic representation with cognitive development. During the 1960s, the Goodenough Harris Draw-A-Person Test was founded upon cognitive theory. In this test, children’s drawings of people were scored based on the inclusion of detail and realism; scores were found to correlate highly with other standardized tests of achievement.

The psychoanalytic theory of artistic development is grounded on the Freudian concept of the subconscious (see Freud, Anna; Freud, Sigmund). According to this theory, children draw what they feel. Psychoanalysts believe that children’s artwork reflects their inner struggles and desires. As with developmental theory, psychoanalytic theory supports the idea that teachers can merely guide a child to express him or herself through art. Psychoanalytic theory is currently used in the realm of art therapy, in which exploration of various art materials have been found to help children to cope with separation anxiety and offer safer ways for children to express feelings.

The fourth theory of art is known as the perceptual, or perceptual-spatial, theory. This theory argues that children draw what they see. For example, a child may draw a figure as a head with arms sprouting from it because these are the most salient characteristics necessary to represent a person. June McFee, in her book Preparation for Art(1970), expands the idea of a perceptual theory, suggesting that children’s art is based on multiple factors, including perception, the readiness of the child to consider visual elements, the psychological environment in which children work, cognitive abilities, and developmental skills such as fine motor control.

Current Curriculum Practices

Stake-holders in the education of young children draw upon these art theories when designing and implementing art curriculum. As individuals interpret the merits of these theories differently, curriculum has become diverse in implementation. Art curriculum in early childhood in U.S. classrooms tends to fall on a continuum from more open-ended art experiences to more focused and directed activities.

Open-ended, process-based curriculum. Some teachers want children to explore and manipulate materials independently in an open-ended setting. A teacher implementing this type of curriculum presents children with a variety of art materials with multiple uses, such as pieces of tissue paper and glue, and invites them to explore and create whatever they wish using the materials. In this “hands-off” approach, no formal instruction is provided and there is little emphasis on complete products. The teacher does not want to interrupt the children’s natural development of forms or self-expression. A teacher using this open-ended approach may support a developmental or psychoanalytic theory of children’s art, and takes a more passive role as children engage in art processes. Some teachers following this curriculum believe that children should be free to be creative in their artistic work, rather than imitating and following a teacher’s instructions. A potential drawback of this approach is that teachers often prioritize the importance of providing new materials for children to explore; as a result, children do not spend enough time with a given material to gain confidence or experience in using it. This approach has also been criticized for not directly teaching children the skills and techniques necessary to successfully use specific materials to achieve visual expressive goals.

Teacher-directed curriculum. Other teachers believe that children can gain skills in the arts through more explicit teacher instruction. Mona Brookes, founder of the Monart schools, upholds that teaching children a specific set of forms gives them tools they can learn to apply to representational drawing situations. This approach, rationalized by Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979), encourages children to draw representationally, and rests on the principle that children learn drawing skills by copying a teacher or master. Some art curricula in early childhood classrooms rely heavily on workbooks, repetition, and copying adult drawings. Although the children’s work in programs such as these may yield high results in representational drawing, this approach is criticized for ignoring children’s interests, restricting their creative processes, and interfering in the natural progression of development.

Teacher and child as partners in learning. Some contemporary early learning environments use a combination of child-centered and teacher-directed art experiences in the classroom. Teachers may use a variety of methods in order to motivate children’s engagement, including both teacher- and child-directed experiences. Teachers might make art materials available as a fixed component of the classroom environment. Placed at the child’s level, these are materials that the child can retrieve for her/himself. Another approach would be to set out materials as a “planned experience,” or center that children may choose to participate in during a choice period. Materials may also be presented as the basis for a planned activity, and further motivated by the teacher’s engagement and guidance in the activity. For example, a teacher might display prints of Matisse paper cutouts along with a variety of papers and scissors, as motivation for the children to experiment with paper cutout designs and collage. Content for these activities might develop from both the classroom curriculum at large, as well as the specific work the children are producing.

Role of the Teacher

The role of the teacher in planning art experiences involves understanding the elements of design, setting goals for the children, and setting the environment to motivate the art experience through materials or tasks. There are a number of disciplines within the visual arts that can be implemented in a classroom with young children, such as painting, sculpting, or weaving. An early child-care teacher can facilitate an art activity through these disciplines through diverse art processes such as applying, forming, or interlacing.

Teachers may facilitate art experiences for young children to address local, state, and national standards for art, or to connect with emergent themes in the children’s play. Teachers also may use art activities to address other curriculum standards in math, science, and literacy. Art experiences are used in early childhood classrooms today to promote healthy personal/social development, give children opportunities for self-expression, build skills in problem solving, and encourage creative thinking. Teachers often want children to be exposed to and gain experience with materials, as well as begin to understand symbol systems.

Planning lessons and learning Encounters. When a teacher chooses an activity in the classroom, she/he considers what activity and materials best fit the goals for the children, in terms of both the classroom context and the standards addressed. The teacher also takes into account the experience and development of the children involved. Teachers may plan lessons aimed to (1) increase observation skills and perceptual-spatial awareness of details, (2) encourage expressivity, work from feelings, and identify emotional states through symbols, (3) encourage an awareness of artistic elements, physical knowledge of materials, and techniques, (4) encourage creativity, cultivate imagination and novel thinking, and encourage new ways of perceiving (Feinburg and Mindess, 1994). A specific art activity may address more than one of these goals.

Materials. In designing art activities, the teacher whose curriculum is both child- centered and teacher-directed chooses materials purposefully. Before setting up an activity, the teacher first experiments with the materials her/himself to understand what particular qualities might best work in an activity. Qualities of the material, such as size, shape, and scale of the materials, are considered in terms of what they might afford to the particular children and the goals of the activity. Materials can range from more traditional art materials, such as paint, to natural or found objects like leaves or buttons. In choosing materials and setting up the activity, the teacher takes into account what interests the children have and what might motivate their artwork. For instance, in order to encourage more active children to engage in visual art choices, a teacher might set out a box filled with marbles and several colors of fresh paint. The teacher would invite children to lift the box and move the marbles in different ways to mix the paint. The motion of the marbles and the more social aspect of the art activity might encourage members of the class to become more involved in the art area.

Environment. The teacher also takes into consideration the environment when setting an art activity. In creating a space for art within the classroom, the teacher includes as much natural light as possible, and organizes materials so that they are easily accessible and visible to all children. Different environmental juxtapositions of materials within the space, that is, when the child draws on big pieces of paper on the floor versus on smaller sheets of paper on a tabletop, might afford different results in terms of an activity. Changes in the environment, such as including novel environmental elements, doing an art activity in a new place, and restricting or limiting materials can be particularly motivating for children.

Creative process. In early childhood educational settings, teachers tend to give children time to use materials and get comfortable with the technical skills of holding scissors or squeezing glue, before they focus on the product. As children gain experience with materials, they gain confidence in their artwork. The creative process usually begins with exploring materials. The process then evolves as children focus their work, produce a creation, stop their activity, and evaluate or re-work their product. As children engage in the creative process, they may experiment spontaneously, move back and forth between exploring and producing, or work in-depth on a project. Based on the nature of the activity, the children may work independently or as a group. To keep children engaged in art activities, the teacher works to continually motivate children to think, feel, and perceive. Dialogue, objects, words, or images may be used as stimulation or motivators for projects. Teachers may consider the concept of Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development to help individual children gain the most from art activities. The teacher provides constructive comments that value the children’s work, for example by pointing out particular elements of the process, or making comments that draw attention to the elements of art. The materials, environment, and teacher’s comments all contribute to making artwork in the classroom purposeful.

Art and technology. A growing trend to incorporate technology into the early childhood curriculum has meant that an increasing number of classrooms for young children have computers, digital cameras, and other technological equipment. Many of these technologies have potential uses in the art curriculum, and some teachers choose to use them in their classrooms. For example, computer software programs such as KidPix and Microsoft Microworlds give young children digital formats for drawing, editing, and manipulating digital photographs, or creating virtual worlds with illustrations, music, and animation. The inclusion of technology in an art curriculum has expanded the medium through which children can create and appreciate art. The availability of a rapidly developing range of technology and software promises to make this area of art a dynamic playground for growth and exploration in years to come.

Inclusion. In many classrooms in the United States today, children with special needs and typically developing children play and learn together in the same classroom. As different learning styles and individual characteristics are being acknowledged and appreciated, art may provide a way to interest or motivate children who might not otherwise participate. These trends demand that additional attention be paid to art curriculum planning, to ensure that projects and materials are made accessible and engaging to all children involved.

Inclusion means that teachers and specialists may substitute certain materials, spaces, or motivations for others during an art activity, in order to support individual children in the activity at hand. Frequently, specialists and therapists can serve as resources for teachers in determining which types of adaptations are appropriate for a specific child.

New Understandings

As more pressure has been put on teachers to meet standards in the areas of math and reading, the value and goals of art curriculum in the United States have been called into question. Although art has had a strong presence in the early childhood curriculum, the strikingly complex children’s artwork that has emerged in the municipally funded preprimary centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy, has envoked dialogue regarding current conceptions of the capabilities of young children. The centers in Reggio Emilia integrate art within the curriculum and employ atelieristi, faculty who specialize in different areas of art. The atelieristi collaborate and co-organize materials, projects, and space with teachers. Reggio Emilia centers provide studio space, called the atelier, for work to be done in and outside the classroom. The children in these Reggio Emilian classrooms play an active part in the planning of curriculum. Children spend time each day using art media to represent their ideas, observations, theories, and dreams in graphic “symbolic languages.” Art is heavily integrated into the curriculum through problem-solving activities and teachers take great care to document their shared experiences as well as children’s symbolic representations of their plans, hypotheses, and emerging understandings. Reggio Emilia’s approach to children’s art builds upon theories of the relationship between cognition and creativity and emphasizes the potentials of drawing to learn as well as learning to draw. The philosophies of Reggio Emilia have become popular in the United States, and have begun to be integrated into “Reggio Emilia inspired” schools.

In addition to the influence of Reggio Emilia, philosopher Maxine Greene and scholar Eliot Eisner suggest a need to place more value on art in our current educational system. Greene states that art is essential for children to make meaning, think critically, and acknowledge the multiple realities that currently exist in society. Eisner upholds the critical value that art plays in our increasingly symbolic and visual world, honoring multiple perspectives and subtleties. Eisner also stresses the importance of art as it teaches children problem-solving skills that may yield more than one solution.


Exposure to the arts seems to be valued in U.S. classrooms, and teachers across the country are integrating art experiences in meaningful ways. By giving children diverse ways to order, interpret, and describe their world, teachers offer children more possibilities and entry points into the life of the class. Classroom art activities are not only a place for self-expression and tool use, but also a place to think symbolically, make connections between contexts, see multiple perspectives, and solve problems. See also Assessment, Visual Art; Child Art.

Further Readings: Davis, Jessica, and Howard Gardner (1993). The arts and early childhood education: A cognitive developmental portrait of the young child as Artist. In Bernard Spodek, ed. Handbook of research on the education of young children. New York: Macmillan, pp. 191-206; Dewey, John (1934). Art as experience. New York: Penguin Putnam; Edwards, Betty (1979). Drawing on the right side of the brain. Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher; Eisner, Elliot (2003). What the arts teach and how it shows. In E. Eisner, The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 70-92; Feinburg, Sylvia, and Mary Mindess (1994). Eliciting children’s full potential: Designing and evaluating developmentally based programs for young children. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole; Forman, George (1996). A child constructs an understanding of a water wheel in five media. Childhood Education 72.5, 269-273; Gandini, Lella, Lynn Hill, Louise Cadwell, and Charles Schwall, eds. (2005). In the spirit of the studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. New York: Teachers College Press; Greene, Maxine (1997). Metaphors and multiples: Representation, the arts, and history. Phi Delta Kappan 78, 387-394; Lasky, Lila, and Rose Mukerji-Bergeson (2003). Art: Basic For young children. Washington DC: NAEYC; Lowenfeld, Viktor, and W. Lambert Brittain (1987). Creative and mental growth, 8th ed. New York: Macmillan; McFee, June K. (1970). Preparation for art. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing: McWhinnie, Harold J. (1992). Art in early childhood education. In Carol Seefeldt, ed. The early childhood curriculum: A review of current research, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 264-285; Seefeldt, Carol (1999). Art for young children. In Carol Seefeldt, ed. The early childhood curriculum: Current findings in theory and practice. 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 201-217.

Maggie Beneke and Megina Baker

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