What comes to mind when you think of preschool and toddler art activities? Macaroni collages in the shape of a heart? Cute little handprint turkeys or thumbprint flowers? Pre-cut animals glued onto a barn?
There is nothing wrong with any of these craft projects, but they all have one thing in common: The focus is squarely on the result, and it's a predetermined result. An adult has concocted a cute art project that might be a little bit fun for the kids and will surely be loved by their parents, but there isn't a lot of room for drawing outside the lines.
The thing is, from the children's perspective, the important part of art is the process, not the product.
While you will certainly see children who care deeply about the result of their efforts and get super frustrated when their drawing isn't recognizable, most young children simply want to experience creating art. They want to feel and smell the sensations of painting, sculpting with clay or doodling with markers. They want to make a mess. They want to get lost in a creative fervor just like the very best artists of the world.
So what do we do to help encourage these little Picassos? Enter: process art.
What is process art + why is it important for kids?
At its core, process art is art that focuses on the process of creating, rather than the product that is created.There is no predefined result and there are no expectations.
The purpose is simply to explore the materials, feel the deep focus that comes from the creative process, and have a rich sensory experience. So instead of filling in a pre-drawn flower shape with tissue paper, a child may splatter paint, then glue on some feathers, and then draw little birds. Or they may create a painting, cut it into shapes and make a collage.
Five children given the same materials will never come up with the same result in process art. This is quite a simple concept, but it can be challenging to execute, especially if our children are used to creating things to please us.
Why is process art important?
The benefits of process art go way beyond fostering a love of art (although it certainly does that, too!). Here are some reasons why process art is totally worth the mess:
Focus: While adult-defined art projects for kids have a clear end, process art does not. The child is allowed to keep creating as long as they please. This kind of activity develops strong concentration and the ability to focus for long periods of time.
Confidence: While having an expected result can be discouraging to kids and lead them to believe that they're "not good at art," process art is free of expectations. Can you imagine working with no fear of results or expectations? What a gift to give our children. They learn that the experience is what's worthwhile, not creating something to please someone else.
Independence: Even a small child can be independent with process art. There's no need to ask an adult to carefully cut out printed shapes or help them draw a specific image. The child leads the way which means that they can create based on their own skill level.
Keys to success with process art
1. Interesting materials
Process art does not take a lot of preparation. All you really have to do is provide an array of materials and provide space for your child to work.
One way to encourage a reluctant artist is to put out a variety of materials and think outside the box.
Is your kid super into cars? Place a little basket of wheels on their art shelf and see what they come up with.
Are they obsessed with unicorns? Make sure to include glitter and some rainbow yarn.
Try switching out materials regularly to keep your child interested. And remember to let them seek out their own materials, too. If you're on a nature walk and your child begins collecting feathers, mention that they're welcome to add them to their art shelf if they wish.
It's becoming increasingly rare for children to have a large block of time to simply imagine and create. Time is key for process art, though. While your child may be able to knock out a quick craft project in 15 minutes, they may need much longer to finish their own creation.
Make sure your child has some long stretches of time to create. If you see them getting out art supplies and you have to have lunch or move on to another activity in 15 minutes, make sure to warn them and to set aside some time later in the day for them to create without a rush.
Don't be discouraged if you provide materials and your child spends only five minutes on their process art. It takes time and practice for children to get used to being in control of the creative process. It's a muscle they need to strengthen over time. Remember, no expectations!
3. No interference
This may be the hardest thing for us to get comfortable with as parents. It's so hard not to hover over our children to make sure they're not making too big of a mess or to share how beautiful we think their art is. Even taking pictures can be distracting if your child notices.
Interfering in even a small way can break the child's flow and take away from their feeling that the process is really theirs.
If you have trouble letting go of the mess, take the art outside. Your child may even start to gather their own materials from nature.
10 examples of easy process art activities for toddlers and preschoolers
1. Rock painting
Creating something temporary is a great place to begin with children who need to build their creative confidence.
All you need for this one is non-toxic paint and some rocks outside. Start painting rocks and then back away as your child gets into the process. See what they come up with! Leave the rocks outside for the rain to wash and then paint them again!
Nothing sends a clearer message that the process is what matters than creating something temporary.
2. Painting mirrors (or plexiglass)
Painting something like a mirror or plexiglass outside is another great example of temporary art. Bring an acrylic mirror outside and paint over the beautiful reflections of nature.
Painting on mirrors is also a fun way to introduce self-portraits!
Collage easily lends itself to abstract art and thinking outside the lines. You can provide supplies but also encourage your child to gather their own found materials.
4. Tinker trays
If your child isn't as drawn to painting and drawing, a tinker tray can be a wonderful way to encourage their artistic side.
Simply fill a tray or tackle box with little objects like popsicle sticks, toothpicks, beads, foam pieces, whatever you can think of. Your child can create their own sculptures.
Working with clay can be highly soothing and is another excellent form of process art for kids who prefer to build and sculpt than paint. Provide some simple tools and let your child create.
Keep the clay in an airtight container with a damp cloth to prevent it from drying out so they can use it again and again.
6. Creative paint brushes
Show your child how they can clip anything (yarn! A leaf! A pompom! Lace!) into a clothespin to make their own paintbrush. This kind of exercise shows them that painting doesn't need to look any certain way.
7. Color mixing
Provide a tray with little blobs of different colored finger paint on it. Encourage your child to explore the colors, mixing them together right on the tray.
Alternatively, provide little dropper bottles with colored water and a big bowl of regular clear water. They can create art right in the bowl.
8. Chalk art
Set out a container of sidewalk chalk and a spray bottle of water on the patio or sidewalk. So many possibilities!
9. Set up a maker space
Set aside a space for things like toilet paper tubes, bits of string, nature items and interesting containers. Give your child total freedom over what to create.
10. Paint with movement
Use little toy race cars or a ball to paint with movement. Simply run them through the paint and zoom all over the paper.
These ideas are fun and a great way to get started but remember, you really don't need any set activity to try out process art. All you need are some fun materials and the right attitude for your child to experience the joy of the creative process.