Home | Health+Development | Don’t paint by numbers, early education expert says

Don’t paint by numbers, early education expert says

When it comes to preschoolers and crafting, Erika Christakis says it’s the creative journey, not the finished product, that matters.

Christakis, a former lecturer in early childhood education at Yale University’s Child Study Center, acknowledged that although the ‘process, not product’ philosophy is already popular, aesthetic quality is often still expected.

This expectation should be dropped altogether, she argued in her recently published book The Importance of Being Little, because expecting quality process and product is unfeasible.

She illustrated the point with the following example:

“Consider it this way: if you were asked to make a flimsy flower from a Styrofoam ball and a few pink foam petals that had been cut out by your teacher, wouldn’t you at least want help to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself by deviating from the paint-by-number instructions? Kids are not dupes. They know perfectly well when their product doesn’t look as good as the others, and the pretense of process not product in such a narrowly defined scenario … it just makes a lot of young children feel ashamed or irritated.”

Process is more important, she wrote: “The purpose of this exercise is not to teach children how to make clay alligators and coffee mugs. The purpose is to teach children a predictable cognitive sequence they can apply when they encounter anything new: observe, question, explore, reflect. Repeat.”

Aside from this, instructing toddlers to copy a pro-forma paper-plate animal, for instance, excludes the development of social and emotional skills, Christakis explained. These competencies are developed, however, when kids engage in more creative activities, such as playing imaginative ‘house’.

So why are preschoolers still being instructed to make snowmen from cotton balls or trace templates?

Christakis reasoned that it’s an easy way of pleasing parents. “It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Here’s the construction paper jack-o’-lantern we made today’ than ‘I’ve noticed that Michael is really excited by what happens when he mixes blue and yellow paint,’ ” Christakis wrote. It also provides a simple mechanism by which teachers can assess kids’ cognitive development, such as their fine motor skills.

If teachers realise the benefits of process-driven crafts, together with changing parental expectations, Christakis suggested, there wouldn’t be pressure on little ones to produce things of beauty. This would create room for them to harness their inner Picassos, and, more importantly, comprehensively enhance their cognitive, social and emotional development.

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