Process Oriented Art : Toddler Art Beyond Adult Led Crafts {GUEST POST}

Please welcome my friend Corinna from Everything in Joy. Corinna is a Reggio Emilia inspired homeschool mom of two girls. She has a masters in Literacy, and teaching certifications in Early Childhood, Elementary Ed, and Special Ed. Visit her blog and her Instagram, both are full of wonderful info on child-led education! Corinna is deeply inspired by The Hundred Languages of Children, a foundational book on the Reggio Emilia approach.

You will find a recommended reading list from Corinna at the bottom of this post.
Crafts versus Process Oriented Art: What’s the difference?

A craft is typically a “cute” product of materials put together that involve multiple steps of instruction.  They are usually very linear, meaning there is a beginning, middle, end and needs to go in that order.  Most of the time crafts involve materials that require mature coordination, fine motor skills and take lots of time and patience. They usually show what the “end product” looks like in the instructions or you have an adult’s model to look at to follow.

The problem I have with crafts is they are being marketed towards toddlers. Child care centers, schools, and even parents are doing crafts with 1-3 years old children. Why do I have a problem with this you ask? Let me explain:

Toddlers, as we are all very aware, do not have the fine motor coordination to do many of the steps involved in most crafts, nor do they have the attention required to finish a multi-step craft. This leaves parents and teachers doing much of the work.

Have we ever stopped to think, “Why am I doing most of the work for my child?” Wasn’t this supposed to be done by the child? Why do I feel compelled to make the (frog, boat, apple, elephant, chicken, etc.) look “right”? The child clearly does not care as much as adults if things look aesthetically pleasing, then why do I? (This could be a whole other post!) There are lots to explore, from adults feeling validated as parents after posting a craft “their kid did” on Instagram to teachers feeling pressured to have their rooms decorated with thematic items to show the parents! The cycle continues as each pressured parent and teacher contributes to the idea that this is what shows you are competent!

The problem is this: Can that toddler do every step of the craft by themselves?

Let’s leave the reasons why we do crafts with toddlers aside for a moment and take a closer look at one aspect of toddler crafts and its unintended consequence. What I am talking about is that each craft necessarily has an example that was made by an adult. The child is shown the example, which was easily accomplished by the adult, and then walked through the steps to mimic the adult’s version. Does the toddler’s work, in the end, look like the adult’s end product? 99% of the time the answer to both questions is “No.”

Not only is the answer “no,” but a feeling of “not good enough” can possibly emerge because “mine doesn’t look like that,” or “mine doesn’t look like hers/his.” I can prove it. Have you yourself ever thought or have heard someone you know say this, “Oh, I’m not good at Art. I’m not an Artist.” You probably think this because at a very young age you were taught to compare your work against someone else’s. We need to ask ourselves this question: “What am I teaching my child through this experience?” I think that this experience teaches children that their artwork should always be compared to a model, rather than an original form of expression. And that art can be done “right” and “wrong”.

We live in a world obsessed with predetermined outcomes, standardized tests, and quantifications.  As Dahlberg and Moss point out, “mainstream education seems increasingly focused on, even obsessed with, just two languages: reading and writing…” (p.xiviii Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, 2010). So often in education, time is hurried and can, therefore, lead to superficial work. When we choose to take time with materials, we are taking time to listen, to engage and discuss and to reflect on an experience. This process is close to impossible to experience when doing crafts.

What if we focused more on other languages of expression rather than reading, writing and following step by step instructions? What are these other languages of expressivity anyways?

Vea Vecchi explains the concept of languages in the following way:
“We (in Reggio) consider languages as the different ways used by human beings to express themselves; visual language, mathematical language, scientific language, etc. In a conversation on the relationship between pedagogy and atelier, Claudia Giudici, pedagogista, puts it like this, ‘When we speak of languages we refer to the different ways children (human beings) represent, communicate and express their thinking in different media and symbolic systems; languages, therefore, are the many fonts or genesis of knowledge.’ Poetic Languages are forms of expression strongly characterized by expressive or aesthetic aspects such as music, song, dance or photography,” (p.xviii Vecchi, 2010). If we offer children an art form/medium, we are introducing a language of expression to them.
Process Oriented Art has no predefined progression, no outcomes decided before the project begins. As stated in its name, Process Oriented Art focuses on the process. Have you ever given a child a slab of clay? If so, have you ever watched the child interact with it? Don’t be tempted to show them how to do something.  Let them have an experience with it. Let them be free to play with it without any structure or direction.  Slowly introduce other materials and tools to use with the clay as the days go on. Continue where you left off without “the end” in mind. Here are some questions to be thinking about as you observe the child with the art form/language of expression:

What senses are used to interact with this? (Obviously, don’t encourage taste if it’s not edible.)
Are they quick to “dive into” the material, or slow and steady?
How long can they tolerate the material on their hands? Does it just stay on their hands?
How are they interacting with it?
What words come out as they interact with it? Or are they very quiet and studying it for a long time?
What would happen if I offered a stick (yarn, wire, spoon)?
After reading this you may think, “Wow, this lady is against step by step instructions!” I’m not. I think there’s a place for that, but it’s not at this age in the arts. Toddlers can learn step by step instructions when baking or other more authentic life experiences. We don’t have to force it this young when they’re trying to handle scissors for the first time. We want to set them up for success, not a failure. We want them to have freedom to express themselves and love and celebrate life. You may also be thinking, “Isn’t this sensory play?” In some ways, yes. I think the younger the child is the more it is a sensory experience.
Vea Vecchi also says, “I am quite convinced that greater attention to processes, rather than only the final product, would help us to feel greater respect for the independent thinking and strategies of children and teenagers,” (p.xvii Vecchi, 2010). Perhaps this train of thought goes far beyond toddlers? What do you think?

To get you started on this Process Oriented Art Journey, please check out these excellent resources as well as the book I mentioned throughout this post. You can find more about the Reggio Emilia Approach on my blog at, and find me on Instagram @corinna_everythinginjoy.

Recommended reading list:

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