Friday, September 6, 2013

On Process Art for Preschoolers

My preschool story times don't usually have a craft component anymore. That has more to do with the types of preschool programs I do: outreach, where it's a large group story time with no space or time for craft; preschool science, where we do hands-on experiments and activities after sharing a story; and Milk & Cookies Story Morning, where our post-story time activity is free play time. Basically, the only opportunities I have to offer a craft in a preschool story time program are when I'm offering a special one-off program or filling in for a colleague on vacation.

And in those instances, I am all about the process art for preschoolers.

A simple breakdown of "process art": an open-ended art activity that focuses primarily on having the children involved in the process of creation. Process art is an alternative to "product art," wherein the focus is on each child creating the same basic craft modeled after a sample. As the names suggest, one is about the creative process, and one is about the final product.

I love process art for preschoolers for a number of reasons. First, studies and experts have proclaimed that process art is the most developmentally appropriate art activity for preschool-age children. These young children are building their background knowledge of everything they encounter, even craft supplies. Through process art, children get to really explore what paint is, what it does, how it feels, how it works, and what they can do with it. They can experiment with how colors interact, what happens when crayon and paint mix on the page, how to place paint where they want it on the page. Process art allows preschoolers to gain hands-on knowledge of how art works.

Process art also more deeply involves preschoolers in the creative process, giving them more pride in what they create. Basically, preschoolers don't care if the butterflies they make looks like the librarian's butterflies. They are more involved in creation if they get to decide where to place the spots or stripes, what colors to make the wings. Allowing children to create according to their own visions provides ample opportunities for discussion--why did you use those colors?--and the very personal finished product means something to the child. He or she made it in its entirety, which is a definite matter of pride. That's opposed to product art activities in which preschoolers often need adult assistance to make the cut-and-paste replicas of a sample craft. Making a copy just isn't as engaging. Process art is much more personal.

I will quickly note here that, sometimes, caregivers do care what their children's artwork looks like, and they prefer a picture that is obviously a ladybug to hang on the fridge than a red blob. These caregivers prefer product art for the wrong reasons: aesthetics over engagement. I've found that a few simple statements shared during craft time help caregivers see the whys of process art, and it makes them appreciate their children's creations much more. We share early literacy information for caregivers' benefits, and sharing similar information on art activities isn't that different.

Process art is also great from a story time provider's standpoint. Process art means less pre-program preparation, as activities don't require precise, pre-cut supplies and other specific items. Process art means setting out a variety of supplies and sharing loose parameters for free creation. One recent example from a program I led involved painting ice cream cones. With white paper, brown paper for cones, glue sticks, and paint on the table, each child could paste a cone to the paper and then paint an ice cream cone that suited their imaginations. They all looked very different, and each child had wonderful things to say about what flavors they had painted on their cones. The parameters were basic--create an ice cream cone--but the rest of the craft was open-ended, allowing children to engage in creating an ice cream cone that they saw in their heads.

While my library still offers product art activities for preschoolers every once in a while, for the most part my colleagues have transitioned to using process art in their programs. The creations have been diverse, although I think the hit so far has been painting with mud for a springtime story time; what's more engaging for a child, to paint a picture of mud or a picture with mud? Ask yourself that type of question for your crafts, and you'll come up with process art most of the time.


  1. Do you have any other examples of process art (like your ice cream cone example)? Or do you mostly just let the kids go at the art supplies without any direction? I'm considering doing this with my weekly storytimes this year, but am afraid the kids would get bored if I left it too open-ended every week ("here's some supplies, make whatever you want!")...

    1. While the general creation process is open-ended in our process art activities, we change up the art supplies pretty frequently so that there is always some new media to explore. We've done all sorts of different types of painting, for example--with shaving cream paint, with glitter paint, with slime, with bubble wrap--and kids don't seem to tire even though the basic premise, painting, remains the same.

      Also, in my experience, it isn't so much that kids get bored as their caregivers don't engage with them. If your transition to craft time includes a reminder to caregivers to ask their children questions about what they're creating, to make up a story to go with the creation, etc., kids stay much more engaged in the activity for longer--not because of the activity, but because of the interaction with another person.

  2. I would like to try this and have the children use mash mellows with a stick for painting nstead of paint brushes.Just an idea. I hope it works :-) I love this project!


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