Making their Mark

Article written by Ambika Curbishley  - featured in Absolutely Education, January 2018

The children I have taught over the years arrive having already had a range of different experiences when it comes to art. Some children immediately experiment and explore and think creatively when they are making or drawing, others do not want to get paint on their fingers, or say, “I can’t do it!”  As my teaching career continues, I have come to question how we as adults influence children’s attitudes to art and how we impact on children’s interest in this area.  Also, how exposure to opportunities plays a big part and how we fuel that interest and overcome these barriers that have sometimes been established so early.  

Often talking to parents and practitioners gives an insight into how their own experiences at school or their outlook on art has an impact on how they approach the subject with their children. I have heard people say, ‘It doesn’t look like anything, it’s a scribble.’ I then spend time explaining that that ‘scribble’ is where the child is at developmentally and that the child has just told a whole story whilst making those marks. I also hear parents describe how they felt they were not very good at art at school and, therefore, they don’t know how to go about teaching their own children. So, did someone along the way dismiss attempts they had made as a child, squashing confidence?  This is what we want to avoid for our children and for the pattern to change.

There is great value in allowing children to express themselves, to make choices about the media they wish to use, to learn through the process of creating and to make discoveries along the way and to praise each child’s art work.  Those early ‘scribbles’ and the freedom to make them and for them to be valued, cannot be emphasised enough. If opportunities do not arise, does the child miss a stage of building up a repertoire of marks? Can this gap then be filled at a later date? As early years educators we can do that to a degree and provide opportunities but children also need those opportunities at home too.

Sometimes, people have asked me whether the reason a child does not draw or take part in art activities is because they are not interested. I then question why they might not be interested at the age of three! Do they find it difficult or has an adult influenced their desire or opportunity to participate in art-based activities.  So when a child shows an adult a drawing, we need to think about our responses, instead of,  “What is it?” which for a child, that knows exactly what they have just drawn, is a little deflating “Can you tell me about it?” leads to a far more in depth discussion. You may be very surprised to find that those several lines across a page are a ladder that goes up to a fairy castle or a train track or that those circles that go round and round are the movement of a car. Let children create and make a mess, it can be cleaned up but a child’s confidence takes a lot longer to rebuild.

My own interest in art stemmed from a very early age and continued into adulthood, leading to an MA in Art Education and looking specifically at art education in the early years. In particular, I am fascinated by the early marks that children make and the insight they give into different areas of development too.  For example, their language skills can be heard through their descriptions whilst drawing, their physical development observed by looking at their self awareness depicted in their figurative pictures or how they hold a paint brush, to their emotional development, where drawings can depict how a child is feeling.

As long as I continue to teach, I hope I will be able to place an importance on art in the early years and recognise all that it can lead to for the children, the insight it gives us as teachers and the pleasure it brings both groups.