From the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings to the latest rap verse on the radio, it pretty much seems like we have it in our DNA to express ourselves through art.
But how, you ask, does this drive for expression relate to a young child’s social and emotional development?
We’re glad you asked.
Well, art begins with a wish to make something, then the artist considers the materials at hand and creates the best representation of that wish that they can with the resources available, including the amount of effort they’re willing to put into their project. For you math buffs out there, it’d go like this - Art = Wish + Available Resources (Including Effort).
Social and emotional development basically works the same way. A young child has a wish or a feeling… but they may not yet have the language or any other means to express that feeling. And even if they do have a way to express themselves, they may not know how to do so according to the “rules of the road” (socially acceptable behavior) of their current situation - e.g., at the park, school or at home. So the winning equation for the social emotional development is - Social Emotional Nirvana = Ability to Identify and Express Emotions + Understanding and Following the Social Rules of the Particular Situation.
Here are a few examples that might help young children enjoy art time a little more and give you tools for working with them on social and emotional development.
1. You take out the finger paints and one of your children becomes very upset (you’ve noticed sometimes in the past that this child doesn’t like messy activities). You can…
• Validate the child’s emotion - “I know you don’t really like messes” - and teach a new skill. For a toddler, you might teach them a gesture to opt out of the activity or a simple phrase like “all done.” For an older child, you could share a new feeling phrase like “I don’t like messes” or later work with the child on a scripted story about messy activities.
2. You’ve brought out art supplies and explained the project, but one of the children is fidgeting and heading toward a meltdown - the child seems to not understand the task at hand. You can…
• Sit down and model how you want the child to work on the activity or better yet, have another child model the activity. You can also create a visual with photographs that map out the steps of the activity. For older, more verbal children, you might break down instructions for the activity into very small manageable steps. Likewise you can teach the child about asking for help, with words - “I need help!” - or a gesture, like raising their hand or coming to get you.
3. A child loves the modeling clay, maybe even a little bit too much. They’ve dumped it out of the tub and are rubbing it all over their face and arms. What now?
• Again validate the child - “I know you really love rolling that clay all over yourself. It feels good. But right now, we’re going to use the clay to make a ball.” If that doesn’t work, you can redirect the child to another activity where it’s more appropriate to engage in full-on sensory play - “let’s put on an apron and go over to the water table.” Adjusting your expectations and being responsive to the child’s needs is a great way to give the child another way to succeed.
There are numerous other strategies and examples that you can learn about here.
The key takeaway, though, is that not every child is going to be a future Picasso… but every child is - and will continue to be - a person who has feelings and interacts with other human beings. If you can help a child learn to understand and express their feelings in appropriate (and developmentally appropriate ways), you’ll be creating something exceptionally cool… you’ll be helping to mold someone who’ll be an artist at life.