A parent’s pandemic survival kit: Not all art projects are created equal

‘The golden standard for healthy artistic development is the “open-ended” art project’

Art projects can be a real lifesaver during a pandemic. They are a great way to keep kids busy when you can’t venture too far from home. You have to be very careful which ones you choose, however.

There are two types of art projects in the world. One is cathartic and fosters positive self-esteem. They can calm kids down, make them eat better, sleep better, learn better and even behave better. The other kind causes frustration, aggravation, lethargy, boredom and even sometimes rebellion. Unfortunately, the latter takes up the lion’s share of art project ideas that you find on the internet.

These frustrating art projects are called “closed-ended” or “product-oriented” art projects. These types of pre-prescribed activities get a lot of mileage because they tend to appeal to adults because they are “clever.” They are those hand-print butterflies, or Disney Minions made from toilet paper rolls, or paper plate ladybugs with moving wings. They are essentially an adult’s creative brainstorm that children are forced to copy. If it doesn’t look exactly like the original, it doesn’t look like anything at all. Children might notice that their version is inferior to the original, making them feel inadequate. Sometimes—if a child just can’t get it right—conflict and even tantrums can ensue. Even if they can complete a fairly good facsimile of the original version, it’s just a chore to them. Children are not eager to show it off to their family because they know it is not their creative idea.

Oddly, some of the visual art skills required to make some of these “child-like” projects—such as cutting with sharp scissors or employing spatial recognition—can be well beyond the skill level of your average preschooler or middle-school child…even sometimes that of adults!

I once witnessed one of these types of projects being administered in a child-care setting and the kids lost interest immediately. The accompanying caregiver adults ended up trying to complete the project themselves, but even they had difficulty! It ended up that I—with my advanced training in art—had to assist the adults to complete what was supposed to be an art project for children!

On the other hand, the golden standard for healthy artistic development is the “open-ended” art project. It is called open-ended because there is one starting point that has an endless array of possible outcomes. They are developmentally appropriate, not restrictive and allow for variation—even going off on a tangent! They are conducive to an array of individual temperaments, enabling children to make a creation that is uniquely their own.

To illustrate this, I will use my make-an-alien project from my Little Picassos art class for 3-5-year-olds as an example. In this activity I provide children with a choice of different coloured lumps of playdough that they can poke with buttons, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, googly eyes attached to pipe cleaners and interestingly shaped pasta to make an alien. The proof that this is an open-ended project is the fact that, in the end, no two final products look exactly alike. They are all original interpretations of aliens, each with their own merit, and the children are incredibly proud of them. Artwork is an external manifestation of children’s invisible internal life. When all those confusing half-formed thoughts and impulses that are bumping around inside their very new bodies get to take a tangible, constructive form in the outside world, it can be very affirming to their burgeoning sense of identity.

Debra Lynn has a BFA in art and design from the University of Alberta and an MA in art education from Concordia University in Montreal. She lives in Port Alice and is the instructor and coordinator of the “Little Picassos,” “Paint Club” and “Adventures in Art” art programs for kids in Port McNeill.

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