In my experience, teaching art to kids is not just handing them art supplies and letting them go wild. Although that starts out fun, it quickly descends into bottomless pits of rainbows or meaningless scribbles.
When I give a child the materials to create something, I need to give them enough instruction to be able to put it to use. I can give a preschooler a brush and paint, but unless I show him how to use them, he will fill paper after paper with muddy blotches, get frustrated, and eventually give up. That is the opposite of what I want to see in my art classroom.
In my classroom, demonstrations rule. Children are born to learn. Preschoolers will watch and follow instructions if you physically show them exactly how to do something. In a preschool classroom, I listen carefully for the words “I don’t know how.” Those words are golden. That’s the child preparing himself for my instruction.
I always paint with my kids now. I used to just walk around the classroom and check up on each child, asking questions and making suggestions. Now, I have an easel at the front of the classroom, and I mount a paper on it and paint along with my kids: step-by-step. I always tell them exactly what I am doing while I work. I’ve seen a much better result in this teaching method. Children who learn by seeing can watch me work; children who learn by hearing can listen to my instruction.
Give specific instruction
Because there are some children who listen to me but can’t keep their eyes on me, I have to be very specific while I talk. Make comparisons that the children can understand (e.g. “A circle as big as an apple”). You will need to check up on the kids in between steps, many children will interpret your words differently and need instruction tailored to their piece.
Also, sometimes boys have a harder time focusing on my slightly higher voice than girls do. It may appear as if they are just not paying attention. But I find that if I say names while I am talking, and make eye contact with them, it helps them to keep their attention on what I am saying.
I used to give children blank pieces of paper and colored pencils at the beginning of each class, telling them that they could draw whatever they wanted to. Then I showed kids how to use various art supplies and let them create something, anything they wanted. I have stopped both of these practices.
Finding inspiration is a skill, and just like any other skill, it takes practice. I started reading stories to my classes halfway through summer camps. I couldn’t believe the difference I saw in the artwork the kids produced. The readings gave them a variety of subject matter and situations to use in their artwork. With a clear idea of what they wanted to produce, my kids could focus on manipulating the materials I gave them to capture a shape, idea, story, or character.
I also give them unique coloring sheets at the beginning of each class. Coloring sheets have taught my kids a lot about composition. Children who used to color a blue strip at the top of their page and call it the sky now fill in the entire background and leave less white space in their paintings.
Teaching classes at my art studio, Bear Hands Art Factory in New Bern, presents new challenges every day. But I get the opportunity to make a real impact on the future of many bright, energetic, inspiring kids. I believe that there are few jobs as rewarding and inspiring as that.