What Children Learn from Art

(paper presented at Education FOR Art Seminar
in the Hahndorf Academy, 31 July, 2004)

© Donald Richardson, 2004

I don't think I will have to convince this audience of the educational value - or potential education value - of Art classes. Nor will I need to mention the naïve charm that many of the children's pictures I will show you have. The purpose of this paper is to be quite specific bout the educational value of the subject in our schools - things that have been researched thoroughly, but not often collected together, as I will do here.

There is no doubt about it - children are born with a love of drawing and a need to draw. This is not, perhaps, evident in their very first days, but before the end of their first year, as soon as a child can grasp a crust or a piece of vegetable, sitting his/her high chair, they play with it and realise that they can make marks with it - they draw with it.. This may be not what people usually recognise as 'art', but it is incipient drawing, nevertheless, and the beginnings of, not only art, but of many other things.
(Many parents will recognise the situation when sometimes a child will wake early in the morning with a dirty nappy, and the cot is adjacent to a wall.)

It seems certain, then, that drawing is a natural act - spontaneous and unconscious at first, but soon impinging on the child's awareness. He/she begins to 'see' certain things in these apparently aimless scribbles and to give them names - 'This is mummy feeding the cat', 'Our garden', 'The school bus', etc, etc. Soon parents will ask the child 'What have you drawn?', and the idea that drawings can represent real things - and communicate visually - is reinforced from a very early stage. This is the beginning of a process that leads to reading and writing - both forms of visual communication (the first attempts at writing are usually on drawings). It is also the paradigm of the scientific method, an attitude of mind that has been inherent in Western humanity since, at least, Ancient Greece - hypothesising about how things really are, and testing these hypotheses by publishing the results.

'Granma as a Baby' is a painting by a three-year-old girl, a first-born whose mother was soon to give birth to a sibling, so human generation and generations were on her mind. It is not a meaningless scribble, because Jane explained it as representing herself, her family and 'Granma's baby friends'. Donald Brook famously said many years ago that the child cannot avoid operating as an artist: both are exploring, studying, representing and commenting on their environment. The analogy is a very apt and true one.

Through making pictures, children also begin to develop their aesthetic sense. Aesthetics is about selecting things because we 'just like' them. It actually starts the moment a child realises that he/she can refuse food: the first choice a child ever makes is an aesthetic one! By disposing shapes across a page, selecting forms and colours to use and expressing emotions the child makes aesthetic choices. The aesthetic sense is, unfortunately, often discounted in the practicality of our lives, but it is really incredibly important: it is the one that drives key choices like a life-style, a job, a car, sexuality, a mate. All of these choices we make without really being able to explain, rationally, just why or how we make them, but they determine major attitudes and life decisions.

All this happens before the child gets to school. And drawing is good fun - play. But - like all play - actually a very serious matter: learning . education. In an essentially scientific way, children will match their drawings with what they see and are trying to represent. They begin to realise that closer things look larger, that faces are symmetrical, that distant hills look bluish. This looking, drawing and matching is not 'art' per se, but empirical checking of the real world - the development of the inquiring mind; the scientific attitude, no less, but combined with the aesthetic. An essential paradigm for living life itself.

It is hard to see how these human faculties and propensities could be developed by any other process than by drawing. (Have you ever noticed how private school advertising is often illustrated by pupils doing art?) Art should be recognised as a basic subject - the 4Rs: readin', 'ritin', 'rithmatic and art.)

Because drawing is education, we give children Art lessons in schools. In the primary years they still enjoy doing it but, unfortunately, Art is too often a 'Clayton's subject' - the subject you are studying when you are not studying anything. But, the primary school is ideally placed to build on these early, self-generated, learning experiences - not only the continuing development of manipulative skills and eye-hand coordination but also the conventions and values of visual communication - which, in the 21st century, seems to have overrun the verbal1.

Of course, this is a result of the development of TV and other, electronic technologies. But these developments have not outdated or overrun the need for children to develop their own, individual, interactions with the world2. While children develop other forms of manual and intellectual dexterity - and aesthetic choice - using a play-station or key-board, this experience is quite removed from the complexities and subtleties of the real world: 'mediated' in the true sense of the word - and in no way a substitute for first-hand experience of the real world. Also, the aesthetics of computer programmes is imposed on the child, rather than discovered by him/her, and often imparts little that relates to our cultural heritage because they are usually developed in other cultures than ours. Because children these days are constantly exposed to this mediated technology, true art experiences are even more necessary than they used to be3.

Viktor Lowenfeld flagged all this in his 1940s book Creative and Mental Growth, which had a great vogue in Western education for forty years and, together with Herbert Read's Education Through Art, sponsored the international 'education through art' movement. Unfortunately, the impetus of this movement has been overcome by the recent technologies, but the message is still as relevant. (Perhaps we can do something about this at this seminar?) The absolute connection between artistic expression and mental development and health has, more recently, been the subject of much scientific research by people like Samir Zeki (Inner Vision, 1999) and Dr V Ramachandrin (who gave the Reith Lectures last year). Their work makes it absolutely clear that - because the eye is, in effect, just a neural outgrowth from the brain, and very closely connected to it - art is inherent to our general mentality.

In the middle primary-school years, children become self-conscious about their pictures not 'looking right'. Their hypothesis-forming and -testing activity reveals to them that their childish symbolism - although it can communicate certain things visually - does not really show how the world looks. And it is clear that most think that acquiring the skill of drawing realistically is something of a 'rite of passage' to adulthood. Something like this happens in all fields, of course: sport, economics, learning to drive car, social behaviour etc, etc. In all these instances we assist children's passage to adulthood by teaching them relevant things. But not in art! Lowenfeld, from his background in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud, convinced us that repression of childish impulses leads to mental instability; therefore, children should be allowed to express themselves freely, without adult supervision or intervention. But, unfortunately, few children can - by their own innate resources - 'graduate' from child to adult art. Lowenfeld's disciples devoutly hoped that they would. But most don't! (This is what I call 'The Bootstraps Theory' of art education.) Norman Freeman (1980 and 1985) established that children's problem is not inadequate perception or conception but what he called 'synthetic incapability' - that they lack the skills to represent what they perceive and want to draw.

Drawing is more than mark-making or symbolism, (which are close to purely aesthetic expression), and many artists have used both to create fine works (Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee). Children struggle to develop out of this stage4. Unfortunately, many children in the higher primary grades - in their frustration - give up making art entirely. Others turn mark-making into graffiti! (I believe that the cure for this social scourge is to provide worthwhile Art programmes in the upper primary school. Isn't this a cogent argument for more Art at that level?)

As children as young as four or five wish to learn the skills of representation, the school should build on what is, in reality, an innate and natural tendency5. And, here, the focus shifts to the teacher. Very few teachers know enough about the skills of realistic representation to tackle it with confidence and effectiveness. However, it is well established that anyone with enough intelligence and manual skills to learn to write can learn to draw, so there is nothing arcane about these skills. Teachers just need to be taught them!

In summary, we need to recognise widely that deep, in-principle, learning can result from drawing from observation. This includes:
the development of individual perceptiveness (which, being a principle, may extend beyond the purely visual)
the ability and courage to make personal judgments (which may not be limited to aesthetic judgments, though the significance of these in life terms should not be undervalued)
visual communication skills and knowledge of visual symbols and conventions (which have increasing relevance in this increasingly visual world)
a sense of personal worth and the value of individuality
a realisation that there can be different points of view and ways of seeing and representing what is seen
a rational and detached way of looking at the world
a repertoire of personal and conventional visual imagery which can lift creative expression above copying and repetition of stereotypes.
But there is much more that can be learned from Art classes.

Self-expression is essential for children's mental development and health and art is an excellent - and perhaps the most accessible - medium for self-expression (even - in the early years - more accessible than writing). Children can work out their personal adjustments and frustrations though painting and drawing, and it is imperative that they be given frequent opportunities to do so in school. It is well established that, for children who have suffered trauma, drawing and painting about this trauma is effective treatment.
(Vanessa and Johnny anecdote).

A work of art is the physical manifestation of its creator's attitudes and values. This applies as much to child artists as to adult. And the acceptance or rejection of a work by its community (whether it be a nation or a classroom) reflects its values - and the two often conflict. Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, when acquired for 1.3 million dollars by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973, was reviled by many - and still is. Children's art, too, can express political, ethical or religious values and, at a time when a class commonly contains children from varying backgrounds, class discussions which address questions like: How free should an artist (or a person) be?, How detached or engaged in a particular situation?, How 'real' is a picture?, Is nudity justified?, When does art become pornographic? etc, provides an opportunity for individual students to reflect upon, and clarify, their values and for the group to resolve conflict situations in a neutral and mediated paradigm for adult life.

Such discussion is especially valuable at a time when children's values are being manipulated constantly by advertising and the other communications media

And, while we are talking about values, we need to recognise that there is a further aspect of art learning that is invaluable - even irreplaceable in a democracy: education in the history of culture and heritage: not just ours, but that of others, too - especially of those who have come to live in this country from other traditions. In fact, studying the history of art is by far the best way of tacking such matters and children respond enthusiastically to it.

It is regrettable that few primary teachers have had worthwhile pre- or in-service education in drawing - or any aspect of Art. This must be remedied if Art is to assume its true status in our education system. It can only be achieved by a combination of pre- and in-service training. This objective is attainable.it only requires us to initiate action. The children of this state deserve nothing less.


1 Last weekend's Australian quoted a report of the (American) National Endowment for the Arts that, while more Americans can actually read than ever, 17 million of them gave up serious reading in the last decade - and that much the same is happening here.
2 We should mention here that animation and design computer programmes that represent reality use the historic skills and conventions of manual drawing.
3 This problem even extends to the games and toys that are available commercially. Very few of them encourage children to explore and hypothesise about their lives and environment. They are totally 'mediated' - entertaining rather than educational, made too easy to do, too unchallenging, not requiring creativity. I tried last year to buy a set of building blocks for an infant but no toy store stocked them!
4 It is not surprising that it is a struggle: it took Western civilisation hundreds of years to develop a Leonardo da Vinci.
5 Here we must stress that teaching children to draw, far from regimenting them or suppressing their individuality, releases them to express their own ideas more convincingly.