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Inviting Creativity: The Teacher's Role in Art

by Robert Schirrmacher
Child-Centered Art vs Teacher

There are many different ways to approach the teaching of art. This article identifies and critiques teacher-directed, teacher-guided, and child-centered approaches. What is the teacher's role in children's art?

An adult does not need to be a talented artist to provide meaningful art experiences for children, but can stimulate, guide, and model creativity and exploration. Most of us recognize the importance of early childhood art, but not everyone would agree about what it entails. Is scribbling art? Can coloring in a coloring book be considered art? This article provides guidelines for determining the creative merits of an activity or approach to art. 

Approaches to Teaching Art

Some art projects are structured and teacher-directed. The teacher has an idea of what to make and how to go about it. Specific directions are given to ensure a recognizable product. Often, there is little input from the children. For example, a teacher distributes a piece of paper with an outline of a tree. The children are instructed to use a dark color, such as black or brown, to color in the trunk and green for the top. They also cut or tear small circles from red construction paper. These are pasted onto the green top. The completed apple trees look nearly identical. Generally, this approach is used when art is approached with the entire group or small groups of children. Most craft projects are teacher-directed. Seefeldt (1995) critiques teacher-directed art. Asking children to complete patterned artwork or to copy adult models of art undermines children’s sense of psychological safety and demonstrates disrespect for children including their ideas, abilities, and creativity. Children who are frequently given patterns to cut out or outlines to color in are in fact being told that they, and their art, are inadequate. Seefeldt gives the example of giving children egg cartons to paint and paste eyes to make caterpillars, an activity that she sees as ridiculous when compared to the artwork of children of Reggio.

An opposite approach is to be unstructured and completely child-centered. A teacher may distribute pieces of paper and encourage children to make whatever they want or encourage them to visit the easel or art center. In this approach, children have much input and choice. There is very little structure. Some children do very well with this approach. They may have a bank of ideas to represent through art. They may also see endless artistic possibilities at the easel or art center. Many children, however, are uncomfortable with this approach. It may be too loosely structured. Some children quickly tire of inventing their own daily art program. They look to the teacher for some structure, guidance, or possibilities.

According to Wright (2003), unsupported arts learning in the classroom sometimes can lead to a laissez-faire or “anything goes” type of practice. In this non-interventionist approach, the underlying belief is that whatever children do in the arts in valuable. For a teacher to interfere would stifle a child’s creativity. This hands-off approach restricts the teacher’s role to one of organizing the environment only and discourages one from suggesting ideas or processes that could mediate and scaffold children’s learning. With no input from others, children can sometimes become bored and even frustrated with experiences that invite only independent experimentation. Children cannot create from nothing. They need background ideas and suggestions. Teacher-directed and child-centered approaches are extremes. Teachers can elect for a compromise using support and guidance by adopting the role of facilitator within a guided approach.

Teacher as Facilitator:
A teacher-guided approach offers the best of the two former approaches: subtle structure with much child direction and input. For example:

  • A teacher supplies the theme.
    “Children, it’s getting very close to summer. Today, we will make a picture that reminds us of this season.” Although the theme is given, there is no specified product. Children are free to use paint, crayons, markers, or clay to make their own versions of what summer means to them.
  • A teacher introduces new materials at the art center.
    “Today I put some spools and buttons near the easels and art table. I want you to look at them and think of how they might be used in art. Try out different ways of using them.” Children are free to use them as brushes, make a stamped impression, or paste them to a collage, as long as the rules for the art center are upheld.
  • A teacher extends or builds upon an existing activity or suggests a new technique.
    “I’ve noticed how much we enjoy easel painting with our long-handled brushes. I found these small tree branches outside and am leaving them at the easels. Let’s see if we could use them to paint with.” Or, “Let me show you another way of doing watercolor by first wetting your paper.” Or, “I see how much you enjoy your paper-bag puppet. If you like, I could show you how to sew one out of cloth.” Or, “Did you enjoy your paper weaving? Would you like to learn how to weave on a loom with yarn?”
  • A teacher poses a problem.
    “Let’s see how many different shapes we can cut out of paper for pasting.” Or, “How could we use these empty boxes and ribbon?” Or, “What will happen if we try painting on newspaper or the colored pages in this magazine?”
  • A teacher extends art into other curricular areas.
    “There seems to be a lot of excitement in your picture. Would you like to share it by telling me a story?” Or, “The dog you painted looks so happy, let’s work together and write a poem about it.” Or, “Perhaps you would like to plan a play for your ferocious dinosaur.”
Different approaches may work for certain activities and certain children. Young children will not automatically discover how to use a watercolor set. They will need some direction and instruction in its use and care. They need not, however, be told what to make or what it should look like. For example, Emily is having difficulty deciding what to include in her summer picture. Her teacher senses her frustration and asks her to name things that remind her of summer. Emily answers, “Sun and swimming.” Her teacher further structures the task by asking Emily to choose one. With the teacher’s subtle guidance, Emily chooses the sun and now must decide if she should use paints, watercolor, crayons, markers, or clay to represent it.

​Young children will need some direction and instruction when presented with new art tools and materials.

Child-Centered Art or Teacher-Directed Projects?

Arts and crafts are terms that are often viewed as opposite. Hirsch (2004) provides a distinction. The motivation for art comes from within the child. Young children are dealing with autonomy and initiative. They are often not responsive or interested in teacher-directed experiences. This is especially true with art. When art is forced or extrinsically motivated, it may lack meaning, expressiveness, or detail. The art may reflect external expectations, or the autonomous child may purposefully create anything but what was asked for. The approach is reproductive in that the child merely reproduces the teacher’s product.

By contrast, when the motivation and purpose for art comes from within the child, the artwork reflects personal meaning and purpose. When children have free access to materials in an art center, they have the opportunity to create meaning and purpose. The approach is productive, not reproductive. In terms of approach, art activities are viewed as developmentally appropriate while crafts are often teacher-directed, product-oriented, and lacking artistic merit. The term project is presently used in place of craft. Although some would refer to teacher-directed activities as crafts, the terms are not interchangeable. Crafts have artistic merit, and craftspeople work long and hard to produce products, many of which reflect their culture. Crafts may also be functional as with candles, jewelry, clothing, or wind chimes. Therefore, it would not be fair to use crafts in the same sense of teacher-directed art projects. Instead, teacher-directed projects, rather than crafts are the opposite of child-centered art. Substituting teacher projects for art does children a disservice for it robs them of the opportunity to make self-expressive, self-initiated art.

​In a child-centered art activity the finished product may not be recognizable!

Child-Centered Art Activities or Teacher-Directed Projects

Art Activities

Teacher-Directed Projects

are creative, unique, original

appear mass-produced and very similar

are open-ended and unstructured

are closed-ended and structured

are child-centered and child-directed

are teacher-centered and teacher-directed

come from within the child

are imposed from without by the teacher

involve self-expression

involve copying and imitating

foster autonomy

foster compliance and following directions

are process-oriented

are product-oriented

may not appeal to adults because the finished product may not be recognizable

usually appeal to adults because the finished product is recognizable

may not be useful or practical

may be useful and practical

are success-oriented, no fear of failure

may be unsuccessful if the child is unable to approximate the teacher’s model or standard

empower children to decide on content

are decided by the teacher and related to holiday, season, theme, unit of study

please the child

please adults

need open blocks of time

may involve time constraints


Is There a Place for Teacher Projects?

Although teacher projects should not dominate your art program, they do have a place and are to your art program as spices are to cooking. Some people avoid spices while others use them sparingly to enhance but not overpower or dominate the taste of food. When should teacher projects be used? They can be used occasionally

  • with older children who have a solid foundation in processing and are interested in learning how to make art products.
  • when children tire of visiting the art center and appear to run out of ideas for processing. They appear stuck or out of ideas. It appears the art center is not being used.
  • to introduce children to new cultures by directly experiencing representative crafts. The process involved in making crafts must be tailored to meet the developmental needs of your group.
  • while allowing for individual expression, as in the choice of color or type of decoration added. For example, children can be taught how to make a piñata without specifying what it should look like when finished.

From Art and Creative Development for Young Children 5th edition by Robert Shirrmacher. © 2006. Reprinted with permission of Delmar Learning, a division of Thomson Learning.


About the Author
Robert Schirrmacher

is a full-time instructor with the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District. He teaches and supervises Early Childhood Education majors at two on-campus laboratory child development centers. He has a Ph.D in Early Childhood Education from the University of Illinois. He is an advocate for developmentally appropriate education and quality care for young children and is involved in professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels.

Coletta commented on  March 31, 2016

This is an amazing article! I really enjoyed reading it. We live in a very Pinterest world which makes us all (parents and teachers) feel like we have to get kids to make these cute projects. I think there are times, like the article stated, where you can use teacher projects. Although, I think it is best to make art a joyful experience which the child creates. We use themes in our room once a month such as space or camping, like stated in the article I tell children to make art based on if they were in a spaceship or out camping, and then take a step back and see what children come up with using the materials provided. The best part is the huge smile on their face when they show their final product. That is how I know they feel good about themselves and really expressed their creativity.

Sonya Cialone commented on  March 30, 2016

This article was extremely informative. I think the way it explained what both teacher directed and child centered projects means can help those who need to form a better understanding of these concepts. I also agree that a combination of the two, “teacher as facilitator”, is the best approach for most art activities. Children need to be free to create but they should not be so free that what they create is chaos. Shaping an environment that helps children feel they can create freely within the constraints of an educational environment fosters independence and respect for others.

Ally commented on  March 28, 2016

I really enjoyed reading this article. It explained both approaches with detail where I was able to understand. I personally believe that both approaches are important however, I favor towards the child-centered. It is so important for children to use their creativity and show us what they can do on their own, not us lay everything out for them!

Jill Iadicicco commented on  March 25, 2016

Let’s face it, not all classrooms are the same. With that being said, I thought about more “difficult” classes vs “easier” classes… The teacher needs to select an arts integration strategy that fits best for his or her classroom. I support open ended art integration and child centered classrooms, however I also think that as a teacher, having the willingness to select strategies that work best with the group, checking for quality and understanding are important too. Seems like being flexible is the name of the game! Loved this article though, so many great examples to keep in mind.

David Adams commented on  March 24, 2016

This is important information. it is easy, as an educator to get caught up in a project that may be really cute and fun, but it has to be about the children and sparking their creativity. We must fan that flame, and not extinguish it with cookie cutter projects. They are going to encounter enough rules and direction in other subjects, art should be freeing and invite individual expression.

Linda commented on  February 01, 2016

Wonderful article, explaining the why behind child centered art vs teacher directed. I train and evaluate early childhood programs all over my state and I will use this article as a superb reference. Thank you for such a great explanation and so many useful strategies to support children….as for the "parents want" comments, as a parent myself I did not save the refrigerator art I saved the ones that were those my own children had created! I think teachers just think that is what a parent wants, cookie cutter cute little cut and paste look alike products to put on the fridge, when in all reality what parents really want is the explanation this article gives for the why behind open ended child centered art…again thank you!

Crystal  commented on  January 30, 2016

This is a great article! The one piece of information that was explained was the differences between art activities and teacher-directed projects. The statement that was interesting was that art activities involve self-expression but if it is teacher-directed the child is just copying and imitating. I believe this to be so true.

Ann commented on  November 22, 2015

I do believe that child-directed art is an important part of preschool. However, we have to be mindful that the adult in the children's life want something once in awhile that looks like something. As a peace offering to my parents, we do a few craft projects its makes everyone happy.

Tej (Fiji) commented on  November 12, 2015

This article explains the concepts in a 'user-friendly' format that I can apply directly in the classroom. It's very clear and tells me exactly what to do without my having to wade through a lot of 'theory' to reach the 'practical-hands on' section! Great work, thank you.

Rondee Fuchs commented on  October 23, 2015

For many years I have incorporated "still life" into my teaching. I put out objects that the children have shown interest in (right now pumpkins). I ask the children what colors they see in the objects and put out the colors they see, then we talk about what shapes they see and they tell me how to paint a picture of the object in a large group setting. I then invite the children to paint their own pictures. I am always amazed in the individuality of the children's work and even the children who can barely get paint from the container to the paper can put together enough orange and brown to come off as an impressionistic pumpkin! I present this activity as more of a science study than an art activity because we are learning to observe and record what we see...

Val commented on  October 22, 2015

This is a very good article. I am a director at a child care center and today I spoke to two of my toddler's teachers about the art work. When you enter the classroom and look at their bulletin board, one can clearly see that the art work was done by the teachers. I will be having a staff meeting on Monday and will distribute this article. The article is actually reinforcement for what was discussed today. Thank you.

Julie Ramski commented on  October 21, 2015

I am sharing this article with teachers immediately. Thank you!

Kay Rencken commented on  October 21, 2015

I taught kindergarten for many years and one of my favorite projects was year-long and involved introducing the children to Matisse and his works. There was always a print on the wall that we would discuss; books for reading by me or the children; paint for them to experiment with when they chose; collage materials available to create cut-outs. Near the end of the year we would do a 'product' that was based on one of his works. I loved the open ended discussions with the children about a piece of his work and watching and listening to their understandings evolve.

Sydney Clemens commented on  October 20, 2015

People who like this article may want to see some of mine about young children and art on my webpage:

Pearl Waxman commented on  October 20, 2015

I am retired now, but during my many years as a teacher, director of child care centers, consultant to early childhood programs, and strong supporter of NAEYC standards, I worked diligently to help those in our field understand the important principles you advocate. I found your article extremely supportive to the philosophy you advocate and explain so very well.

Kathie Hollingshead commented on  October 20, 2015

I teach a class on individualized art and this article captures it all and more! I love the teacher suggestions!

Kristina Grill commented on  May 21, 2015

I enjoyed reading this article and I do think that child directed art is important so children can let their creativity shine. I have a ten year old son who told me the other day that he dislikes when he is in art class and has to make exactly what the teacher made because it is boring and everyone's looks alike. I also can tell you that children are much happier and are more excited about art when they are able to create something on their own.

Heather  commented on  May 20, 2015

Great Article! I am a big fan of child directed art, I work in a preschool classroom and many of the ideas that were shared above, is exactly what we do on a daily basis when it comes to incorporating art into our daily classroom activities.

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