Learning from the Process of Art

Posted by Remy Timbrook on Monday, August 5th, 2019

Gone are the days when every student in the art class had to produce an identical still life. But sometimes a kid will melt down when faced with a new artistic challenge because "mine doesn't look like yours". It doesn't need to look just like anyone else's, though. That’s not how kids learn! And it’s certainly not how they have fun.

Many educators and caregivers encourage children in what we call “process art” – where the process of making something is more important than the end result. That’s a valuable perspective at any age – but especially with preschool ages because of its importance for a developing brain and body. For a young child, just choosing the colors he wants to use and deciding where on the page to start coloring requires planning and the ability to think ahead. Actually following through with the physical steps strengthens important skills, too. 

To parents and other caregivers of small children: take a deep breath and step back from the pursuit of perfection.  Let your kids explore art. Embrace the mess, at least sometimes. Relax about artistic mistakes – there’s nothing wrong with them! Your child does not learn by creating a Pinterest-perfect replica of the teacher’s example. Your child learns by experimenting with how much glue is needed and how hard she has to squeeze to get it out of the bottle. By playing with the paint and squishing it between his fingers. By using the scissors themself, even if it takes longer and produces ragged edges. If they’ll soon be in school, kids will need to be able to do this stuff for themselves. Make sure they have many opportunities to practice. Older kids might be proficient with the scissors, but they have to follow directions many times every day, so they might need a reminder that it's okay to let loose now and again, too. Your budding perfectionist can learn to shake off mistakes and keep going, given time and repetition and your encouragement.

Try process art at home – it can be as simple as a pile of paper to tear and some glue to put it together in interesting ways. Here are some ideas to get you started. Come to the library for art, too – whether led by MOCHA teachers or by library staff, it spares you some of the cleanup and exposes your child to new materials and methods. Pro tip: you don’t have to find a place for every project on the fridge. Take a picture and share it to social media… then recycle without guilt.

So let your little one peel Spongebob stickers off the sheet and put them all over old newspaper (not on the books, please!). It’s great for fine motor control! Refrain from coloring in the last bit of the picture for her. Let his monster have one arm and three tongues. Who knows what a monster is supposed to look like, anyway? Encourage them to try out some unusual options, and see where their creativity takes them.

Process art is messy sometimes. It takes longer. It won’t look perfect. That’s okay. You’re doing it right. And so are they.

Here are some great books about embracing creativity, learning from mistakes, and loving the process of art!


The Art Lesson by Tomie DePaola

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg

Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka

The Art of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco