Process versus Product: Art Experiences in Early Childhood

In the February newsletter, we provide a variety of art activity ideas that early childhood educators can use to help children gain a better understanding of the world around them as it exists now and what things were like in the past. Exploring a wide variety of art activities promotes creativity, self-expression, innovation, and the development of a positive self-concept. Art activities are also a good way for children to explore different cultures, traditions, and ways of life.

When using art activities in this way, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of art activities is not necessarily a perfect final product, but the process (and learning) that children experience as they work on the project.

This is the difference between process-focused art and product-focused art. Characteristics of the preferred, process-focused art include:

  • Child directed
  • A variety of materials and tools
  • Opportunities for creativity and exploration of materials
  • No step-by-step instructions for children to follow
  • No adult model for children to recreate
  • Original and unique results that don’t necessarily look like the other children’s work

In process-focused environments, children are responsible for the project in its entirety, from the initial concept to the finished product. While teachers may present an initial prompt or provocation, the rest is left up to the children to explore with minimal teacher support.

Product-focused projects tend to result in all finished products looking similar, sometimes even identical to an adult model. Often, these projects are justified as necessary to teach children to follow directions. We encourage educators to reflect on all of the other times of day when children are required to follow directions. There are plenty of opportunities to practice direction-following – art activities should be a place for children to explore creativity, experimentation, and self-expression.

Awareness and self-restraint are essential skills when moving toward a more process-focused art environment for children. Teachers need to first recognize whether they are planning process- or product-focused activities. If the teacher has a predetermined idea of what the final product should look like, they can take a step back and ask, “How can I add more opportunity for creativity and originality to this project?” Perhaps the answer is to simply ask a question or make an invitation for children to explore materials. Questions and invitations might sound like this:

  • I found these really fun materials. What do you think you could make with these materials?
  • Do you remember when we explored houses from different countries? Do you think you could use this cardboard to make a house from a different part of the world?
  • Today, I thought we could paint different emotions. I am curious to see what you create.

As you can see from the examples, there are ways to integrate art into other areas of curriculum exploration without controlling the final outcome. And of course, art materials should be available throughout the day for children to explore on their own, without any adult influence.

Happy creating!