Art, Childhood

Art and The Fine Line Between Guidance and Interference

I have never made any secret of my disdain for stencils and structured, adult driven craft experiences being labelled as art. Whether you like these experiences and routinely offer them to children, or call for the burning of such atrocities, or sit somewhere in the middle, believing everything in moderation,  to call them art really is an insult to art. Art is defined as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”  (www,

I would like to think that the majority of educators would not refer to a reindeer footprint, where a child has been used as a human stamp and then an adult has craftily drawn in a face and other “reindeer parts”, as art. There is clearly very little creative skill (definitely not on the child’s behalf) and imagination (particularly when 25 children all have the same reindeer). It is a very adult directed experience. 

Art on the other hand is free. Art does not need to be an experience, simply a creative exploration of materials and techniques. When children engage in art, we see things that we would never see in a craft experience. We see the world through their eyes. 

With this in mind, I created an art space for my daughter who is almost three. She asks to paint almost daily and draws constantly. I wanted a space where she could access materials and be free to create. Today was the first time she used it and she was delighted. As for me, I found myself walking a fine line between guidance and interference. I wanted to show her how to wash the brush. I fought the urge to explain that if she didn’t blot the brush after washing it, water would drip down the canvas. I resisted stopping her from turning each colour in the tray into a delightful shade of brown.

The whole time she was painting, I had this internal struggle between guiding her and showing her technique (which was well intentioned and is a genuine part of learning) and actually interfering in her creative process. Perhaps dripping water down the canvas was part of her process. Maybe she intended to create lots of variations of brown! 

As educators, this internal struggle is a good thing, a sign of critical reflection. It is important that we really think about just how free and creative and imaginative we enable children to be when exploring art. While stencils and product focussed craft activities are not my idea of a quality early childhood experience, I think we need to remember that they are merely a symptom of an adult focused, controlling attitude that lurks within some of us. If we take that attitude into creative art opportunities with children – we may as well be using stencils! 

So, take some time to reflect on your attitudes to art. Do you allow children to manipulate ,materials in ways that they are comfortable with? Do you encourage them to learn trial and error? Or do you feel the urge to yell out “no, you’re ruining it!” when they paint over their lovely flower with black paint?!

i would love to hear your thoughts… And as for me,  I will get back to washing paint of the floor!
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  • Kathy Taylor

    Love your article, is it ok to use this with first year education students from CQU in the new year? I will be delivering an arts education unit and your article would be a fitting intro to the unit.
    As an early childhood educator with thirty plus years experience I often remind students, parents and teachers of the differences between art, as described in your article and craft which focuses on fine motor skill development. Keep singing your song 🙂

    December 29, 2015 at 8:45 pm
  • Mel

    I find the article really interesting. I’m a kinder teacher and have this worry all the time! I’m fairly opposed to colouring in sheets, but if one of the children brings them in I’ll sometimes copy one and put it on a table… And the children love and adore them and spend copious amounts of time there…
    And this year I did a PD that talked about the value of mindfulness colouring in.
    I think I just need to get over myself!

    December 29, 2015 at 8:50 pm
    • Nicole Halton (Inspired EC)

      Do you know what… Confession time – I enjoy colouring in! I even let my kids colour in. I do find it relaxing and I think when used in small doses and as an option for children, not the only option or a required activity, it’s not totally evil. I just think it’s important to think of it as what it is and not call it art! 🙂

      December 29, 2015 at 9:40 pm
    • Carol

      Kids love coloring books. They also love lollipops. I am a teacher so I don’t use coloring books or lollipops in my classroom. I dont think they are educational. I don’t think there is anything wrong with them I just do not want to give kids parents or society the image that what I do is babysitting, entertaining, occupying kids. What I do is teaching and nourishing and stimulating.

      December 30, 2015 at 5:02 am
  • Sarah

    This article is a brilliant explanation of the difference between real art and adult made art, I am an early years educator and I struggle so much when I constantly see this product art that my colleagues end up creating and presenting as the children’s work, when the children themselves had very little input into the work at all. They don’t understand the value of letting children create what they want and always value product over process. It’s reassuring to read this article and see that others share the same values as me because I don’t see it in the workplace sadly!

    December 29, 2015 at 9:51 pm
  • Melanie

    I loved reading this article and can relate to it. As an early childhood educator who loves creating art alongside the children, however I always have that internal battle of when should I step in and when should I just let it be.
    Like Sarah said above I also struggle seeing my colleagues creating mass produced art and passing it off as the children’s work. I believe that the children’s own creation are far better then anything I can make them do.

    December 29, 2015 at 10:41 pm
  • Marrianne

    This blog has brought such a smile to my face this morning as I enjoyed a cup of coffee~so relective and honest. I so loved the entry about ‘magic’ and how that is truly the gift we need to give children. I look forward to following your blog in the new year.

    December 30, 2015 at 12:30 am
  • Sandy

    Art time is such a struggle in our preschool program. I put the eseal out to allow the children to create their own paintings/marker/crayon/sticker etc projects …. But also have a table with a more “cookie cutter” like craft. It may be pieces cut out to make a snow friend – I do not tell the children how they have to put the snow friend together – or that it does not have 10 eyes and 8 carrot noses….

    December 30, 2015 at 2:57 am
  • Kate Cuskelly

    Excellent article. There is a delightful children’s book “Luke’s Way of Looking” which I think you would enjoy reading. It highlights how adults perception of doing art the ‘right’ way can stifle a child’s unique creative spirit. Kind regards and thank you. K

    December 30, 2015 at 9:34 am
  • martha

    I totally agree with the premise of your article (Harry Chapin put it perfectly in that song) but I think you could be gentler on the many adults doing their best. Many parents and teachers were not brought up with real art or trained to teach it. It’s a bit rough to label what they do as an insult. Keep informing without the accusations.

    December 30, 2015 at 5:59 pm
    • Nicole Halton

      Hi Martha, apologies if I have caused any offence – that is never my intention! I tend to get a little passionate and perhaps didn’t come across the right way. I get that there are educators out there who are learning or are doing their best, my issue is those who are given opportunities to reflect, gain new knowledge and evolve their practice yet continue to use these crafts and say they are art experiences. I also think to say that if someone isn’t bought up with real art they use crafts etc because that’s what they are comfortable with or feel “good enough” to provide, I worry that perpetuates the cycle, if you know what I mean. Sorry if this is a bit rambling (very long day!) but I love that you have given me a different perspective to think about!

      December 30, 2015 at 8:27 pm
  • Mel O'Leary

    Your article put me in mind of a folk song a very inspirational head teacher used to play to his staff. The song is called “Flowers are red” by Harry Chapin. Perhaps you have heard it?

    December 31, 2015 at 1:09 am