One morning in March, early-childhood educator Erika Christakis was in a meeting with a woman in Windsor, Vermont, when she felt a pair of eyes on her. Wide, vacant eyes crafted from paper, to be more specific. They belonged to a construction paper groundhog made by the woman’s 2-year-old, and something about their bug-eyed stare caught Christakis’s attention. “It was a cartoonish, adult version of an animal,” she writes in her new book, The Importance of Being Little, “not something a toddler could have conceived or executed.” And, anyway, she wondered, what could the celebration of Groundhog Day even mean to a toddler?
It was nothing against this particular groundhog, which itself was a typical product of a typical preschool arts-and-crafts session. Christakis’s objections, to which she devotes an entire chapter of her book, are about these kinds of preschool crafts as a whole: the cotton-ball snowman, the paper-plate Easter bunny, even the perennial classic Thanksgiving hand-turkey. These activities, she argues, place too much emphasis on the product — in this case, something to hang on Mom and Dad’s refrigerator — and too little emphasis on the creative process. Kids at this developmental stage benefit from messing around with paints, or clay, or crayons; they gain little, on the other hand, from assembling together some construction paper shapes that their teachers cut out ahead of time.
This is something that has become quite the controversial subject among certain parents of preschoolers, many of whom have adopted the mantra, “It’s the process, not the product.” You can now find Pinterest boards and blog posts devoted to “process art” ideas for preschoolers, and the dividing line between “crafts” and “process art” is that the latter requires no model of the “right” way to complete the project. It does not so much matter where, for example, the child decides to affix the eyes of his cotton ball snowman, “as long as he’s making his own artistic choices and has expressed himself freely in doing so,” Christakis explains. (Christakis, you may recall, was a lecturer at Yale until last fall, when she resigned her post amid heated controversy over an email she wrote regarding student Halloween costumes.)
This shift in mindset about the way preschoolers engage in creative work is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough, she argues. Weirdly, the “process not product” fixation fails children by at once giving them too much instruction and not nearly enough, landing children and their caregivers in a kind of middle ground that is not always very beneficial — or even enjoyable, for that matter — for anyone involved. In many classrooms, “process art” keeps too much of the boring mimicry for which “crafts” were originally derided — while at the same time, it doesn’t provide “even the pretense of old-fashioned quality control or skill acquisition” that the older method at least offered, Christakis writes.
All of which means, for the preschooler who is made to actually do the project, that this whole supposedly fun exercise can in practice become incredibly frustrating. Christakis elaborates on that:
Consider it this way: if you were asked to make a flimsy flower from a Styrofoam ball and a few pink foam petals that had been cut out by your teacher, wouldn’t you at least want help to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself by deviating from the paint-by-number instructions? Kids are not dupes. They know perfectly well when their product doesn’t look as good as the others, and the pretense of process not product in such a narrowly defined scenario … just makes a lot of young children feel ashamed or irritated.
Teachers’ and parents’ attraction to such crafting projects is understandable, which is no doubt why they have stuck around for so many years. For one, it’s an efficient way for teachers to get an idea of each individual child’s attention span (how they handle sitting and listening to instructions), or their cognitive development (how they demonstrate fine motor control in the neatness of their work).
And yet there are some equally important developmental markers — social and emotional skills, for example — that are overlooked entirely by the hand-turkey activity and others like it. If you listen for it, Christakis says, signs of this kind of development are evident in “the kind of really rich, expressive language that emerges when children are engaged in creative work” like building a fort or playing house with other children. In contrast, that kind of self-expression doesn’t happen during a more by-the-numbers “creative” activity, the research suggests. As a consequence, “we have very little sense of these young souls who are doggedly making turkeys,” Christakis writes. “Whether it’s turkeys or rodents, there is so rarely a sense of a real child, in a real place, attached to any of the institutional paraphernalia affixed, with pride, on people’s walls.”
A better way to go about art projects for this age group, she argues, is to take the meaning of the popular “process not product” phrase more seriously, placing more emphasis on teaching children skills and less on having it all result in some tangible creation that can be dropped into a backpack at the end of the day. Instead of giving kids a project of making a sunflower out of a paper plate and premixed paint, for instance, what if preschools took the time to give them real instruction in how to use real art materials, like clay? Christakis herself was skeptical of whether this could actually be worth the effort when she had her own classroom, but she’s since changed her mind. Imagine what could happen, she writes, if a teacher would instruct her class how to actually use clay — how to shape it, how to change it with the use of more or less water, how to keep it from drying out by storing it properly.
It’s a way of taking the children seriously, and acknowledging that art may be especially important for kids at this age, who are mostly preliterate. For children who can’t yet read or write, “artistic expression isn’t a subject area whose worthiness for study could be debated,” Christakis writes. “Rather, it is a learning domain, like critical thinking or number sense.”
And, really, what the kid actually makes is almost beside the point. She writes:
The purpose of this exercise is not to teach children how to make clay alligators and coffee mugs. The purpose is to teach children a predictable cognitive sequence they can apply when they encounter anything new: Observe, question, explore, reflect. Repeat. The children learn to respect their materials, not just to dive into them. They learn – without having seen it before – that clay is a material they can use to represent something else, a key developmental challenge of the early years.
Because there’s another big reason why these preschool crafts have persisted: The resulting creation becomes a handy way for busy parents to quickly get a sense of what their kid did in school all day – and it’s an equally handy way for teachers to demonstrate what their charges did in school all day. “Teachers know that they are judged — as most Americans are — by what they produce,” Christakis writes. “It’s a lot easier to say ‘Here’s the construction paper jack-o’-lantern we made today’ than ‘I’ve noticed that Michael is really excited by what happens when he mixes blue and yellow paint.’”
So perhaps the real problem here is that, despite what the popular mantra says, the product still very much matters. At the literal end of the day, the kid still goes home with some product — as in, something tangible that he or she has made. The unconscious message that this ultimately sends children is that you must have something to show for your day. And so, in Christakis’s view, the “very first step” to making a meaningful change in the way preschools approach creative work “is for parents to stop asking children what they made at school each day!” (Exclamation point hers.) Two and three and four really are mighty young ages to already be indoctrinated into the grown-up cult of productivity.