The Development of Self through Art: A Case for Early Art Education

By Bleiker, Charles A. | Art Education, May 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Development of Self through Art: A Case for Early Art Education


Bleiker, Charles A., Art Education


Early childhood educators have long felt that art has much to teach us about the world and ourselves Johnson, 1928; Hymes, 1975; Seefeldt, 1992) . It is considered to be a cornerstone of the early childhood curriculum. Through art we learn to see the contours of nature with its irregular curves and criss-crossing patterns. We discover geometric shapes (circles, squares, and triangles) and learn about the world constructed by humans. We play with color and we learn about light. We play with expression and clothes and learn about the social world.

Psychological researchers, in addition, have long believed that children's drawings hold the key to understanding both cognitive (Luquet, 1927; Piaget & Inhelder, 1956; Goodenough, 1926; Gardner, 1983) and emotional development (Alschuler & Hattwick, 1947). They focus, as in Piaget's case, on the mental structures and the subsequent thinking processes revealed in children's early depictions, or in Alschuler and Hattwick's case on the healthy or damaged psyche of the child as revealed in the projected symbols of the drawings.

Drawings in the first tradition, early childhood education, are seen as important for constructing knowledge in a general sense. Drawings in the second tradition, psychology, are seen as a reflection of the natural, biological processes of mental development. Self, though, is more than just a collection of general knowledge about the world, or a reflection of an inner state. It is at the very least a growing awareness of mind and body existing in a spatial and temporal continuum. It begins very early in life and can be facilitated through rich exposure and opportunity for artmaking. In this paper I argue for a greater sensitivity toward and opportunity for early art education as a key to promoting the development of self in young children. Through early and continued art education children can better understand who they are in the world, and what they can accomplish in it.

THE SELF IN THE FIGURE

Seeing is defined as making in the words of art educator Elliot Eisner (1991). If an artist, like Picasso, sees a bull's horns in the shape of rusted bicycle handles, then the rusted bicycle handles become bull's horns, or rather the artistic representation of them. When infants start to notice the involuntary movements of their hands and feet at around 2 months of age, they are, in a sense, creating their first drawings. They appreciate the virtual image made by the circular movements. They see the scribbled whorls, the subtle crosses and ovals traced in the air. At around the age of 4 or 5 months, when infants grasp in their hands an object and bang it against the floor, they are learning to use their first drawing implement When they splash water and watch the frothy shapes of the waves, or when they gleefully spill milk on a tray and watch it puddle into irregular shapes, they are making dynamic, fully formed images. After this pivotal act of discovery, of noticing art in nature, the world to the infant becomes both palette and paintbrush.

At about the age of 1 year, seeing gives way to acting, and children begin to scribble on paper. Children experiment with scribbles, making, according to child art researcher Rhoda Kellogg (1969) hundreds of distinct patterns. From these distinct scribbles they make what she calls combines and aggregates, pairs and combinations that form more complex shapes. These shapes, according to her, are later used to make the first representational drawings.

The first representational drawings that spring from the imaginations of young children are figures of people (Golomb, 1992). The so called tadpoles are depicted as ovals with lines emanating from the sides and bottoms. The oval represents the whole self, the body as well as the head. The lines represent arms and legs, floating in space, tethered loosely to the body.

The "tadpole" gives way to a more differentiated figure when children are about 4 years old. …

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