With the smell of coffee brewing and waffles toasting, I peer into my girls’ art studio and see two preschoolers happily invested in the processes of drawing flowers and painting landscapes.

My two-year old dips her brush delicately into a bowl of water and then fills her brush with paint. The brush dances across the page and I hear her chatting about rainbows and a blue-green sky. My four-year-old fills her page with intricate illustrations of imaginative flowers and spirals.

kids painting

We have a morning ritual of making, and it’s almost always process-driven. I do everything I can to set up an invitation to create—on this Spring morning the table was covered with paper, a jar of markers, and watercolors—and then I’ll step back to allow my children to find their creative voices. This is process-oriented art: open-ended, exploratory, individual, and one-of-a-kind. 

Product-oriented art, on the other hand, sets up the child with an expectation to create something specific that’s envisioned by an adult. An example could be presenting a child with a yellow pom-pom, pre-cut cardboard shapes, googly eyes, and stickers with the expectation that the child would turn the materials into a baby chick.

Less crafty but equally product-oriented would be offering the child a photocopy of the American flag, blue and red crayons, and then asking her to color the flag with the “correct” colors. This second example actually happened to me in Kindergarten, and my forward-thinking mother chose to move me to another school.

kids painting 2

If you’re an ARTSblog reader I hardly need to convince you or even educate you on this topic, but in case you’re still with me, here’s the rub with product-oriented art: while product-oriented projects could teach a child to follow directions or develop hand-eye coordination (both undoubtedly useful skills), they probably won’t help a child develop the higher-level skills of curiosity, creative thinking, problem-solving, imagination, or innovation that are so important for 21st century thinkers.

If we want our children to thrive in the highly unknown future, they’ll be best equipped if they can learn to think for themselves.

These higher-level thinking skills won’t develop through copying or following directions, but through the processes of problem-posing that goes along with invention and experimentation.

The same holds true for adults, by the way. Imagine how thrilled you might be if I handed you a paper bag, pre-cut felt shapes, and pipe cleaners, and then told you that you would be making an owl puppet! A better tactic would be handing you the materials with the challenge to come up with something that flies.

When children have the opportunity to explore new ideas, test a theory, and iterate, they develop a strong sense of self and learn to think like innovators. And isn’t that really the point of education?

kids painting 3

As a counterpoint to the product-based crafty owl example, here are some process-based questions that I’ve seen children raise while painting:

  1. How fast will the paint drip if I squeeze it out of the bottle along the top of the easel?
  2. What will happen if I squeeze all of the paint out of the bottle?
  3. What happens when I mix all of these colors together?
  4. What could happen if it the paint soaks right through the paper and onto the table?
  5. What happens to my drawing if I add paint to it?
  6. Can I paint on rocks? Seashells? Sticks? My tummy?

Children are natural explorers who are forever curious about the world around them, and it’s this curiosity and thirst for knowledge that propels them to figure out how things work. When children are motivated to ask and answer their own questions rather than adult-driven questions, their newfound knowledge has a far better chance of sticking.

The next time you teach a lesson, set up a provocation, or present your own child with art materials, ask yourself if more emphasis is placed on following directions or exploring materials and ideas. What will it be…the product or the process?

Some of my favorite process-based sensory experiences for young children:

Play with Cloud Dough

Play with the Best Homemade Play Dough: this recipe is the favorite of every preschool teacher I know

Make Your Own Slime

Some of my favorite process-based arts experiences for young children:

Make Art from Tape

Sticker Resist with Watercolors

Circular Patterns and Creative Thinking

Paint with Me: Thoughts on painting with a child

2 Responses to “Process Over Product: Building Creative Thinkers with Art”

  1. Susan MacKay says:

    Hi Rachelle! What a gift you have for saying it straight and clear. I love this and will share it!

  2. Kristen Engebretsen says:

    I finally got around to trying out the cloud dough recipe last night with my daughter (after seeing it almost two years ago on Tinkerlab), and we spent about two hours mixing, squeezing, scooping, and making shapes. The texture is truly amazing! This salon has been inspiring for me. Thanks again, Rachelle, for all of your great ideas!

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ARTSblog holds week-long Blog Salons, a series of posts by guest bloggers, that focus on an overarching theme within a core area of Americans for the Arts' work. Here are links to the most recent Salons:

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.