Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Our Kids Need Art (and Picture Books)

"With everyone clamoring for more scientists, I should like to clamor for more artists and designers. I should like to clamor for the teaching of drawing and design to every child, right along with reading and writing. I think it is most important for everyone really to see and evaluate pictures and really to see and evaluate his surroundings." This quote by Robert McCloskey, the Caldecott award-winning author of Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and my personal favorite One Morning in Maine, has forever changed the way I think about teaching children art. 

I have always loved making art, but I had never connected learning to draw and paint and sculpt with learning to see the world. Being able to look closely at a picture and recognize what makes that picture a thing of beauty or jarring and ugly is essential for being able to make great art, but it's necessary on a bigger scope as well. Children live in a world where there is wonder and beauty, but there is also a lot of ugliness, both in the physical landscape and in people's souls. Children will become adults who have to navigate this and either bring more beauty into the world or more ugliness. If a child has climbed a mountain and seen the grace of the layered ridges that seem to go on forever, how can they see a strip mine and not see the inherent wrongness of it?
Mountains inspired by The Rag Coat By Lauren Mills
"Citing examples of deliberately misleading print advertising and television images and of the kind of runaway land development that was blighting larger and larger swaths of the American landscape, McCloskey argued that at a time when such excesses were commonplace it was essential for people to know how critically to evaluate every aspect of their visual environment. There was no better way, he concluded, to accomplish this vital goal than by teaching people how to draw from an early age." Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard Marcus

After reading this I began to see art not as dabbling in paint and clay, but as a process of teaching my children to look closely at the world, but at the same time to see the bigger picture, the whole; to slow down our looking and truly see what makes a picture beautiful. 

I have not adopted any fancy art curriculum. I put all that money into quality art supplies instead. The art we looked at was easy to find. It was all in picture books. Children are lucky to be surrounded by so much amazing art created by truly talented artists. This was really brought home to me on a recent visit to the library at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We shouldn't be too quick to put picture books away and move to chapter books. When else in life, will kids have access to so much art? 

pastel drawing inspired by Night of the Moonjellies by Mark Shasha
The curriculum we use Five in a Row is based on classic, wonderful picture books like McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings. The author Jane Claire Lambert put a lot of attention into developing the art lessons and this past year, I've had a new vision for our art days. I try to do them at the beginning of the week instead of letting them slide at the end. We go through the picture book of the week looking closely at the pictures, noticing the medium the artist used, the colors, the textures, the details, thinking about how these things change the mood of the picture and what the story is trying to stay. Then we get out whatever art materials the illustrator used and we make art ourselves. Sometimes we make lovely pictures and sometimes it is more about the process. Already, I find the kids looking closer at all their books, noticing that they are painted with watercolors or that the warm colors make the pictures seem happy and bright.
collage inspired by Eric Carle's book The Tiny Seed
I recently found a free ebook of an old book Wings and the Child or, the  Building of Magic Cities by British children's book author E. Nesbit. She had more to say about the importance of surrounding our kids with beauty and teaching them to resist uglification in our world.

"Therefore I would plead with all those who have to do with children to resist and to denounce uglification wherever they may meet with it, and to remember that there is knowledge which goes hand in hand with beauty. To show a child beautiful things, and to answer as well all the questions he will ask about them, to charm and thrill his imagination with pictures and statues and models of the wonders of the world, to familiarise the child with beauty, so that he knows ugliness when he meets it, and hates it for the outrage it is to the beauty he has known and loved ever since he was very little--this is worth doing. If we would make beauty the dear rule of man's life, and ugliness the hated exception, we should make beauty as familiar to the child as the air he breathes, and if we associate knowledge with beauty the child will love them both."

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