The best art projects for preschool teach concepts beside art. Using art as a medium to explore geometry, patterns, science, literature, and social studies keeps children engaged and invites children who are not always interested in coloring or painting to participate. Children can be invited to use their individual creativity while at the same time meeting the purposes of the exploration in a secondary skill area.
Let’s look at a few examples. First, an activity designed to use geometric shapes to demonstrate a child’s understanding of a series. I hand my four-year olds a sheet of construction paper that has four different-sized triangles on it. Their assignment: to cut out the triangles and glue them onto a second piece of paper in an order that they can explain to me. Most of my students arrange them by size, either from smallest to largest or largest to smallest. But every year, one or two students arrange these triangles in two pairs, Number 1 (largest) with Number 3, then Number 2 with Number 4 (smallest). Their explanations of why they arranged the triangles the way they did always gives me a greater understanding of their thinking, and a clearer picture of how they understand the way a series of objects should work, as well as how smoothly they can cut. (After they explain their picture to me, I often give them foam stickers to decorate the triangles.)
A second example is that of using translucent plastic or wooden beads to make a bracelet for Mom (or another significant mother figure) for Mother’s Day. I work together with the children during the year to make sure they understand patterns, and then for Mother’s day, we make a bracelet or a necklace with a pattern. The children are impressed with their own skill, the moms love the present (most of them actually wear the jewelry, which is always special), and I know that my students understand simple patterns. Many kids ask if they can make their own bracelets as well and they wear those bracelets (boys as well as girls) for as long as they can afterward.
A third example combines literature, science and art. After studying colors and how primary colors mix to create new ones, we go on to many other concepts in science. But weeks later when we read a picture book version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Seal”, I help them review those colors, and we learn about color blending with crayons. I give each child a picture I have drawn that is a scene from “The White Seal”, and we spend one “session” coloring it with more than one color (mountains gray and brown, etc.) in each part of the picture. We also leave parts of the picture (the bottom half of the seal is under water) uncolored with my tease that we’ll find out why in our next session. The next “session”, usually the following day, we take watercolors and paint the water sections of the page and to the delight of the children, we find out that the water paints the seal’s bottom half blue, but doesn’t quite cover the other objects underwater (the ones we colored). This is called a “crayon resist”, and the paint pools into little bubbles where children have not colored, and resists covering over the waxy crayon. So we’ve done a real art project, but we have also reviewed our understanding of how colors mix, and re-visited the story we read together.
The real prize? These kinds of projects help children remember what they have learned, and I hear them explaining what they learned while sharing the project with their families. And any time a child teaches someone else, their own understanding is deepened! Isn’t that why we teach?