Product vs. Process Art

I believe that human beings are born to create, and that could be anything. From construction work to a simple drawing, those projects are a person’s creation. People took ownership of those projects. It displays their uniqueness and who they are. Any project we work on could be something we follow instructions to complete or something of our originality. When we think of these types of projects, it is important to consider how children are showing their creativity and doing their projects. The reason I say this is because the way they create in the early years can determine how they can create later in life. It is important to take careful consideration of the kinds of art projects, and crafts, children are involved in and how we comment on their work. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” That is why we should compare the difference between product art and process art to help children express their creativity.

What is Product Art?

When I think of product art, the first thing that comes to mind is crafts; the kind where there is a specific end result in mind, there are specific materials to use, instructions on how to complete it, and maybe even a model to follow to make sure your project looks like the original. It is almost as if creating a copy of the model. Many people often do these projects because they see something that is really neat and interesting and they want to create it too. While some people are able to complete a copy of that model and feel satisfied with the work they had done, there are others who may or may not complete their work and automatically feel they cannot do it. They start to think they are not creative, they cannot do projects that someone else had done, and start to think little of themselves, which leads to lower self-esteem.

When children are told to do something like this — creating something that is not originally theirs, following instructions on how to complete it, and seeing a model of what it is supposed to look like — we can only imagine how they must feel about themselves when they get discouraged, are told that their work “looks no good”, and they eventually give up. They may tell themselves, “Can I be done now?”, “Is this right?”, “Mine doesn’t look like yours,” “I can’t do it!” This is obviously something we do not want to see in young children, as we know it can harm them as they continue to mature.

Yet despite knowing that we do not want children to exhibit these feelings, many people unconsciously give these product-focused art activities to children, which in turn, diminishes children’s sense of creativity and originality. Robert Schirrmacher, an instructor with the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, said, “Asking children to complete patterned artwork or to copy adult models of art undermines children’s sense of psychological safety and demonstrates disrespect for children including their ideas, abilities, and creativity. Children who are frequently given patterns to cut out or outlines to color in are in fact being told that they, and their art, are inadequate.” While on a field trip exploring many early childhood programs, I was able to pinpoint different product-focused art activities. These are some that I recognized:

  • Bulletin boards displaying crafts made by children that all look alike
  • Several coloring-book-type sheets with colors inside the lines
  • Models for children to copy
  • Teachers drawing for the children
  • Teachers fixing “mistakes” on children’s artwork.
  • Specific instructions on how to complete a craft

Despite naming the negative aspects of product-focused art, not all of it is bad. You could be doing a recipe to make slime, food, or playdough, or there could be a specific project you are creating. So long as the child is still able to express their own creativity, then it can be appropriate.

An example to explain this goes to an activity I did recently in preschool. The theme for the day was dinosaur fossils and near the end of the day we do a small focus activity. I decided that we were going to make dinosaur fossils out of brown playdough. After learning about what dinosaur fossils were, the children were free to create their own to take home. I would consider this a product-focused activity because there was a specific theme in mind when designing with the playdough: a dinosaur fossil. Although what I did differently was I did not provide models for the children to follow, there were no instructions on how to create the fossil, and the teachers did not intervene in telling them they were doing it wrong or doing it for them. Even though they created dinosaur fossils, they were still able to take ownership of it.

When I examined the fossils after class, I could see each child’s unique touch to their fossil by noticing each one looking different than the other. I, and other parents were able to ask ourselves, “What is that?” When someone asks that question regarding a child’s artwork, that is when something significant was created.

What is Process Art?

To say it in simple terms, process art is the opposite of product art. Schwartz and Douglas, researchers who did a study on children’s art ideas, mentioned that, “The final form, the finished picture, the beautiful painting is not the goal of art for young children….the goals of art for preschoolers is to: express their thinking, knowledge and ideas; explore, try out, and create with new and different kinds of media; experiment with colors, lines, forms, shapes, textures, and designs; express feelings and emotions; and be creative.” Something as simple as painting on a piece of paper can do wonders for a child, even if the child is mixing all the colors to form a large, brown spot covering the page. Even if the art does not look attractive to one’s eyes, this is the child exploring, experimenting, and learning from what they are creating. That kind of artwork is what is pleasing to children’s eyes. Children who do more process art will say phrases, such as, “Look what I made!”, “I’m going to do another!”, “Can I have more time?”

Laurel Bongiorno, Dean of the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College, presents characteristics of process-oriented art experiences in a simple way to understand:

  • There are no step-by-step instructions
  • There is no sample for children to follow
  • There is no right or wrong way to explore and create
  • The art is focused on the experience and the exploration of techniques, tools, and materials
  • The art is unique and original
  • The experience is relaxing and calming
  • The art is entirely the children’s own
  • The art experience is a child’s choice
  • Ideas are not readily available online

These types of art experiences can support children’s development in all domains. An obvious one that can be noticed is strengthening the fine motor skills while holding several art tools and materials to create their work. Cognitively, children can “compare, predict, plan, and problem solve” when creating. An example of this could be planning what to create, predicting the outcome of using certain materials, problem solving when materials do not work out as predicted, and comparing between different personal art experiences. For some of us, doing art projects can bring a sense of relaxation, calmness, focus, and feelings of success afterward. This same effect is apparent in children as well. Believe it or not, language and literacy can also be developed through artwork when children discuss their artwork and adding print to it, such as writing names of people and objects.

The subject of language brings me to talk about the role as a parent and educator in children participating in process artwork. The phrases adults say to children regarding their creations can play a huge role in how children interpret their work and whether or not they will continue doing it. Here are a few suggestions I have learned and seen through my experience being a preschool teacher:

  • Use Open-Ended Phrases: A simple way to understand this is to ask questions that draw in thinking and problem solving, rather than one-word answers, such as “yes,” or “no.” Think of the what, why, and how questions when asking a child what they are creating and getting details on what their artwork is about.
  • Be Specific. Giving specific comments about a child’s work can help them learn, grow, and feel confident in what they have created. A common phrase that adults say is “Good job!” and though the intent is positive, the child will not know what the adult liked about it and grow from the experience. A great example is bringing in the child who mixed all the colors and created a large, brown spot covering the page. Someone could say, “You mixed all the colors and made brown! What other colors can you make?” This is a factual and observable comment, while also bringing in a question to extend the art experience.
  • Accept the Work Done: In free, expressive, and process-focused artwork, there should be no such thing as “mistakes.” Adults should not try to intervene in changing a child’s masterpiece to make them like it the way they want it. This will make children question whether or not they are good at doing art or whether they did it the “right way.” Accept what the child has done, and know that it is not a bad idea to offer suggestions to extend the creativity, exploration, and time spent doing art. Offer new forms of media, tools, or simply asking why and how questions.
  • Above all, Do Not Downplay a Child’s Work: Every art piece a child creates should be valued and cherished. Saying comments to try and fix something, telling a child what to do to make it look good, saying someone does not like a piece of art, or the child is not talented enough, could ruin a child’s passion and development. Seeing the beauty in what a child creates, commenting on what we like, and accepting the natural artist in every child can build a child’s self-esteem, confidence, creativity, and not to give up.

With all that has been said, know that process-focused art activities do not have to be hard to provide. Anything unstructured and open-ended counts. Here is a list of ideas children could use to express the artist within them:

  • Use different kinds of paint
  • Instead of white paper, bring out construction paper, foil, plastic wrap, paper plates, tissue paper, parchment paper, and coffee filters.
  • Use a variety of tools, such as paint brushes, kitchen utensils, small toys, nature items, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and chalk.
  • Provide loose materials collected from outside, thrift stores, and recycling to manipulate with, make collages with, or anything the children come up with
  • Explore with clay, slime, and playdough
  • String beads independently and creatively on string or yarn

Rather than a teacher-directed, product-focused art experience, give children free expression with art and let them bring out their unique personality in each of their creations. Teresa Gonsoki, an early childhood teacher, said, “As an early childhood teacher [parent], it is your task to ensure that the children in your classroom [home] have the opportunity to get the most out of their “journey”, without pressuring them to achieve particular end results. Focusing on the process instead of the product can give them this experience.” If people were to think of their life as a coloring-book-like page, creating within the lines without breaking through, there would not be any artists, inventors, scientists, successful entrepreneurs, writers, and so forth. It is breaking through the lines and exploring the blank space that one can discover something that has not been created yet. Let children be those kinds of people.

References:

Bongiorno, L. (2014). How Process Art Experiences Support Preschoolers. Teaching Young Children, Vol 7, №3. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/feb2014/process-art-experiences

Gonsoski, T. (2017). Setting up a Process-Oriented Classroom. Community Playthings. http://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2017/process-or-product

Schirrmacher, R. (2006). Inviting Creativity: The Teacher’s Role in Art. Community Playthings. http://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2006/child-centered-art-vs-teacher-directed-projects

Schwartz, J.B., and Douglas, N.J. (1967). Increasing the Awareness of Art Ideas of Culturally Deprived Kindergarten Children Through Experiences With Ceramics. Final Report Project Number 6–8647 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare).