Process Art vs Product Art

The definition of art from the oxford dictionary is: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

So in simple terms Art is an expression of the artist’s creativity and imagination. Many parents end up with piles of “art work” that children bring home from daycare or school at the end of the week. Amongst that pile you may find two different types of art. One is a near perfect craft that was teacher-led and made with zero creativity from the child.

The second type of art is more unique. It may be an extra-large piece of paper covered in different colours of paint, or a picture with lots of random stuff glued to it. It could be a variety of recyclables all glued together or their own interpretation of what a specific animal is.

There was no template for them to follow. They were free to use their imagination and creativity to design whatever they wanted from the materials available.

What Is Process Art?

The experts at Tinker Lab describe it perfectly. “Process Art is art that is child-directed, choice-driven, and celebrates the experience of discovery. In process art, the final product is always unique and the focus lies in the creation of the work, not the outcome.”

What is Product Art

Product art has a specific end result. All the pieces are prepared and every child is making the same thing. You may end up with some that look a little different but it is very teacher directed. For some children art is so teacher-directed that they are told where to put every piece.

I have witnessed teachers rearranging the craft for the child so that the end product is “perfect”. When I asked the teacher why I was told “parents want nice looking art.”

This is not art. These are teacher-directed crafts. There is no creativity. There is no imagination. Children are learning to follow steps and that they need to be the same as everyone else. When their art is rearranged it is telling them that their creation, their hard work, is not good enough.

Process art

Why is Process Art Important?

When children are given the chance to do process art vs product art they get a greater sense of ownership of their art piece. When they look at other children’s art they can see theirs is different from everyone else’s. They feel the pride from doing it all on their own. It helps to boost literacy skills as the children all talk, proudly, of their art to each other.

At the daycare I am working at the children all made Christmas lanterns from recycled jars. They all painted the jars one day and then once it was dry they added glow in the dark sticks and Christmas stickers. Every jar looked completely different.

When they were done they all stood around talking with each other about what colours they painted theirs, what stickers they chose to put on theirs. They complimented each other on how nice they looked. This went on for close to half an hour. If all the children had the same looking lanterns this would not have happened.

Product Art can Hurt Children’s Self-esteem

When children are given a “template” or “example” to copy some will try as hard as they can to make it look exactly the same. If that doesn’t happen they can become frustrated and may feel as though they are not enough. That they are not living up to the expectations. 

If there are other children who are more advanced in replicating the example than the child may compare themselves to those children as well. “If so-and-so can do it to make it look the same but I can’t than clearly I am not good enough.”

When the art is offered in an open-ended way there is no right or wrong way to do the art. There is less chance of comparison when there is no guideline to follow. They have to use their own creativity and it actually builds up their self-esteem rather then break it down.

Adults need to take one step back and look at who the art is for.

I remember my mother in law telling me about one day when my husband was in preschool (maybe kindergarten). The teacher asked her to come and talk with her about something my husband had coloured.

She got all worried, and went to speak with the teacher. The teacher explained that all the children were colouring in the colouring pages. She was extremely concerned that my husband had coloured the cow purple. HE COLOURED THE COW PURPLE!! What is possibly wrong with a child colouring a cow purple, or any other colour than the correct colour of cows.

Needless to say my mother in law blew up at the teacher and told her she was wasting her time to make such a big deal about it.

But this just shows how incredibly uncreative some “art” can be; that some teachers are pushing for all children to be exactly the same. Let me be the millionth person to say Children are NOT the same. They are all unique and should be encouraged to be themselves, not to be the same as everyone else.

What are the benefits of Art?

Art can be incredibly beneficial for children of all ages and stages. For younger children art is about exploring and experimenting. For older children art can be a way to process emotions. It can be a way for them to creatively express themselves; a way for them to have complete control over how they create it.

Product art

  • Learn to follow instructions
  • Fine motor skills

Process art

  • Fine motor skills
  • Sensory experience
  • Develops children’s confidence
  • Promotes independence
  • Encourages creativity and using imagination
  • Can be incredibly therapeutic
  • Motivated to experiment
  • Learn to be okay with making mistakes
  • Promotes verbal and communication skills

Process Art or Product Art?

There seems to be a big split amongst teachers who feel “their” way of art is better. Teachers who do strictly process art speak very strongly about how beneficial process art can be.

And the teachers who do product art speak strongly how they feel about their planned art, and it’s, more often than not, strictly about the final product.

process + product art

But Why Can’t We Have Both?

When children do art, it usually starts with an idea, experiment, or a product in mind. They use process art – using creativity and imagination – to create the product they had thought about.

There is always intention behind their art work. The intention could be as simple as a sensory experience but sometimes that intention turns into the final product.

Children don’t need instructions. If you have a specific project that you want to try but it is a teacher-directed crafts, change it. Make it so the children are the ones creating it.

If you want to make a specific thing (like a caterpillar), instead of showing them what they will make, just put out all the pieces.

Set out multiple sized circles, of whatever colours, some pipe cleaners, and glue. Being at the table with them (if they choose to be there) and without giving them the answers ask something like “How do you think we could use all this stuff to make a caterpillar?” and let the children start creating.

If they ask you “where do I put this piece?” turn it around and ask them “Where do you think it should go?” and wait for their answer.

Embrace the Difference

 Some kids might have a caterpillar with five circles long, some might only have one circle, and some might have three circles all glued one on top of the other. However they make it is okay.

There was no “finished product” to look at to see what it should look like. They use their imagination and their knowledge of caterpillars to create something.

Some kids might not want to make a caterpillar and they might use those circles to make a snowman, or snail, or whatever else they can think up. That is OKAY! It should be encouraged for children to be able to create what they want.

This type of art can be particularly hard for children who are used to being told how to do every step of art. I’ve seen several times when a child goes to the art table and there is an array of materials with some glue and they turn to a teacher and ask “What am I supposed to make?”

This makes me sad thinking about how these children have never really experienced art. They have only been taught how to follow instructions; that there is a specific outcome.

 The teacher answers with an open ended question “What do you want to make with it?” or “What do you think you could make with it?”

More often than not they would wait for another child to come and start doing something before they started. They would watch as other children would start taking little bits of everything and gluing it all on before they start copying.

But because every other child is doing something different that child needs to use their own creativity to create their own art piece.

How to do process art?

  • Set out materials for children to use independently
  • Allow children to come and go as they please
  • Ask open-ended questions about their art
  • Allow the children to create as they please and follow their own ideas

Ideas for Process Art

  • Car painting – set out small cars and trucks and a pan of paint. Drive cars through paint and then onto the paper. Choose 2 primary colours and they will learn about colour mixing as well
  • Recyclable shape prints – go through the recycle bin and take some lids or tin cans, anything that is easily held by small hands. Dip into paint and make prints on the paper.
  • White playdough and markers – make some playdough with no colour added. Put out some markers and let the children colour the playdough.
  • Cookie cutter prints – if you’re wanting to do a holiday art activity, pull out some cookie cutters and use those for painting
  • Simple nature art – have the children help gather nature materials from outside. Pine cones, leaves, grass, wood chips, small pebbles, flowers, seed etc. and put it on a tray with some pots of glue
  • Puddle jumping – add some soap and a couple drops of paint. As the children jump in the puddle it makes coloured bubbles
  • Catch coloured bubbles – put some food colouring into bubble mix and blow bubbles (or use bubble machine) and then each child gets a piece of finger paint paper to catch the bubbles on.

Process art as a Sensory Experience

Art, especially for young children, is more about sensory than it is about the final product.

They care more about the feeling of the paint on their hands as they finger paint. The way the glue makes their fingers sticky. How the car that was in the paint is now making coloured tire tracks across the paper.  The way the tinfoil crinkles as they use a paint brush on it. Art does not need to have an end product to take home.

One time while working in a toddler program the kids were interested in vehicles. So we taped a plastic dump truck to the table. We put out cups of paint with paint brushes and that was the art activity for that day.

The children had a great time painting all the parts of it. They talked about the truck and named the colours. In the afternoon that day the truck was moved to the water table with a bit of soapy water, some scrub brushes, and some cloths.

To Sum up the Differences Between Process Art vs. Product Art:

Process Art:

  • Child led
  • Each art piece is unique
  • Has a large sensory aspect to it

Product Art:

  • Teacher led
  • Child has to follow specific instructions
  • All final products are supposed to look the same
  • There is a right and wrong way to do it

Adults need to take their own opinion of what art should LOOK like and focus more on what the children are learning.

Like the fine motor skills while gluing some googley eyes on to their project, or the gross motor skills as they step their feet into paint and walk across the paper. They should be focusing on how children learn about evaporation while they paint with water outside on a hot day, not about what the final product looks like.

Art is so much more than just a final product!

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