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Children’s early artistic learning: What do we need to know? What do we need to do?

Written By: Emese Hall
7 min read

Dr Emese Hall, Senior Lecturer in Art Education, University of Exeter, UK


Children’s early artistic learning can be very interesting, but the term ‘development’ can be misleading as it might be seen to assume an unfolding of something that is bound to occur, and over which the individual has little control. For example, we often think of young children as inherently creative and uninhibited in their art-making – indeed, this perception inspired many twentieth-century European artists to try to emulate child-like qualities in their own artworks. However, nurture is as important as nature, and I argue that this point is equally relevant in formal and informal learning contexts.

This perspective piece covers the meaning of ‘art’ and its place in the Early Years curriculum; artistic expression; representations in different media; and the value of risk-taking. My writing is informed by my experience and knowledge as an educator, artist, researcher and parent of a young child.

Defining art and its place in the curriculum

Art is potentially a huge area of learning. For example, the (UK) National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) refers to the subject as ‘art, craft and design’ and identifies 12 areas of making: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, creative craft, ceramics, collage, textiles, photography, installation and site-specific art, digital and new media, and design and graphic design (NSEAD, nd). Of course, not all of these are suitable as a focus for the youngest children’s making, but the list still serves as inspiration for introducing children in the Early Years to the wonderful world of artists, craftspeople and designers. Distilled in this acrostic, my argument is that everything that we experience in the world can either be regarded as art or appreciated artistically:




This broad definition underlines the central role that art plays in all of our lives, and taking this as a springboard opens up a host of possibilities for children’s early artistic learning. However, this is not fully recognised within Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) guidance:

We argue that the signs of promise regarding art and design in the EYFS are undermined by the issues highlighted in the ELGs for expressive arts and design – and other areas, besides personal, social and emotional development.

                                   (Hall and Turner, 2021, p. 768)

The perceived scope of children’s artistic learning is very narrow in current educational policy in England and, concerningly, it seems to be narrower now than it was 10 years ago (Hall and Turner, 2021). Further, while it might appear logical to group art with other ‘creative’ activities, such as drama/role-play and music, the essence of what makes art unique is obscured. Importantly, learning in art is not the same as learning in drama/role-play or music. Indeed, the benefits of (visual) art education – both to individuals and to wider society – is a dominant theme in the majority of recent research studies (Thomson and Maloy, 2022). Agency is the benefit of most interest to contemporary researchers, and this theme links perfectly to the next section.

Artistic expression and ownership

Within the UK, researching learners’ expression of identity through art is as popular as researching their wellbeing through art (Thomson and Moloy, 2022). One might argue that they are interlinked.  In Helen Buckley’s famous poem from 1961, ‘The Little Boy’, she describes a child whose artistic verve is quashed by a controlling teacher to such an extent that he no longer feels that he can use his own ideas. He loses his agency. There are various places to find this poem, and also variations with both sad and happy conclusions. I recommend Kapanka’s film interpretation (1991), which would be interesting to reflect upon with colleagues as a supplement to the poem itself.

Buckley’s poem highlights the significance of ownership in children’s art-making and it prompts us to pause and consider the importance of recognising each child’s starting point: their interests and motivations, as well as their home and other out-of-school experiences of ‘art’. In terms of pedagogy, it is vital to recognise that adult interaction is not the same as adult intervention. Too much adult direction is stifling. Instead, showing curiosity about children’s creations –by using both open questions and positive body language – is an effective teaching strategy. We must also try to avoid second-guessing a child’s intentions, which might cause upset. For example:

To make generalisations about the subject matter of children’s drawings risks obscuring individual meaning-making. If a child has chosen to draw something, then it clearly has some personal significance that may be insightful for others (e.g., adults) to understand.

(Hall, 2020, p. 5)

Although I mention drawings here, the same considerations apply to other forms of art-making. It is encouraging that Buckley’s poem includes examples of both two-dimensional (drawing) and three-dimensional (modelling) activities. Frequently, children’s ability to draw realistically is seen as evidence of good artistic development, but there are many ways in which to demonstrate artistic learning. Still focusing on making, I now turn to some practical exemplifications.

Representations in different media

The aim of the artist – including the child artist – is not always to make something representational, but children often find inspiration in things that they can see and they may want to create their own versions. My son, Lex, has watched me make observational drawings from time to time and has shown interest in this process. In chronological order, I will now describe a few examples of his artistic learning, as evidenced in three self-initiated activities at home. We know that ‘Children are creative when they play independently.’ (Thomson and Maloy, 2022, p. 26)

Firstly, at four years, zero months, Lex created an observational playdough model by looking at a toy lorry. He had not seen me do anything similar, so this was quite inventive. Secondly, also made at four years, zero months, Lex produced a more typical observational drawing of a toy forklift truck – he had made some observational drawings previously. These two pictured creations are both representations of toy vehicles made from observation, but a key distinction is that one is three-dimensional and one is two-dimensional. Although observational drawing or painting might be encouraged in Early Years settings, it is not common for children to be encouraged in observational model-making – I suggest that this could usefully be promoted to enhance craft skills. The experience of manipulating playdough and other modelling materials (e.g. clay) is very different from making marks with drawing instruments and is also more accessible for children with less advanced fine motor control.

At four years, one month, Lex created a dinosaur skeleton. Unlike the other two observation-based examples, this construction from wooden blocks was a product of imagination and memory. At the same time, Lex made another, different-looking dinosaur and was keen to share both with me in an impromptu museum. In an Early Years setting, this sort of ‘product’ made from toy blocks might not be regarded as evidence of artistic learning, but I argue that it should be, because Lex is using his design skills to make something representational and meaningful. Further, there is evidence of his knowledge of natural history (familiarity with dinosaurs) and his cultural capital (awareness of a museum’s purpose). These are all valuable ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992). Additionally, Thomson and Maloy tell us that ‘Cultural capital is particularly linked with agency, inclusion and identity formation’ (2022, p. 39), which are all worthy of promotion.

Risk-taking for artistic learning

The previous section featured examples of self-initiated art-making. However, it is important to note that in self-initiated art-making, children may stick with familiar materials and processes and not move beyond their comfort zone to progress their artistic learning. As educators, we must promote new learning opportunities. Essential to gaining new knowledge, understanding and skills is the child’s willingness to explore and experiment, free from the fear of failure. The value of creative risk-taking needs to be recognised; according to Yelland et al. (2008, p. 6):  

The majority of educational theories relating to learning (e.g. Bruner, 1977; Piaget, 1972; Vygotsky, 1978) that underpin Western education systems are grounded in the belief that humans learn best when they are engaged and actively constructing meaning. This enables learners to explore and solve problems in environments where they are able to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

Risk-taking is a vital part of the creative process in art, as in any other area of learning. Connected to this, I can recommend the picture book Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg (2010). Like with ‘The Little Boy’ poem, there are numerous ways in which to access this book’s contents, and some helpful linked resources can be found online. The video by Kids Read Aloud (2018) is well worth sharing with children – it is an engaging reading of the book by a child, and she also involves her younger sister, making it very relatable for young children.

A longer video (Create TUBEity, 2021), featuring Barney Saltzberg, would be suitable for discussing with colleagues and older (Key Stage 2) children. For Early Years educators thinking of introducing Beautiful Oops, it would be useful to watch this and make notes that could be shared with children by way of context about the author and how the book came to be written.

Beautiful Oops concentrates on two-dimensional, small-scale art-making, but its messaging is equally applicable to making in three dimensions and on a larger scale, as well as when using digital media. We learn through reflecting upon our mistakes, and children can do this with the support of the more knowledgeable other, whether that be an adult or a peer. Talking to children about their art-making processes, as well as artistic outcomes (i.e. a finished piece), is vital for assessment purposes.


Fully acknowledging that this piece is not exhaustive on the topic of children’s early artistic learning, I will summarise the key arguments presented above. In considering Early Years curriculum content, we need to define ‘art’ as broadly as possible and recognise what makes artistic learning distinct from learning in other areas. In terms of planning, to support children’s agency we need to provide art-making opportunities that allow individuals to express their interests and preferences. When providing resources, we need to recognise that children make use of different media in different ways – and also that observation, imagination and memory all have roles to play. Finally, we need to ensure that the learning environment offers a safe space for creative risk-taking because we want children to enjoy exploring and experimenting as part of their learning journey as an artist.

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