Artsy Thursday: Celebrate the joy and learning children experience when they engage in creativity

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Editor’s note: April 13-17 is Week of the Young Child, an annual celebration hosted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and AzAEYC celebrating early learning, young children, their teachers, and families. Raising Arizona Kids is proud to be collaborating with the AzAEYC all week to share insights and tips from Arizona’s professional community of early childhood educators. Yesterday’s post was “Work Together Wednesday.”


Zay Willett (4), of Tucson.

Meet my 4-year-old cousin, Zay Willett. He’s using a batch of homemade play dough I made for him. He is a part of a very creative family of builders and makers in Tucson. Zay loves to use play dough to make snow people, snakes, basketballs, and “pancakes” for his family. He uses the dough to express his interests, make sense of his world and share his thinking.

I’ve been making homemade play dough in my classroom for 12 years, and have yet to exhaust the many possibilities it offers. Children can express so many ideas through their play with this simple substance that anyone can make from ingredients found in a typical kitchen. Add action figures, animals, natural materials, or different kitchen tools that are safe for young children to manipulate to switch up the play dough invitation every day.

Experiencing play dough is just one way that children develop creativity, social skills and fine-motor skills. Many open-ended art projects offer opportunities for making choices and using the imagination.

Wait. What is an open-ended art project?

Open-ended art is driven by the process rather than the product. Product art projects are the things we typically see in kits that give guidelines and expectations about what it will look like when it’s “done.” Open-ended art is about offering a variety of materials for a child to explore, manipulate and create with and the child is the one who determines when they are done. “Done” may mean two dots of marker on a paper. Or it may be a little one squeezing a whole bottle of glue onto a piece of wood. Children create. They do art.

A whole bottle of glue? How is that art?

The process that a child uses to investigate and create a piece of art is where the learning happens. They may swirl the bottle to see how the sticky glue squiggles on a surface. They feel the weight and the viscosity of the glue, the smooth way the bottle feels in their hands. They notice that they can control the flow, the direction, and the outcome.

They are exploring cause and effect, investigating gravity, gaining fine-motor skills in the squeezing and sensory input through each of their five senses, and will later need to problem solve around clean up or what they’d like to see happen with that piece of wood.

Why is art important for young children?

Art is about using materials and language to express identity. When toddlers are given any material, they begin to play with it. They use their imaginations and their curiosity to shape, manipulate and transform that material in a way that helps them begin to discover who they are in relation to the world around them.

Preschoolers have even more of a sense of self and begin to use creative modes of expression to communicate to the world, “I am me and I am here!” When asked the open-ended question “Tell me about it,” preschool-age children can begin to communicate in words the thinking and process of making behind their art.

There is so much learning in the process of creation and oftentimes this process simply looks like play. Play is the scientific process of a child and play is the work of a child. Through play and creation, children gain input about the world around them and begin to discover who they are in relation to that world.

On Artsy Thursday, celebrate the joy and learning children experience when they engage in creative art making. Use any materials — from crayons to paint, clay to crafts — even a simple bottle of glue with a piece of wood. Give young artists a chance to discover themselves, and play and learn.

Katie Kurtin, of Tucson, is treasurer of the AzAEYC governing board. She holds a master’s degree in teaching and teacher education from the University of Arizona, and has worked in early childhood education for more than 11 years. During quarantine, Katie has been staying creative by making masks for family, friends and essential workers as a buy-one, donate one-model. Folks can purchase a mask for themselves, allowing Katie to make them free to essential workers, people who are immune-compromised and those who cannot afford to buy one. She has made more than 40 masks for local law enforcement, restaurant workers, healthcare workers, airport workers and vet techs and plans to continue until they’re no longer needed.

Katie’s Best Play Dough recipe!

3 cups flour
3 cups water
½ cup salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tbs. cream of tartar

Mix together in a pan over medium heat. Stir until it clumps together in one big ball. Remove from pan onto cutting board or countertop and let cool. Knead together and add food coloring, liquid watercolor, essential oils, glitter, or whatever you’d like to make it your own. Store in a zipper baggie or container for up to two weeks. If you do not have cream of tartar, you can make it without but it may not last as long or be as smooth.


Artsy Thursday:
With a Desert Twist!

By Sabrina Ball

Nature inspires us with the beauty of color, shape and contrasts. See what desert animals and plants you can find on a virtual field trip to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum!

Here’s another resource: NAEYC museum field trip

Sabrina Ball has been involved in early childhood education for the past 30 years and is the director of Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool, a Reggio inspired, NAEYC accredited preschool located in Scottsdale. She is also adjunct faculty at Paradise Valley Community College, a NAEYC Accredited Higher Education Program in Phoenix.