The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.


This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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6 thoughts on “The Capable Child

  1. Emily are you able to come into our class and work with our children? We would love for you to visit.


    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. Stigmatizing mistakes in ART of all things seems to be so very-off-the-mark: so much worthwhile art could begin seemingly on accident! I’ve always thought that art is too fluid to be perfect, although there’s a definite moment when it’s right.

    1. Absolutely! I think that for many students, their earliest experiences with what is called Art is actually a craft experience where the end product is predetermined (the hand-print turkey, for instance). I think these early experiences give kids the idea that there is a “right” way and, therefore, also a “wrong” way.

  3. Your kindergarteners need to have the tactile experience with clay. That was probably more important to them. Kids worrying about their art looks? That is where we teachers can help. How we introduce art can make a big difference. I show art pieces that might look ‘lame’, such as Snail by Henri Matisse. When children look at this (or other art) and we talk about it beforehand, it makes a world of difference in the confidence of children.

    1. I agree that seeing the work of other artists can make a huge difference in validating students’ efforts and in helping them to view art-making as a process instead of being so product-focused.

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