Move Over Process Art. There’s Something Better in Town.

I’ve noticed something troubling on some of the early childhood accounts I follow…

Before I continue, let me preface this by saying: I am positive these accounts are run by AMAZING people who truly want the best for kids. However, it’s clear there is a pervasive misunderstanding about something we’ve all become familiar with in recent years. 

And that something is process art

Woman looking up from her phone with a shocked expression.

What? Aren’t you all about the process? 

In theory, yes, and if you’ve followed me for any amount of time you know I’m generally “Team Process”, at least when it comes to early childhood, but I also think there’s more to it than this – that it isn’t black and white – and right now, some very-well-intentioned adults are missing the mark when it comes to process art. 

Let me explain.

Recently, early-childhood researchers have proven something that teachers and caregivers have known all along: play is how kids learn.

And as a result of this now-relatively-main-stream knowledge, we’ve seen a push towards process art instead of the more traditional product-oriented projects, particularly in early childhood and home settings. 

(Product-oriented = Think of step-by-step projects guiding children to an end result.)

While I think this is a wonderful step in making sure art education is accessible to all kids, many of the “process art activities” I’m seeing posted on various blogs and social media accounts aren’t actually process art at all. Sure, they include a single, very controlled, process-based step, but the outcome of the activity is limited, or worse, predetermined by an adult. 

For example, since last month was October, I saw a “process art” sponge painting activity emerge on social media, one in which kids are given a round sponge and orange paint and are taught the process of printmaking. On its surface, this seems process-based. Sponge printing! Yay! Until.. those bright, fun orange spots are turned into – you guessed it – pumpkins, because fall y’all. Now, if the idea to turn those prints into pumpkins comes from the kid – great! Butttt…. 👀

I see this time and time again – a product-oriented activity disguised as process art simply because it contains one low-risk, adult-controlled art process as a single step in a larger art project, ultimately becoming something cute or seasonal. 

To be clear: this is fine for older children who’ve chosen this type of activity (or teachers who are managing dozens or students and are expected to produce something for assessment purposes), but a problem occurs when trusted influencers label these activities with that “process” buzzword,  and as a result, followers happily repeat the process with their own kids, thinking their kids are developing creativity. 

So, let’s shift our language here to help us gain clarity moving forward. It’s time to call authentic artmaking experiences in which kids make all decisions regarding their process AND product, child-led art. For two reasons: 

Reason 1. Actual Process Art = Child-Led

Kids creating collages at a desk

If an activity is truly about the process, and research supports this kind of artmaking in early childhood (which shockingly lasts until 8 years old), then we have to let kids lead and make their own decisions within the art process. 

Let them drag their sponge to make different marks. Let me choose more than orange. Let them turn their sponge on its side. Let them decide if their marks are meant for something more, or if they’ve served their purpose during the process. And here’s the most important part:  do this without expectation. It’s okay if the end result isn’t fridge-worthy. Kids aren’t our own personal art factories.

Was that too harsh? It felt a little harsh, but it’s true!

Regardless of the end result, kids will still learn various art and technical skills. They’ll still develop their hand-eye coordination and fine motor control. And now, because we’re giving them the chance to lead, they’ll enhance those invaluable thinking processes that get lost when adults are making decisions: creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, reflection, observation, persistence, and more.

Sponge laying in a swirl of red paint

Reason 2: Child-Led = Opportunities for Process AND Product Art

Wait, what? 

Yep, some kids (especially as they get older) may in fact desire more product-oriented art activities, like how-to-draw books and video tutorials or even those sponge-printed-pumpkins, and if we are “Team Process” rather than “Team Child-Led”, we may miss opportunities to engage our kids in meaningful ways and help them find their lane in the vast world of artmaking. 

Remember, step-by-steps aren’t inherently bad; they’re just not for everyone, and the problem only arises when we assume this is the only kids learn how to create. Some love learning like this, some don’t, and some – and this may be shocking – will be so discouraged by these step-by-steps that they swear off artmaking all together. 

By creating a child-led artmaking environment or curating child-led activities, we’re allowing each kid to choose the path that works for them. Process Street, Product Avenue, or even Both Drive. (See what I did there?) 

Street signs showing Process Street and Product Avenue.
I even got carried away and made a visual, because what would teachers be without their visuals!?

Bottom Line: Not all of the “process art” activities we find on Pinterest are actually creating the outcomes we desire, but if we focus on being child-led and let our kids make decisions about what and how they create, we can’t go wrong.

Want to give your kids access to a comprehensive, child-led art education from the comfort of your own home with no extra work from you? Check out:

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Image of Nicole and iPad that reads: Let me make creating art at home easier for you and more beneficial for your kids.