When young children swipe their paintbrush up and down a blank piece of paper or canvas, scribble with crayons or markers, and cut and paste with scissors and glue, they are doing much more than creating their next masterpiece. Their brains are growing and their senses are sending messages to the brain about how things work. These kinds of brain-building activities also give parents an opportunity to sneak in small doses of basic English language arts, math, science, and social studies information and skills. Plus, small children sharpen their fine motor skills by grasping and pinching when they use writing tools, scissors, etc.
So really, arts & crafts is a twofer: your kids are having fun creating things you will most definitely hang on the fridge, and they are learning some basic academic concepts.
Research has shown that the first four years of life are crucial for making these important brain connections and that this type of development carries on through adolescence. In fact, studies show that involvement in arts education can improve upon a child’s overall academic performance and that arts education can help children develop such skills as critical thinking, creative problem solving, effective communication, teamwork and more. That is why the experiences and information children are exposed to at a young age need to be as stimulating and meaning as possible.
“Of course this doesn’t mean overloading your child with art history lessons,” says April Trexler a pre-school teacher at Malta Montessori School. “It means an introduction to arts education by way of exposure to different types of hands-on artwork that allows young kids to use their minds creatively and hone their fine-motor skills all while having fun and learning.”
That is exactly what Trexler has done over the years for hundreds of three- and four-year-old children in her preschool classroom. They’ve finger painted the alphabet, counted the macaroni they threaded to make necklaces, cut and pasted pilgrim hats during a lesson about Thanksgiving, and the list goes on and on. In fact, for my own daughter’s fourth birthday we had a Jackson Pollock-themed party (yes, there was a paint splatter cake) because of her new found love for using chopsticks and paint to make Pollock-esque artwork.
Parents can take advantage of their young children’s love of art (all things hands-on, really) and learning new things by combining the two to yield creative and educational lessons that will be carried with them once they enter school. Don’t worry; you don’t need to be art teachers with a classroom full of supplies to make an impression on your little ones. Chances are pretty good your children’s art supply boxes already include a rainbow of crayons and markers, paints, play dough or clay, glue, scissors, and craft materials (i.e., feathers, pipe cleaners, pom poms, stickers, beads, glitter, etc.)–the perfect starter kit when using art to engage children in academic subjects.
Here are some ways you can effortlessly use art to spark your children’s interest in academics:
English Language Arts
- While reading is still one of the most effective ways to model language patterns, build vocabulary, and introduce the concepts of storytelling, here are a few creative, hands-on ways to give children their daily dose of ELA.
- Write simple words, such as dog, cat, love, etc., in capitals letters on a piece of paper then show your child how to mold clay or shape pipe cleaners or yarn into those same letters.
- Use your child’s favorite book as a stepping stone to get them thinking about the book in a different way. For example, have them draw a picture of their favorite part of the book.
Along with counting everything (how many steps it takes to get anywhere, how many grapes are in their snack cup, how many blocks can they stack) there are a few other ways to introduce basic math concepts to little ones.
- Balance and counting can be reinforced using block and popsicle sticks to build bridges and ramps for toy cars and trucks.
- Basic shapes lend themselves to a lot of art activities. To build fine-motor and math skills have your kids draw and color shapes on paper then cut them out and arrange the shapes to make a train, spaceship, an outdoor scene, etc.
- Noticing patterns and the order of items is another math skill your children will use in school. Try creating patterns with large beads on string, mosaic tiles, or stickers and using ordinal terms like first, second, third, etc. (i.e., the first bead is blue, the second one is red, etc.)
There’s no end in sight when it comes to science discovery. In fact, every season brings a new outdoor classroom right to you.
- Planting a windowsill garden was one of my children’s favorite projects. They loved pushing the seeds into the mini gardening pots and tending to their garden by watering and fertilizing. When the first sprout of the plant started it was magical for them!
- Take a trip outside and collect all different kinds of leaves. You can examine and talk about the differences in each leaf. Then create color rubbing of the leaves by placing them under a white sheet of paper and rubbing a crayon over them to make an impression. Have your child label each piece of paper and make a booklet of their leaf rubbings.
- Experimenting with liquids and solids is fun too. Simply freezing colored water with glitter in it or putting a wet washcloth in the freezer and bringing it back out when it’s stiff is fun to touch and manipulate. Another popular project is homemade slime. Nearly every kid seems to love this stuff. There are lots of recipes online but you really only need white classroom glue, water, shaving cream (to make it fluffy!) and contact solution. Or try science slime, aka, Oobleck. It’s a simple mix of cornstarch and water. Science slime when manipulated with one’s hands turns solid but when left alone turns back into liquid. (Fair warning: Oobleck is a little bit messy but super fun!)
Early social studies lessons in school will teach your child the basics such as how people are like and different, why we need rules, and how to use maps, for example. Here are some creative ways to introduce these concepts to your child early on.
- If your child have a favorite place, the playground or the library, for instance, show him or her how to draw a simple map. Start with a picture of your house and then draw lines for each turn that is taken. Don’t forget to color in other places you pass on your tip, such as the fire department, a pond, a friends house, etc.
- Make paper dolls (draw, color and cut) of community helpers, such a firefighter, police officer, doctor, teacher, etc. Then talk about why these people are important.
- During the holiday season talk about traditions then make a poster board about your family’s traditions. Cut out magazine pictures showing favorite holiday food or traditions and then paste them on poster board.
Spending time with your kids, working on projects, laughing, and learning are all priceless. Hopefully some of these fun, do-at-home art projects will inspire your kids to get involved in arts education later on in their school careers and also help them foster a love of learn.
Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.