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Too quick on the draw

Don't be hasty when you look at children's art - it's much more than colourful decoration to display in corridors. There are meanings hidden behind the drawings of pre-schoolers which reflect their views of the world, says Sue Cox

Four-year-old Amy paints a picture of a tiger. She explains that her painting shows what she saw last night in a frightening dream. Once she has shown it to her teacher, she paints it out completely with black. Is she obliterating the dream from her memory?

Amy's actions should prompt us to ask whether we need to think more carefully about the way we look at children's painting and drawings. Her work suggests that she had very personal reasons for depicting the tiger. How much effort do we make to put ourselves in touch with a child's own purposes for making what adults call "art"?

Visit almost any primary school and you'll probably find a display of colourful paintings in the foyer. They contribute to the positive impression that schools want to give to visitors - particularly in these days of open enrolment and OFSTED inspections. But do people respond to the work in any way that goes beyond its superficial attractiveness? Do they, for instance, take the trouble to understand what the person behind the painting is trying to do?

Sadly, there is sometimes little scope for this. If the painting is a response to a teacher-directed activity, where processes and outcome are tightly controlled, there is not much evidence of the child's thinking - the intention has been only to produce a pleasing display.

The colourful images that children produce can be seductive, but what meaning do these works have for the children who made them and why did they make them? In the early years, children are experiencing the use of "marks" in a way that works for them. They are not influenced, as yet, by what teachers expect of them as pupils and they do not have a sense of what they produce as a "work of art". Visual artefacts appear in the environment in all sorts of forms and contexts, and children are more aware of this variety of visual experience from their day-to-day lives than of the "work of art". They are less interested in what they make as a finished piece, than in their own reasons for making it, and these are related to their emerging understanding of the world.

Amy goes to a thriving nursery unit in Nottinghamshire co-ordinated by Geoff Chamberlain. Other children in Geoff's class decide to build a road from blocks around the nursery and, when they've finished, Ben sits down to make a "road sign" on a piece of paper. It consists of a grid of lines which, he explains, are to keep people off the road. He then begins to make a series of dots, in rows, between the grid lines, which he says are the blocks. When his pencil hits the paper, it makes the same sort of sound as the blocks when they were being laid. He's doing lots of different things with the marks he makes: recording the road building; making a sign; representing the action, and even the sound, of laying the blocks.

The "developmental" approach to writing has much to tell us about the way children make discoveries about the writing process - the discovery, for instance, that marks made on a surface can be "read" is fundamental to drawing as well as writing.

Ben is inventing different kinds of meaningful marks to represent his experience and organise his thoughts. He is finding his own ways of encoding information. These inventions are not the immature and deficient solutions that, in drawing, precede the ability to depict a scene or an object "realistically". They are explorations of representational possibilities, that fulfil the purposes of the child who is as yet unfamiliar with conventional forms.

The differences between what a child might be trying to do, and the conventions of visual realism, are apparent when Geoff sits down with a group of three and four-year-olds to draw an iron which he sets up on the table in front of him. He asks the children how he should start. They tell him to get the shape down on the paper. One child wants him to draw the flex coming out of the side of the iron. "I can't see it from here," says Geoff. But that doesn't matter. It is part of the iron so it should go down. The child, with justification, is challenging "our" way of recording what we see.

Geoff encourages her to do this; to feel confident about her own ways of representing what she wants to say about the iron.

It is all too easy to overlook the child's own purposes, to deny the potential that "art" has for developing children's thinking; for helping them to conceptualise their experience. If we pay attention, we will see that children are showing us the importance of what is put into the work. We need to make genuine efforts to "read" it, rather than simply judge it by its appearance. And, then, our art teaching should help children to extend the ways they can say what they want to say, in richer and more powerful language.

There are many ways of representing experience, and many ways of interpreting those representations. It is these processes, in all their complexity, that constitute the cultural practice we call art. Young children readily engage with them. We must guard against displacing children's purposeful creations with mere visual effects. This would not help develop children 's understanding of these processes, even if the final products look nice on the wall.

Sue Cox is senior lecturer in primary education at The Nottingham Trent University. Geoff Chamberlain is a member of The Primary Art Group, investigating the teaching of art at the university with Sue Cox

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