Ah, preschool... imagination is in full bloom, energy level is high -- it's the perfect age for make-believe and brightly-colored art projects. But you can't draw your way out of a paper bag! What to do? You don't have to be a Picasso to introduce your preschooler to the world of art. Help is here in the form of a growing list of art schools and art-based preschools for 3-to-5-year-olds. Programs vary widely, ranging from a 45-minute-per-week art class to art-based preschools offered five days a week.
Research at the National Association for Education in Young Children (NAEYC), shows that experts agree: Exploring and creating with art materials helps young children become more sensitive to their environment, and increases social, emotional, and even cognitive development.
Amy Vail, a teacher and assistant manger at the Monart Drawing School in Seattle says that kids between the ages of three and five are the easiest group to teach. "They come in with such enthusiasm and excitement," she says. "No one has ever told them that they can't draw well, so they don't have any feelings that they can't do it, like we sometimes see with older kids and adults."
Commercial art schools offer a special place where kids can get involved with art. "Most of the parents who bring their kids to our school do so because either they are too busy to do art in the home, they don't want the mess, or they want more structure," Vail says.
An organized approach
The Monart Drawing School is one school that provides that structure. The school teaches a method of drawing based on the book, Drawing With Children, by Mona Brookes. Brookes says students can learn to see the world in five basic elements of shape, which allows them to learn how to draw. Teachers use line drawings of original artwork they call "black lines," which are put up on a board in the classroom. Teachers then show students how to recreate the drawing line by line. "Even though the whole class may be doing a drawing of a lion, they all have their own personality come out in their own drawings, especially in their use of color," Vail says.
Monart Drawing Schools are franchised, with locations all over our area. Their method is one choice for children who crave structure, but other art schools offer children more freedom and self-direction.
At The Little Artist, located inside Curious Kidstuff in Seattle, owner and teacher Penny Bellemans prefers a more individual method. "I would never sit a whole group of kids at that age down and say, 'This is what we're going to do today,'" Bellemans says. "They come in and have choices of where they would like to work." Her studio has corners set up with easels for painting, tables for drawing, a table for making collages using glue, and many different activities that build fine-motor skills while children explore.
"At three to five years old, their drawings are of people who look like Mr. Potato Head," Bellemans says. "Then they start to add arms and legs, and draw more things from their world.
Another Seattle art school, The Little Art School and Gallery, is run by a former preschool teacher and popular artist, Teri Laffan. The school offers classes that explore many different types of art, including drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking and clay modeling.
In her classes, Laffan reads stories to the children, and uses music to influence their art experience. "For instance, if we're mixing dark colors of paint, I might put on music that goes with that, like Brazilian," she explains.
Laffan says teaching art to young children helps them learn fine-motor skills, as well as how to recognize shapes. "It's a good way to teach them about the world, and to help them learn to cooperate with each other.
"Sometimes we do a large group project -- like a mural -- together, and we do it through a story. Each child gets to add on their little bit to the story, and as they do, we see the art grow."
Commercial art schools are in addition to preschool, but there are also art-based preschools. Mariah Art School in Olympia offers a regular morning preschool program in which the entire curriculum teaches through the use of art.
Diane Gail, founder of Mariah Art School, believes that art helps promote a love of learning in young children while teaching basic preschool skills, such as the beginnings of letter recognition, shapes, colors and counting. At her school, students learn to recognize letters of the alphabet by learning line direction, using movement with their whole body; they learn math by adding and subtracting while working with clay or other tangible art materials, and science is taught through hands-on experiments like gardening.
Gail says young children benefit from art-based preschool programs. "There are very few programs that make art their main focus. But creativity, problem solving and self-actualization is developed best through an arts education."
Kate Amodei is a Lynnwood-based writer, public relations consultant, mother, and stepmother.