If the term "preschool art" brings to mind images of finger-paint-covered hands, macaroni necklaces and lopsided smiley-face drawings, consider this: While your mini Monet is creating these seemingly simple art projects, he is also working on developing his social and emotional skills. Preschool teachers know that art projects not only allow young tots to work on their fine motor skills and color and shape concepts, but also provide an invaluable tool when it comes to allowing young children to express themselves.
Most preschoolers love playing with colorful modeling dough and compounds because they can squish, pound and cut the stuff into just about any shape imaginable. However, there is another reason this malleable medium is a staple in most preschool classrooms. According to Kristin Henry, an early-childhood special-education teacher with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit in Greensburg, Penn., modeling compounds can help children improve their social skills. "While using these compounds, kids can talk to each other about what they are creating," she says. "They can use language to share their tools, and they can also help each other or give each other ideas." For example, as a way to make story time more interactive at home, you can read a story to your children -- or, if your child is on a playdate, your child and his friends -- and then, afterward, give them a can or two of compound and have them work together to create characters and objects from the story.
Ever wonder why tots like drawing on clean, freshly painted walls? Most likely, it's because, from a young child's perspective, those unblemished walls look like giant sheets of canvas. Preschool teachers often take advantage of this fascination by providing a less permanent, more washable art project: cooperative art, where children can all participate in painting or drawing a mural-esque scene on a giant sheet of paper. "Cooperative art allows the children to work together to make one large picture," says Henry. "For example, they could paint a picture of the zoo, the beach, or a playground. Each child can add his or her own ideas to be part of the group." This, in turn, fosters a child's socialization through communication and shared play. To adapt this popular preschool activity for home use, try hanging a giant sheet of butcher paper on one of your walls and then invite your kiddo and his brothers and sisters or friends to paint or draw away. Weather permitting, you could even allow kids to do this outside in the driveway with sidewalk chalk or washable paints.
One of the most effective ways to use art to enhance a child's emotional development is also one of the simplest: drawing. Even in its most basic form, the simple task of putting crayon to paper can allow a preschooler to communicate his emotions. "You can have preschoolers draw pictures of how they feel, and have them practice making happy and sad faces. You can also ask them what kinds of things make them feel different ways," says Henry. In addition, even though the artwork may seem primitive, the very act of drawing can stimulate a child's sense of self-esteem. "From an adult's perspective, encouraging and acknowledging the work that a child put into a project really helps with their sense of importance and self-confidence," she says. "An adult should ask a child to 'tell me about your picture' rather than ask, 'What is it?' Simply by adjusting the way you ask the question, you can build on a kid's social and emotional skills."
Sure, it can be messy, but dabbling with watercolors, tempera paints or washable inks -- especially at an easel -- can encourage a child to express his emotions. "Painting is a great way to allow kids to express themselves, and is often found to be calming and to help kids to relax," says Henry. "Whether kids are painting with a brush or finger paint, they can be free to use their imaginations, or not really think at all and put paint on the page." At preschool, children often paint at double- or four-sided easels, which promotes hand-eye coordination and spatial recognition and nurtures communication, since children will likely be talking about what they are painting as well as the techniques they're using ("I'm going to paint a TREE here!" or "I'm going to make a circle on this side of the page! What are you painting?") Overall, Henry says, "Art is a great way to improve a variety of developmental areas in preschool children. The variety and textures of materials helps with a child's ability to explore and helps them feel confident when they complete a project." Double-sided, child-sized art easels are easy to find in many toy stores, allowing you to easily duplicate this activity when your child is at home playing with his siblings or on a playdate.