Problem solving through art.

by Alenka

Art? Problem solving?

Yes. Exactly. Art is one of the activities that kids can engage in very early. Self-expression through art can help vent some accumulated negative feelings. But according to Susan Striker, the author of Young at Art doing the RIGHT art project can do a lot more: it can serve as gateways to all forms of learning, from vocabulary building to early math skills and improved dexterity. Not the traditional coloring books or “this is how your art project should look like” type of work, but truly expressive, creative and educational.

The book explains in detail how children acquire small motor skills and how art can improve it, how it can influence all the other learning areas – reading, writing, math. What is different about her approach, is the position that a parent should play in it: not the “let me show you how to do a face” or “it looks like a ducky”, but instead – describing the actual work that the child does, letting the child experiment freely, use his imagination to interpret the results. Striker stresses how important to respect every work the child does as is – not to cut scribble into recognizable shapes, not to sign every part of the painting, not to through out.1a4

I found the book so useful, that I created a summary of some of the things discussed, that I’ll gladly share with anyone interested: Young at Art, by Susan Striker, The summary and useful guidelines. I was working on my summary only until I’ve reached to the actual lesson plans, art project and technique descriptions – they are all so nicely summarized at the appendixes of the chapters, that there simply no need for me to do it. You will see some of the examples below.

One of the things that I like the most, is the systematic approach of the book. It examines every art medium in detail: drawing, painting, printing, paper, sculpture, exploring color, exploring shapes and art concepts. The author urges to introduce colors gradually: black, then white, then red, etc. I’ve tried it with my son: introducing just one tool, just one color at a time allows him to take every tool through a longer cycle of experiments, discover more uses for it, work more on his technique, as opposed to flipping every possible color crayon one by one. Also, Striker recommends to attend this color in all areas of life: the book is full of songs, books, even food recommendations for each of the colors, or combinations of colors.

Another incredibly useful feature: list of supplies and suppliers, and charts on how every color/concept/shape can be introduced. I love these charts so much, I find them so helpful, that I’ll give an example of one of them below:
Black and White (both colors introduced separately, but in the chart it is easier to see them side by side).

Individual Colors: Black White
Concept Recognizing and naming colors
Recognizing and naming colors
Materials White paper
multicolor finger paint paperblack paint
black crayon
white round and rectangular stickers
Paper towels and soapy water for hands
Black paper
Black chalkboard
White chalk
Wooden stylus
white sheet
cotton balls
white glue
white Model Magic
Book Ben’s Trumpet, Rachel Isadora Animals in Black and White Phyllis Libacher Tildes
Snack Raisins and black string licorice marshmallows
Song “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “Black” “I spy white”
Games Cover pointer fingers with black and white finger puppets and recite with appropriate hand movement: “Two little black and white birds sitting on the hill. One named Jack and the other named Jill. Fly away Jack, fly away Jill. Come back Jack, come back Jill. Two little black and white birds sitting on the hill. One named Jack and the other named Jill.” Dress up like a ghost and try to scare each other
Drawing Draw with black crayon on white paper
Draw with a stick on charcoal on white paper
Draw with a chalk on blackboard or black paper
Use a wooden stylus to scratch picture into scratchboard
Painting Finger paint on multicolor finger paint paper with black finger paint Paint with white tempera paint on black paper. Use white-handled stubby brush
Collage Read Ben’s Trumpet and do a sticker collage using both round and rectangular white stickers on black paper
Do a collage with black and white newspaper scraps
Dip cotton balls in white glue and stick them on black cardboard
Sculpture Experiment with black play dough Experiment with white Model Magic
Build a sculpture out of white Styrofoam. Each piece can be glued or connected with toothpick.

To compliment these lists, I also wanted to show my little one the masterpieces of some famous artists, who experimented with the same colors, techniques, tools. I started creating presentations of such works for the colors that we are going through: you can find them in How to teach Encyclopedic Knowledge – Art: Colors and Concepts

I’ve ordered tons of new supplies: some of them are really straightforward – the crayons, paints, types of glues and scissors that are recommended by Striker really seem to work much better then many that we had before. Some of the supplies are totally new to me: multicolored finger paint paper, scratch board, multicolored crayons, some types of paint, stamps, tape, etc. When we start a new color, we start a box where we BOTH find and place objects of that color, that can be used for a collage – for white our box was overfilled with ribbons, tissue paper, feathers, cotton balls, paper towels, bottle caps, even white disposable spoons and toothpicks. We created an “art studio” inside my son’s room – a large cabinet full of those supplies. Such things as paints and stamps, glues – we do together. Crayons, chalk, charcoal, even play dough are available to him all the time. Having everything neatly and nicely organized, my son (he just turned three, but I wish I discovered this book before he was even one!) is surprising me every time in how good he is in taking care of his tools, nicely putting everything back on its place once he is done, cleaning up. His favorite project so far – cutting and pasting painter’s tape. He can spend hours with it and I can really see how not only it improves his coordination – it is not easy to handle sticky tape! – but actually works for his problem solving skills and self-confidence: he constantly needs to decide, weather to cut something longer or shorter, how to position it on the paper (I am opening my mouth just to encourage and to describe the results, NEVER with suggestions), how to deal with extra pieces… and in the end he is so proud of himself! It really works as his confidence boost!

As for emotional vent – we have a personal story for that as well. When my son was around two, he was throwing a huge tantrum, since I didn’t allow him to use the scissors to cut my tablecloth. I spent already about 10-15 minutes reflecting his emotions back to him with comments such as “I can see how upset you are! You are MAD! You really wanted to cut that tablecloth!”, but my tried and true just admitting his feelings didn’t help all that much this time – he was really frustrated. So I handed him the crayon and suggested to draw, HOW upset he is. I was expecting ripped paper, broken crayon, huge zigzags and a scribble version of atomic bomb explosion on paper. Instead, my son grabbed the crayon and drew three little (quite perfect!) circles. “Is THIS how mad you are?” – I was puzzled. “Yes. This is how mad I am. And like this,” – and he drew another little perfect circle. Then he put it back on his drawing board, and ran off to play, as if this huge tantrum never took place! I was in shock. He surely did find a funny way to express himself, but it surely worked!!! Magic power of art!

Back to the book: one of the fascinating things about it – is the section on how to characterize your children’s work. I’ve read it somewhere before – trying to attach our adult expectations to kids pictures (“it is pretty!”, “it is beautiful!”, “it looks like a kitty-cat!”, “it is just like a letter M!”) just frustrates kids. These types of compliments actually direct kids on search of further similarly useless praise, while art doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be beautiful, and it definitely doesn’t have to look like a kitty! Instead, the book provides wonderful collection of useful comments that can inspire children for further experimentations. I’ve included some guidelines and even some of them in the summary (I printed this summary out for myself and keep it next to my son’s art table, so that I can always use it as a reference, when I am stumped on how to compliment a bunch of scribble and torn paper).

Other resources related to the subject:

So, good luck on learning, drawing, painting, cutting and pasting!


  1. Kristina

    Thank you for this nice summary of the book. When I looked on I just got a lot of generalized comments that weren’t really useful. I knew lots of parents have recommended this book and your description helps me understand why. I think I will order the book. Thank you!

  2. Dora

    This is very interesting, thank you !!!

    I think that I should stop reading your articles…
    they are so over stimulating… ;-)

    I’m working on my german flash-cards and trying to introduce English and French so I’m quind of busy but art looks great in combination to math and music…

  3. Alenka Post author

    That’s true – there is so much that you can do for your kids!!! The only issue – is time. Unfortunately, there is never enough time for EVERYTHING…

    Having so many wonderful things available for our kids can be overwhelming. Since the birth of my second baby, I started feeling frustrated that we are no longer able to do as much as we used to. It would make me so upset, that I was forgetting the golden rule: learning is fun, stop before your baby wants to stop! I was becoming more pushy, my son started resisting our sessions, so we were doing even less…

    So, to avoid the frustration of not being able to offer my kids absolutely EVERYTHING, I recently adopted a different strategy: every day I praise myself for things that we actually were able to do, instead of worrying about things we didn’t. Even if it means skipping math for the second week in a raw, or doing one set of presentations instead of 3 – I feel so thrilled I was able to do SOMETHING! I look at it as an accomplishment. So I get this great feeling that we actually did SOMETHING (as opposed to nothing). This makes all of us so happy, that it gives us strength and energy to squeeze in some more…