As an early childhood educator, I understand how to use the windows of opportunity that young children are given to acquire a skill to foster important learning and growth. The trick is facilitating this learning and essential development in an as entertaining style as possible.
Promoting literacy is a substantial part of the early childhood educator’s role in the classroom. When the children are 3, 4, and 5-years-old simply hanging up posters on the wall and handing out writing assignments isn’t going to cut it. You have to get creative. There are many ways to do create a literacy-rich environment both in the classroom and at home. One way to do this is by having literacy-rich activities in a variety of areas that you might not automatically connect with literacy.
Art is one way I bring more literacy-rich activities to my students. Many think of art as just playing around with paint or maybe you even recognize the value of a young child using drawing as an introduction to writing. Arts in the early years, if done purposefully, can be a surplus of literary experiences for the child. For instance, a child will pick up a crayon to scribble with long before he/she picks up a pencil to write. These scribbles are not just random marks on a paper. The young child is exploring cause and effect, is working on their fine motor skills (the muscles that help them to hold increasingly more delicate/complex objects and control them accurately), and they are working on their hand-eye coordination.
Some of the ways I make art a purposeful activity in my classroom are by using storybooks as a jumping-off point. The more a young child is read to the quicker this same child will learn to read on his own. I read to my students at least once or twice a day. The stories I select go with a particular theme or study that we are working on in class, based off of the children’s interests, whether that interest is farm animals, winter weather, or the circus. I choose books that go along with the theme/unit of study and read them to the classroom. From there, I can easily choose a particular aspect of the book to extend into an art activity or project.
For example, if the children are currently interested in how things grow (which usually pops up in the spring), I can read a book such as Planting a Rainbow or Growing Vegetable Soup, each by Lois Ehlert. Say I use Planting a Rainbow, I can then extend this into an art activity by having the children use a variety of art materials to create tiny masterpieces that are integrated into the book that we just read together. They may use colorful paints to paint a blooming flower garden. They may use collage materials and figure out what they can use that looks like a seed, leaves, a stem, and then the blossom. They may use colored pencils and try to re-create the life cycle of a flower from seed to blossom. They may use clay to design a 3-D flower garden for the classroom. There is a section in the classroom that we set up this year that children may place any piece they are working on and want to come back to finish another day.
So, what are the children learning by doing this? They are learning there is a connection between books and art, and not only books and art but also books and real life. Asking open-ended questions about their art projects helps children to discover their own connections between what they read and what they are creating. Placing the book in the book center later also gives children more opportunities to practice their early reading skills. Making up a story based on the illustrations is a first step in early reading. They will begin to make connections between the gardens they see at home and in their neighborhood and parks with the garden in the book. They will then begin making art projects of their own based on all of these gardens. Encouraging them to use a variety of art materials to make these gardens will strengthen their cognitive skills as they problem-solve how to do it. Helping children to label their drawings also adds an element of literacy experience as they recognize that letters and words have specific meanings.
I have had experiences with children who even gave us new ideas on what direction to take the unit of study through what they had built and drawn in art. One child a few years ago painted a flower and fruit garden combination and we knew he was interested in knowing how other things grew now.
The connection between art and literacy is a strong one. Allowing children to make connections through the use of art keeps them interested and engaged. When they read a book they will be looking for more and more details both in the pictures and in the words of the story.