A Closer Look at the Importance of Art for Your Child’s Emotional Development
04:00 | 01/12/2013


A Closer Look at the Importance of Art for Your Child’s Emotional Development


One day, Cecilia, a toddler in my Gymboree Arts class, wanted to paint with only the color black. She also made several large, brisk strokes with her brush and went through more paper than her peers. After class, her mother told me that Cecilia was very upset that morning about something. It became evident to both of us that Cecilia was expressing her anger through her artwork. In fact, it was just what Cecilia needed to relieve her emotions and get on with her day.


Children, as young as 18 months, begin to express “self-conscious emotions” that include complex feelings such as pride, embarrassment and shame. Regardless of age, we all need outlets for the emotions we feel. Many adults read or write to escape. Some exercise, go for a drive or talk with a loved one.


Young children are limited in how they can express their feelings. At the time they begin to show more complex emotions, they do not have the vocabulary to express them. Children primarily showcase feelings through facial expressions, gestures and movement or, as in Cecilia’s case, through painting.


Art experiences are important for your child’s emotional development. Not only is art a vehicle for emotional expression, children also discover how their actions make an impact on their surroundings.

The process of art provides a great channel for you to support your child’s emotional development especially when you experience art together.

Look What I Can Do


Being able to make an impact on your surroundings – and know it – is an important step toward building confidence and independence. Confidence and independence contributes to a healthy self-esteem later in life and the ability to make better decisions.


Stanford University Art Professor, Elliot Eisner, has identified several benefits children gain from art. The first is the realization that one’s actions create consequences. He states, “The first thing that very young children learn is something that we often take for granted... they can, in fact, create images with material and that the activity of making such images can provide intrinsic forms of satisfaction.”


Repeated experiences with the same art materials reap new skills. Using a paintbrush to apply paint in a new way or rolling a ball out of dough for the first time is only achieved through experience with simple and familiar art materials. The more your child freely explores with crayons, paint, and dough, the more competent he will be.
It is also important that you praise his processes, not the end products – say, “I like how you move your paint brush” instead of “you made a nice picture.” This, in turn, will support developing competence.


Art activities should also include several materials of the same type. For example, provide plenty of paper and multiple colors of crayons for your child to choose under your supervision. Active children may need to switch out colors often and use a lot of paper. Your flexibility will support your child’s need to discover the outcomes of her actions. The more materials provided during art activities for toddlers, the better the experience for expression.


Saving your child’s art and posting it up – not just on the refrigerator, but in frames and other important places – will indirectly communicate that you value his art creations. Using the work to decorate cards or gifts will communicate this message, too. These simple actions on your part will reiterate the importance of your child’s ideas and contributions.


There’s Meaning in Mess


Let your child explore with paint. It sounds easy enough, but for many parents, it’s hard to let go and allow for mess. The mess factor involved when young children create is important and can reveal a lot. Messes can teach parents about children’s emotions and can be used as a bridge for communication.


Often times, the mess children make results from their excitement as they engross themselves in the art activity. It’s also possible that mess making is an indirect sign of frustration or unhappiness. By allowing your child to freely explore art and observing the methods she uses in the process, you can gain useful information for opening the doors to communication. Comment on how she applies the paint or on the pace at which she colors, and expand on her reactions – and eventually her words.


You can minimize the “mess stress” you feel by ensuring your child has plenty of room to move. Cover work areas with newspaper and make available wipes or towels. Provide child-appropriate utensils like chunky paintbrushes, shallow paint containers and large sheets of paper that support your child’s physical capabilities. There are also “ready for mess” art programs you can enroll in, like the Gymboree Arts program, that provide a developmentally appropriate place for you and your child to explore art together.


Sharing in Art


Children aren’t the only “players” in the game of education. They get more out of art experiences when interacting with others. You can expand on your child’s ideas and introduce new tools when it’s time for more challenges. By engaging in child-parent art programs, you add an important layer of learning to your child’s education.


Not only is the learning experience enhanced when children and adults solve problems together, it is also enriched when children are actively engaged with each other. Many children need to observe each other first before feeling comfortable enough to try a new art process. It can be difficult at first when your toddler begins to express his newfound independence, especially in a group setting with peers. However, it is the group setting that allows opportunity for your child to “socialize.”


Art activities provide tangible tools for expression. Toddlers enjoy expressing their independence and use objects to do so when in the presence of others. For example, when coloring, the process of holding onto a crayon as a personal possession is just as enjoyable as discovering what it can do. Rest assured that even if your toddler decides to hold onto a crayon instead of coloring with it, he is satisfying an emotional need and learning something through observation.


Learning to leverage independence around adults and eventually collaborate with peers is critical for toddlers. Art provides a perfect arena to build skills needed for social competence. Plan opportunities for you and your child to create with others and make sure there are plenty of supplies to go around.


Whether it’s your child’s need for expression to discover the magnitude her actions make, or to exert independence with the materials she selects, art experiences influence a child’s emotional development in a unique and valuable way. In the words of Elliot Eisner, “Art is, ultimately, not for art’s sake; it is for the sake of all of us.”

By Vanessa Gallo
Gymboree Play & Music Program Developer and Trainer


Vanessa Gallo, Program Developer for Gymboree Play & Music, holds an M.A. in Developmental Psychology. In addition to her role at Gymboree Play & Music, Vanessa serves as a guest lecturer at San Francisco State University and has recently published a piece in The Macmillan Psychology Reference Series: Child Development. As program developer, Vanessa led the development of Gymboree Arts, in addition to other curriculum.

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