COLUMBIA — Jordan Sanner wasn’t satisfied. “I have to remake my lips,” the 9-year-old said, as he scraped clay off the clump before him. “I’m trying to make my face.”
Welcome to the world of a child’s art, which taps into some of our earliest moments of self-discovery.
Jordan and his fourth-grade classmates at Rock Bridge Elementary School were in art class Tuesday, assigned to make clay reliefs of their faces. The flat slabs of clay were already formed in face-like ovals, and the children were adding lips, noses, eyes and hair. Some of them were using mirrors.
“It’s fun because we get to use the clay,” said Joseph Sutton, “and we get to make how we look.”
Their teacher, Kathy Dwyer, took in the scene with pleasure — although riding herd on 20-some kids playing with clay is not for the timid. Dwyer is on a mission to inspire her students as she was inspired in childhood. An art teacher since 1993, she recalled that when she was growing up, art was the thing she did best, and it moved her to become an art teacher.
“I wanted to share it with children,” she said. “When we start something new, it’s, ‘I can’t.’ I love getting them to the, ‘I can.’”
Dwyer has found that children get some inspiration for art projects from what they see on television. “That’s why what art teachers do is important: to help them see beyond what they see every day but also to incorporate their everyday life,” she said.
Dwyer has seen a passion for art spark in children of all ages. It can start as early as kindergarten, although she has observed that third grade is the year students make what she called a “true decision” for art.
“It depends on how early they have access to the materials,” she said.
And the older they get, the more their passion shows. In Dwyer’s fifth-grade class, faced with the assignment of making dream catchers Tuesday, students were turning to their classmate Satey Yates for help, because she seemed comfortable in what she was doing.
“I like to draw because I like to express my feelings on paper, and I like to draw what I dream about,” Satey said. “It’s sort of a hobby I have.”
Shawn Christ, an assistant professor in the psychological sciences department at MU, who mostly studies cognitive abilities in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, said creativity arises from an interplay between brain development and childhood experiences.
“There are critical periods during which exposure to certain aspects in the environment are very important to development,” Christ said.
Dwyer has observed that a child’s mind goes from focusing on self to focusing on school environment and development of a social life. Eventually, the mind matures to include the wider community. A child has so many new aspects of the world to focus on, they can sometimes miss simple observations — like how the sky meets the horizon.
Dwyer spends her class time helping her students see simple details, like how a leaf has lines and how the blue of the sky connects with the green of the ground. It’s all about helping them notice their surroundings, she said.
“Many draw, for example, a Bratz doll because that’s what they see on TV — and yet they still draw the sky not touching the ground,” she said.
Most children in elementary school draw what they see every day: people, animals, flowers and houses, along with race cars, superheroes and seasonal favorites like pumpkins.
Tamisha Rhodes, a fifth-grader in Dwyer’s class, said her “favorite kind of art is when I draw people, and people that I see in movies.”
Fourth-grader Ally Hill said nothing in particular inspires her. “I just kind of make it up,” Ally said. “Imagination.”
Michelle Garcia, an art teacher at Fairview Elementary School, has taught art for nine years. Inspired by her outstanding art teachers growing up, she decided in high school that she would someday be one herself.
Garcia thinks children can come from different backgrounds and still be successful in art. Art helps them develop self-esteem and gives them all something they can be proud of.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “If you put out paint brushes and paint, every child lights up.”
All young children, no matter where they are, start similarly in art and branch out, she said. Children’s art is similar across lines of culture. They begin by drawing what they see, like trees and people, and put those visual symbols down on paper.
Art gives children an escape from the real world, Garcia said. They might struggle in math or reading but not struggle in art; it breaches achievement gaps, she said. But if it’s not introduced at an early age, she added, children are not as likely to jump right in.
Dwyer spent most of her class near the back of the room helping groups of fifth-grade students as they worked on their dream catchers. Many were having trouble remembering how to construct it, which they had learned a week earlier, or were simply having trouble with the construction. The number of children in the back of the room showed creating something artistic isn’t always straightforward.
“I think that art helps people learn to trust themselves,” Dwyer said. “In art, mistakes are not failures; creativity turns it around, makes it better and gives the ability to go beyond mistakes.”
Art is a way for children to discover, use tools and express themselves, she said. It’s there before they learn language, before their ability to write and spell, and it makes them aware of the world around them.
But then again, maybe the secrets to children’s art is as basic as their liking it. “I love art,” said Rock Bridge kindergartener Eric Fincham, “because I like it.”