Process Over Product: The Importance of “Open-ended” Art in Child Development

Process Over Product: The Importance of “Open-ended” Art in Child Development

Have you noticed when referencing children’s art we have come to conflate the terms art and crafts?  And, a better question might be:  does it even matter? If art is to impact children both creatively and developmentally, then, the answer is a resounding YES.  Though the terms are used interchangeably to describe artistic activities for children, the two actually have important fundamental differences in learning implications and outcomes, namely:  self-expression versus imitation.


Arts or Crafts:  The Difference Between Process and Product

Crafts traditionally were defined as a skill or trade.  Nowadays, we refer to crafts as almost anything that a child makes.  There are craft activities at school, summer camps, church or synagogue, extended care, and day care. Crafts are good for kids; they serve a purpose in reinforcing other academic subjects or themes; however, we should not confuse them for art.  Art is important to a child’s emotional and cognitive development; it fuels creativity and independent thinking.  Crafts do not facilitate creativity in the same way.

Making crafts is typically not about creativity, but about “imitating” what an adult has made. There is no original thinking involved.  Children follow directions hoping for a finished product that is as close to the original as possible.  With crafts, there is a known and expected outcome: it is product over process.  And, let’s face it, a well-executed craft product reflects positively upon the teacher or adult in charge.  Some may see this as a reflection of good teaching, but the opposite is true:  a child learns more through discovery while creating art than he does by merely “copying” (even if he does a really great job of doing so).

Art, on the other hand, is about exploration and discovery with very basic techniques that “guide” the process. Value is placed on process, not product. With art, the emphasis is on originality and freethinking, not imitation.  Art has an unknown outcome: process over product.  It encourages children to express themselves as they see fit.  Art encourages the imagination and more fully engages the senses. In fact, the concept of a finished product may only be the purview of the adult observer.


Why Terms Matter:  Language Shapes Perspective

Do a quick Pinterest search for “Children’s Art “ and you will find a few pages dedicated to exploration within an artistic medium.  The majority of the pins you will see will be (as defined above) crafts:  adult-lead, adult-conceived.  Per chance, you didn’t see any ideas that inspired?  You might consider rewording your search query to “Children’s Art Projects”.  The results are vast and spectacular, but there again is the problem:  projects.  The very word suggests something that is planned or devised, with a specific outcome; this is product over process.  An outcome that requires adult inspiration, supervision, and guidance, while worthwhile, is another misstep towards the intended role of artistic participation:  child-directed, child-inspired.  Art develops a child’s creativity.

Parents may be acquainted with the term the Flynn Effect.  The Flynn Effect is the substantial increase in average scores on intelligence tests all over the world since 1930: each generation scores higher than the previous.  While this is good news on the cognitive front, scores in creativity have actually decreased since the 1990’s. Our overzealous efforts to “plan”, “organize” and “orchestrate” enrichment art activities in terms of projects for our children may, in fact, be robbing them of the very gift we hope to bestow: the ability to freely and openly express themselves.


What Parents Can Do

Know the difference between arts (self-expression) and crafts (imitation).

Value both experiences for what they provide your child. Be clear on the differences:  Art is creative, unique and original.  It comes from “within” the child with open-ended and unknown results.  Process is valued over finished product.  The desired outcome is self- expression.  Crafts are similar or identical to other children’s.  It is directed by an adult with closed directions and known results.  The finished product is valued over process.  The desired outcome is duplication and imitation.


Avoid Creativity Killers

Forget about Perfection or Talent; Do Not Set the Bar Too High

Creativity flourishes when it is pursued for its own enjoyment.  It is important to separate talent from creativity.  A child can gain a meaningful artistic experience without creating a modern masterpiece! Put aside any inclination to spot or harness “skill” as your child explores. Also, forget about “getting it right”. The ability to make mistakes, express themselves, and take risks are the priorities.


Refrain from Reward, Speculation, and Praise

Research has shown that rewards inhibit a child’s attempt at exploration.  Rewards eliminate the intrinsic pleasure of “creating”, turning it into a “outcome”-based activity. Do not assign meaning to the work. This robs the child of the opportunity to judge and evaluate his own work.  Comments such as “What a beautiful sky!” should be reworded to “What an unusual combinations of blue you have chosen”.  While, it may seem trivial in practice, it allows the child tune into their imaginations, versus fitting into a constructed adult paradigm.  Be curious, but do not judge.  Also, do not praise.  We all have fallen prey to the “Good job!” response:  when in doubt, ask questions! “What might be the title of your picture?”, “How did you discover that shade of green?” or “Tell me more about…” are all questions which will encourage dialog and enhance developmental aspects of the activity.


Refrain from Micromanaging or Shadowing

Clearly, this is an area where the difference between arts and crafts is obvious.  Sitting by a child, guiding their outcomes, and fine-tuning their movements are detrimental to creativity. Unwanted advice or commentary detracts from the experience and destroys a child’s ability to work deeply within his “creative zone”.

Art is developmentally good for kids.  Freely creating art supports the expression of complex emotions.  Creating and talking about art allows a child to talk about feelings in meaningful ways.  Child-directed art fuels creativity.  Remembering process over product and free expression over imitation when seeking out opportunities will enhance the developmental and creative growth of your child.

The Growing Room Academy is pleased to offer creative art classes for children of all ages at our beautiful new facility in San Ramon at 23440 San Ramon Valley Blvd.   For more information please call 925-82-5808 or visit us on the web at