Why Elementary Students Need Amazing Art Education

a fifth grade student analyzing Edward Hopper paintings for composition tricks using the rule of thirds grid

“I’m not good at art.” “I can’t draw.” “I never took art classes in high school.”

Sound familiar? These statements are incredibly frequent during my conversations at parent/teacher conferences, and even among my peers. Why, among adults, is a talent in visual arts so black and white?  To answer this you have to start at the very beginning.

When we had our first art classes, the vast majority of students (myself included) enjoyed the free-experimentation of basic “kid-friendly” art materials like tempera paint, safety scissors, crayons, Elmer’s glue and construction paper. Depending on the art teacher leading the class, the students were either encouraged to create and use their imagination, strictly observe, or create seasonal crafts.  Many of these activities lasted right on through from kindergarten to sixth grade.

In middle school, everything changes, and a more formal art curriculum is taught, focused on pencils, ceramics, acrylic or even oil paint.  Observational techniques and tips such as modeling with shading, atmospheric, one and two-point perspective, portraiture and figure drawing are introduced. The problem is that at this point, only students who make room in their schedule will receive this seemingly secret wisdom of the ages. Art is now merely elective in the student’s education.

In high school, the divide is even more vast, where in my experience, the students taking art classes are most likely planning to major in art or art education in college, taking courses like AP Art, and studio credits.  Students now imbue their work with meaning, go on trips to local museums, talk about the cultural context of masterpieces, delve into defining what art is, and debate the legitimacy of groundbreaking new pieces.

Why are these essential activities reserved for only for those students who have chosen art as their career? Why are these skills introduced only after ten years of “experimenting”?  It is after this period of time that the majority of students plateau in their artistic skills when they choose not to continue in middle or high school.

How can an adult understand how to draw a self-portrait, if they have never learned the basic proportions of the face, and how to draw the facial features using simple geometric forms? How can they hope to create a non-objective sculpture that expresses joy if they have never previously stretched that muscle?

a kindergarten critique after a study of Piet Mondrian

Students as early as five years old can understand the importance of an art critique.  They can judge whether a thing may or may not be “art.”  They can understand the concepts of the horizon line and cast shadows.  They can study anatomy and translate the workings of the human form into detailed drawings.  They can speak extensively about the meaning they gather from their own work and the work of their peers.

At this critical time of development we need to teach elementary students what art can be in all of its confusing, inspiring, and complicated glory.  Any concept that might be taught in high school or university can be presented in such a way that a first grader might gain basic understanding, and that a fifth or sixth grade student can devour completely.