Are “Guided” Art Projects OK?

Art vs. Craft in the classroom

Yesterday I posted about arts integration, and how it is a pedagogical journey. One of the issues raised was the role of “guided” art projects in the classroom.

The question at hand: Is it OK to assign the kids a subject and give them step by step directions?

In my previous post the answer was yes, but I noted that not all guided projects are created equal. I see them falling along a continuum. At one end, you have something like this:

turkey craft

photo credit: MikeOliveri via photopin cc








These turkeys are actually a craft rather than an art project.

Hang on- what’s a craft? Art guru and early childhood expert, Maryann Kohl, has written a wonderful article on the difference between art and craft projects.  She says that an art experience will be open-ended without an expected outcome, be creative and unique, and the ideas for the project will come from within the child.

A craft project, on the other hand, has an expected outcome, is directed and led by an adult, and often includes a component of “copying” or mimicry.

Overall I agree with her definitions. I love to see children getting lots of creative time exploring and “playing” with art materials to express themselves. (Especially during the early childhood years!) However, I think there is a HUGE middle ground between the two end points of pure art and pure craft where most arts integration lessons exist.

For example- what about this project?

Spider Art Project I posted this spider art project last year. It is an art-integrated lesson based on a beautiful book of poetry about nocturnal animals. Imagine my delight when I walked into a local school and saw that a 5th grade teacher had done the project with her students! Aren’t they beautiful? I was so thrilled!

Is this art or craft? It’s somewhere in the middle! Students were assigned the topic and guided through the steps. However, they were also taught how to use oil pastels and watercolor techniques and were encouraged to make their spider paintings unique. Each piece has the student’s “artistic thumbprint” on it. They are authentic.

I see elements from both of the art and craft definitions in this project and I think it’s a great fit for the “regular” classroom.

So, back to the turkeys up top. What’s wrong with them? In one sense, nothing! I believe that step by step crafts are OK in moderation and are sometimes appropriate depending on the teacher’s goals and objectives. However, if that’s all we do, we deprive our students of the chance to really exercise their minds and their creative juices.

What if instead of making turkeys from cut outs and templates that truly all look the same, you did something a little more like this one:

turkey art This is a project from Mary Making (art teacher blog.) The process is still guided, but the children are getting to exercise a little more “creative muscle.” Notice that they drew their own turkeys and painted them with colorful tempera, often mixing the colors.

Is it “pure” art? No, but it’s further along the continuum.

Let’s not get hung up on labeling projects as “art” or “craft.” The key is to focus on your goals and learning objectives for your students, choose the most engaging lessons possible, and honor student creativity as much as you can. For a classroom teacher who has a tremendous amount of content to teach, giving children lots of time for “open-ended” art often isn’t practical.

However, filling the school year with step-by-step crafts that lack authentic student personality or originality isn’t ideal either.

In my perfect world, students would be exposed to a wide variety of art materials and techniques within the context of “guided” projects that integrate well with academic content. Then, at various points throughout the year, they would be given the opportunity to do something completely creative without much adult direction. Let them put those artistic skills to work and see what they can do! i.e.- Boys and girls, the art shelves are open! I want you to use everything you have learned so far about making art this year to create an image you might want to write about. It can be anything you like- a drawing, painting, collage, etc. You can make more than one if you have time and choose the one that inspires your writing the most. Remember our rules for using the art materials and stay on task.

Is that “doable” a few times per year? I think so!

Like I said yesterday, I don’t think there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to teach art. Just be intentional in your teaching.  Think about the kinds of art experiences you provide for your students and ask yourself:

1- Am I teaching them something valuable to know about Art?

2- Is the project authentic? Does the product bear the child’s “creative thumbprint?”

3- Am I encouraging my students to take artistic risks and be creative and original in their art-making?

If the answers are yes, then you are on the right track! If not, see where you can make an adjustment that continues to honor your curriculum while also honoring your children as creative individuals.

For more on this subject, see Patty Palmer’s post about open ended art projects. The comment thread attached to that post is very interesting too!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Post them in the comments below.

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  1. I LOVE this article. Last year my biggest struggle was the difference between arts and crafts. I think others view arts integration as EASY but in fact it is NOT. It takes time, dedication, and guidance. I enjoyed reading Patty’s response to “cookie-cutter.” This was such an inspirational post just as your post earlier this week! THANKS : )

  2. Monte Jacques says:

    I have so loved reading your last two post. In fact, I have been struggling with these same kinds of questions this year. As much as I love for my kindergarten students to make, create, and loose themselves in being creative, I have found myself “guiding” them more the last couple of years and have been a little worried about possibly loosing the authentic aspect of their work. I have told myself that when it comes to helping build as much confidence in themselves as creators, they need some guidance. I think it’s the same way I guide them in learning how to be a reader or how to do math or how to put their words down in the most creative way when they are writing. I would never just allow these eager learners to learn these type of skills on their own and then just sit back and see if they are doing their best possible and where their progress will lead them next. I’m not an art teacher and I have to admit that I have to work hard at “teaching” many techniques however, I can so appreciate my students’ creative side (and many times they are well above mine), so I try to step out and do it. I totally agree with you that as long as I see the personalities and uniqueness of my students in their work, however guided, I can love their “authentic” creations. BTW: Creative Station, stocked with all the stuff one can imagine, is one of my students favorite centers ever. I don’t know what their Moms and Dads do with all the work they proudly take home however, I hope they cherish it dearly!

    • Thanks Monte! Love your comment! And I have seen your student work and it is always so authentic and full of creativity. I think you are a great example for other teachers of finding a happy medium. :-)

  3. I enjoyed your article as I am very interested in this discussion about art and craft. I am an elementary art teacher and I do believe in guided art projects. I don’t generally do what is considered to be “crafts” in my classroom because I am trying to give my students experience with authentic art media and techniques. I have been teaching through the Elements of Art and then we do projects that are related to the particular element we’ve been studying. With each project I am trying to teach them about real art skills that they can use on their own to be creative. So many of my students come back each week and tell me what they did at home with the new drawing skill or new understanding of color that they learned through a guided project we did in the classroom. I agree that teaching art is very similar to teaching a student how to write. They must learn the “mechanics” of writing and build up their vocabulary and then their creativity can flow through those vehicles. If a student wants to draw something they have in their minds they will only be frustrated if they are never given instruction on how to draw. Often, if children are given license to use materials to create without ever being given good instruction on how to use them properly, AND if they are given no bounds I have found that they will often express an inability to make up their minds about what they will do or how they will do it.
    So I guess I would sum up what I’m thinking by saying that I think guided projects where the students are being taught authentic artistic techniques and improving their motor skills have great value in aiding children in expressing their thoughts and ideas in creative ways.

    • Rosanne, Thanks so much for your comment! I agree with you 100%- I think it is so important to TEACH children artistic elements and skills. I was one of those kids who needed a lot of teaching and modeling before I felt confident enough to do my own thing artistically. Best wishes in your teaching!

  4. Susan,
    The recurrent thought that runs through my mind in this debate says stop and think about other forms of creative art. Dance, music, theater. We would never have children choreograph their own piece or write their own sheet music before years and years of experience with it. Why in the world would visual art be any different? (That is not to say free exploration with art materials isn’t amazing and I firmly believe choice is still a vital component in guided teaching across the board.)

    • Great point Tara! It’s an interesting thought. I suppose the comparison in the early years would be that “theater” or “dance” really happen in the context of pretending and creative play. Music is a little trickier- but then it’s different too because music has such a structure to it. Although young children also “explore” musical concepts all the time through singing, experimenting with sound and pitch, etc. I guess the trick is to balance the opportunity for creative expression with some solid teaching! (Something I believe the LHP teachers do quite well!)

  5. Jen Matott says:

    I am an elementary art educator and hold National Board Certification as well. While I agree with your article, I feel it can be important to guide students in techniques and use of materials with structured art lessons. Student do not know art techniques on their own and do not have experience with art mediums unless someone trained in the arts teaches them… once they have some foundation tools, they may create authentic art. Most of elementary school is spent (if there is even a certified art educator employed in the school) exploring materials with guidance and making “art” pieces through gathering of knowledge through instruction. Otherwise, they tend to do what they are comfortable with and doing the same drawing over and over without being pushed to go beyond their comfort zone. That is all well and good but if there is no trained art educator to know when I student is capable of more and knowing the way to introduce and encourage them to try new materials, well we are at a stand still. Art is more than just making pretty, authentic artwork. It’s problem solving, technique, history, thinking outside the norm, and getting messy! It’s about learning from mistakes and creating work that is beyond what we thought we could do. I love that your teacher’s integrate art into their lessons but I hope it’s not because there is no certified art teacher with a scheduled art class present.

    • Jen- Thanks for your comment. You make some great points. The teachers I know do have art teachers in their schools. They are seeking to learn techniques for integration in order to make their academic instruction more engaging and meaningful to their students. I love what you said, “it’s about creating work that is beyond what we thought we could do.” I think that is definitely one of the values of arts integrated teaching; it often helps us see children’s abilities in a new light!

  6. I agree, the number one thing is to decide what is it I want my kids to learn with this activity and then the next thing is to find a balance between teaching technique and creativity. As a practicing artist as well as a teacher I know that creativity is not just about doing whatever you want but rather finding creative and unique solutions and answers within limitations. So actually even for a specialist art teacher , especially on a primary setting, somewhere in between is perfect.
    Plus sometimes kids really enjoy doing the ‘crafty’ stuff and if it fits with your outcomes why not?

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