Why process art is important

Art can play an important role in children’s learning. For example, it can encourage children to experience the world in new and divergent ways. Art can also allow children to explore and express feelings, ideas and dispositions that cannot be communicated through words and numbers. However, not all children’s art activities are the same.

You may have heard about ‘Product’ and ‘Process’ art already. In this post, I talk about what these terms mean and how they can both be useful in supporting children’s creativity.

What is Product Art?

Product Art is structured and focused activities that aim to produce a particular outcome. For example, ‘create a rocket from recycled cardboard’ or ‘make a snail out of clay.’ These activities often use specific instructions, techniques and materials to make a specific creation.

How is Product Art useful and restrictive?

Product Art activities can be useful in helping children to learn new art techniques or how to use specific art tools. By learning new skills through structured learning experiences, these activities may boost children’s confidence in creating art and help them to think ‘I can do this.’

A limitation of Product Art is that it may restrict children’s experimentation and creativity if the activity is too focused on making one a specific outcome. For example, if a whole glass of first graders draws a self-portrait using step-by-step instructions given by a teacher, this activity limits children’s opportunity for divergent learning and self-expression. The image below shows an example such a product-driven drawing activity.

Produce vs Process Art
Image credit: “Self-portrait Tiles” by JasonTromm is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

What is Process Art?

Process Art is often talked about as being the opposite of Product Art. In this approach, there is a strong focus on children’s experience and experimentation in an activity, instead of them making a particular artistic creation. In Process Art activities there is often little, or no formal instruction. The idea behind this is to encourage children to explore materials, tools and ideas freely without adult intervention. 

An educator or parent may carefully select and prepare the materials, tools and their spatial arrangement however once the children start playing in the activity, the adult may have quite a passive role. There is a strong focus on creative processes and children’s methods, as opposed to a focus on producing a final artwork.  

An example of a Process Art activity could start with a large ball of clay being presented on a tray. A group of toddlers could then play with the clay and explore the material’s properties in different ways. There is no right or wrong in what the toddler do with the clay. The focus is on the creative and experimental process.

Another example of a process-based art can be seen in the installations of Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson (pictured below). People can interact with the lights, colours and spaces of his artworks in many different ways. Like the clay activity with the toddlers, there is no right or wrong for what people do in the installation.

Product vs Process Art
Image credit: “Jugando con los colores” by Nicoletto (que
te meto)
 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 
Artwork by Olfar Eliasson

How is Process Art useful and restrictive?

Process Art is useful in children’s learning as it allows them to explore their creativity in unrestricted ways. It can also be a beneficial approach with babies and toddlers as no formal or verbal instructions are needed to engage in the activity. Process Art is often talked about as being favourable in Reggio Emilia and Steiner education settings. 

However, Process Art can also restrict children’s creativity. For example, children’s creativity is restricted by what they know and why they do not know. While a free-play, process-driven art activity may produce small, incremental developments in children’s divergent learning, these may not be as significant as they could be if they were learning how to use different art tools or given formal instructions on how to undertake a new artistic technique. 

Process Art activities also often ignore the important role educators and parents can play in scaffolding learning. For example, adults may be afraid to introduce a new technique or piece of vocabulary to a child as it may interfere with their self-directed creative process.

Also, while some children may really engage in a free-play Process Art activity, other children may feel lost and confused as it is too open-ended. It is therefore useful in some situations, and with some children, but cannot be used as a ‘one-approach-fits-all’ model. 

Finding a happy middle ground…

Both Product and Process Art can be used to support children’s learning in different ways. They can also be combined to create a structured, yet open-ended art experience for children.

For example, if you are doing a clay activity with children, you could start off creating product-driven artwork to start such as a pinch pot or snail. This first part of the activity may allow children to learn new techniques, skills and vocabulary connected to the medium. Following this, you could allow children to freely explore and create new artworks with the clay without instructions.

By combining both pedagogical structures with open-ended experimentation, expansive opportunities for children’s learning with art can be created. 

Interesting Links on Product and Process Art 

Tate art museum in London (UK) have put together this resource that defines the term ‘Process Art.’ Visual artists including Richard Serra, Robert Morris and Jackson Pollock are referrred to in the resource. All of these artists have all been linked to this art movement. 

This YouTube video shares a ‘Funnel Painting’ Process Art activity put together by Creative Mommy Stuff. 

Related Posts

Creativity and multiculturalism in children’s learning– an interview with artist Lorna Rose

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Tips for arranging materials to support children’s creative learning

Process Art for Kids

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