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Do you stand by the hand (print)?

Handprint art - craft or craptivity?
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Creative craft activity or craptivity?

Another season, another round of educators vigorously sharing ‘so cute’ handprint craft activities in online professional groups, with an equally vigorous howling down from those opposing the practice as adult-directed and anti-children’s agency.

It seems like a simple enough argument but the complications include this kicker frequently used by defenders of the handprint-as-reindeer-card: ‘parents like them’.  So what, say the opposers: since when has it been our job to teach according to cuteness or to make parents smile

So tempers continue to flare and just in the past week there have been several thousand comments spread across many groups and threads, both for and against, prompted by the current round of Halloween (itself controversial!) and Christmas crafts. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to the satirical display of Craptivities, provocatively subtitled, ‘No children were educated in the making of these products’.

Another aspect of the debate is how much of the ‘fun’ is for the children and how much for educators who just enjoy crafting.  As one commenter, Lisa Vreeken, said of this shared activity:

I’ve just been reading another post where educators are saying that they never get enough time to document and reflect. Then I look at the amount of work that something like this requires and I wonder which is more important.

Many voices speak out during these debates, including seasoned educators who patiently offer a practical middle ground with child-led activities that parents will equally enjoy. So why do the handprint crafts – and the arguments – persist when other less contentious options seem to thrive in many services?

Sandi Phoenix and Anne Peters, known for their child-centric approaches to behaviour and education, put their heads together on this topic recently, and provide a joint article for your consideration in Amplify today. Anne’s Q&A, in particular, will help many services work their way to a professional position they can embed in future.

Tell us what you think in the comments. Do you stand by the hand as harmless fun? Or would you rather chew off your own arm than use it to hold a toddler’s painted foot on cardboard? – Bec Lloyd, Editor.

It’s all in the delivery, says Sandi

Hand print craft arguments and debates about craft versus ‘craptivity’ has recently besieged educator forums.

Members of educator groups have again been divided over the sharing of posts about how to turn children’s prints into ‘cute’ painted products – a practice that is vehemently opposed by some while pinned and shared by others.

We see this divide among practitioners every time an educator shares examples of the adult led craft. It happens time and again, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Easter… it goes on. Year round, the argument recycles with only a slightly different flavour each time.

Craptivities

Craptivities, a shorthand for ‘crappy craft activities’ – points the finger at art and craft activities in Early Childhood Education and Care that are product oriented; hand/foot paintings made into ‘art’, paper plate craft, stencil/templated activities.

Any craft that looks like it’s been created on a factory line of a dozen children creating the same product is under critically reflective fire.

If the post involves the painted print of a child’s digits, the practice of creating these parent pleasing keepsakes is likely to be frowned upon and an uproar of opposing views is inevitable.

Human stamping

We can thank Jeanne de Clisson from the EYLF Pirates for coining the apt term ‘human stamping’. If you haven’t read her piece yet, check it out here.

“I just don’t think using children as human stamps so that educators can adulterate them by cutting them out and adding bits and pieces to them is a worthwhile venture.” – Jeanne de Clisson.

Forums are divided every time a new argument starts. Educators take sides to express views like, ‘Thank goodness you said what I was thinking!’ or ‘That’s educator shaming and you should get off your high horse and stop being so mean’.

Ideally, early childhood education professionals would benefit from finding a space to critically analyse practice, without it becoming personal. However, clearly, some more thinking needs to happen around how we can share messages of good practice in Education and Care in a way that is going to foster a culture of professional inquiry and produce favourable outcomes for children. We are professionals, after all.

Anne Peters and I discussed this after she originally posted her thoughts in the Educators Engaging with Educators Facebook group. The initial post has been edited for Amplify, and I’ll hand you over to her now.

And Anne says…

The angst and ill feeling about craptivity posts have encouraged me to unpack the reasons behind it all. This is my interpretation of what I believe the arguments against these product-driven craft activities are trying to convey.

In no way is this article meant to belittle anyone’s pedagogical practice and efforts. So, take a step back and openly consider these points with me.

I truly believe that educators want to do what is best for the children they work with and it is easy to see why many educators have been upset and offended by memes and jibes around what they see as fun seasonal crafts.

Two key points

There are two messages that critically reflective practitioners seem united in conveying when they critique templated craft activities:

  1. Age appropriate activities

It can be argued that these activities are not appropriate for children’s development or age. As these activities are outcome driven (end product), they provide little in terms of process as freedom in creation is limited.

There is a distinct possibility that most children in early childhood have little or no interest in the end product and prefer to focus on the experience. For example, when you hear someone ask a child ‘What is your drawing about?’ often the child struggles to find an answer. It is usually the act of drawing, and not that of drawing ‘something’ in which the child learns and derives pleasure.

The same applies to construction. Very often the joy of the experience lies in doing it. The process. They are not initially focused on making the road, creating a robot, building a castle. It’s likely they just want to use the materials and see what they can do with them.

This isn’t to say that ‘product’ doesn’t have its place. Product-driven activities are certainly developmentally appropriate in older children (middle childhood) as they are much more focused on the outcome.

  1. Creativity

Being ‘end product’ driven leads me to the next point. Do these activities stifle creativity? When we use a model or a template, we rob the children’s opportunity to create their own art, entirely from their imaginations and experiences.

And we aren’t just robbing the opportunity in that moment. When a model is provided for children to copy the unspoken message they receive can be that this is ‘adult approved’, and therefore better than what they could have produced on their own.

In our formative years, we quickly learn from the review of peers and adults that some of what we create is ‘great’, and some is just a ‘mess’.

When we adults draw a star, cut out a Christmas tree, or choose the ‘right’ colours for the giraffe, the message children may internalise is ‘I need to make mine look like that one, as my own will not be good enough’.

More questions than answers

My analysis here may result in more questions than answers. But this is a good thing! Questioning our practices helps us keep progressing as professional educators.

Some of your questions may include:

‘What if the children want to do it?’

If the children want to do it, then that is fantastic. How about we give them all the materials and tools they want and let them do it how they want. This way creativity is fostered.

‘The children love it so why should we change it?’

Some do, sure. They also love sugar and screen time. Does that mean we don’t think critically about how much of that we offer children? By reflecting on and evolving our practice, we can provide similar experiences that children love while also nurturing learning and creativity.

‘Isn’t there other learning which takes place in these activities?’

It’s argued by educators that product-driven craft requires hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and so on. However, there are many other ways to provide these learning outcomes without giving children a craft model to copy. For example, these skills can be developed just as effectively with loads of open-ended materials and loose parts. In fact, young children need to develop their gross motor muscles and skills through play and movement (ideally outdoors) before they are ready to sit and cut out a paper plate.

‘What about cultural celebrations?’

Providing children with templates to decorate is one way to involve them in recognising and participating in cultural arts, awareness, and celebration. Some argue, however, that template decorating is not true art, which is creative, and can only offer a very limited learning about the culture on point. Further reflection by educators would probably lead to better ways to involve children in cultural learning and celebrations.

‘What about the parents?’

Some parents and families may expect craft-type creations from their children – especially at celebration times (Mother’s Day, Christmas). This expectation has likely been developed by previous generations of educators providing such crafts, and it’s perpetuated by those selling related craft materials. Offering parents a piece of individual art created solely by their child would carry more value than a production line driven generic copy of a model craft. And this does not need to happen only at specific celebration times.

Are we not happy in other situations to explain to a parent when a parent complains about ‘messy play’ or wants you to teach their child ‘academic subjects’? As long as we address these issues with respect and explain why we do not support such activities, we can get the same message across to families about the value of creative art and exploration through play.

‘So, what is acceptable?’

Art experiences are those that allow the child to explore their own creativity using materials and tools. This means not just the familiar art materials such as paint or clay, but anything and everything that offers the potential to be creative. There are many excellent resources by many fine art experts. If you want inspiration, please undertake further research (work by Dr Gai Lindsay, for example, is sparking a lot of interest in the sector).

‘Should we teach children anything?’

Of course! We can teach children how to successfully manipulate the tools and materials they are using to have the best outcomes for their efforts. The key here is to undertake your own professional learning about art processes, techniques and correct use of resources to gain confidence and skills for teaching art concepts to children.

Much of this will be incidental teaching. For instance, ‘If you wipe some of the glue off your brush, it will stop the paper tearing. The paper is tearing because the glue is making it wet, and wet paper tears’. Or ‘When you put the paint brush you were using for red in the green paint, it changes the colour of the green paint. Do you want to change the colour, or do you want to have green paint?’

‘Have I been wrong all this time?’

No, you are not wrong when you do something in good faith. You are not wrong when you choose activities you think will be good for the children. You are a caring, thoughtful educator. However, sometimes it takes an abstruse debate to challenge us and make us reflect on our practices. I believe it is important to constantly reflect on how we learn and teach. For instance, there are many skills and abilities we teach children which have now changed due to reflective practice. Remember when it was common to teach children to swim by throwing them into deep water. We do not believe in such practices today.

Finally

Gloria Steinem once said, ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off’. These arguments may annoy you, but let’s all take the opportunity to reflect on our pedagogical practice.

If you realise that you are unintentionally teaching something you do not want children to learn, you can reflect on these choices and achieve the outcomes you want without unintended consequences

5 thoughts on “Do you stand by the hand (print)?

  1. Thanks Sandie and Anne. I loved your original article when I found it online recently. Thanks for sharing CELA!
    Some educators may have overlooked these clear guidelines in the Guide to the NQS (2018):

    Standard 1.2
    Element 1.2.3 Educators may sight:
    • use of open-ended resources and materials that allow children to express themselves (rather than using templates, stencils or resources that limit children’s capacity to create, interpret, experiment and explore).

  2. As a parent and Early Years Educator all that I will say is that I have in a box 10 hand prints/foot print items done for Christmas/Mothers Day/ Fathers Day/Easter by my son when he was a child. I know it isn’t his work but they bring back wonderful memories for our family of him giving the gifts to both my husband and I or hiding the gift under his bed. In fact apart from these I haven’t kept a lot of work from my sons life. (BAD MUM) My only son is now 25years old.

  3. Great article to add to the discussion! We always need to remember is that every experience offers children opportunities for learning. However what we must reflect upon is what children may be learning and whether the learning experience will lead to growth and expanded learning or restrict and stifle children’s identity and agency. You might like to read this blog – with links to research articles: https://ecartoz.com/2018/10/27/the-early-childhood-hand-print-debate-one-hundred-languages-or-one-thousand-thousand-hands-dr-gai-lindsay/

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