The Power of Art in Children’s Learning

by | Apr 15, 2024 | Articles

It was beautiful! Colours, nature, light, reflection, shadow – space, materials, and artist tools all silently inviting young children to come and explore, test out, imagine, and create. This atelier was not a single room designated for children’s artistic expression. Rather it was a full day program for 3- to 5-year-old children with compelling invitations to engage children throughout multiple rooms and varied spaces. I found it in Stockholm, Sweden in October 2023. Kelly Mills Kallin, was the designer– the atelierista – of this stunning early learning program.

Ateliers within early learning programs were first introduced into early learning programs in Reggio Emilia, Italy in the 1960’s by Loris Malaguzzi. Malaguzzi is now known throughout the world for his pivotal role in developing the Reggio Emilia Approach.  Malaguzzi believed that children have 100 Languages – languages of expression, emotion, wondering, and theorizing that adults need to listen for in multi-layered and interwoven ways. It is only when we as educators open ourselves to listening to children’s 100 languages that we begin to recognize and support the depth of questioning and insights children have. Malaguzzi believed that compartmentalizing learning into silos of subjects such as literacy, math, or science, narrowed children’s potentialities, and did not respect their agency and unique paths of co-constructing learning.

Malaguzzi wanted to shake things up.  The introduction of the atelier within Reggio Emilia schools was a way of creating a provocation, a breaking away from old-fashioned teaching ideas built on assumptions that education of young children should be based mainly on words and simple rituals. Through the atelier, he believed, the richness of children’s thinking could be revealed and flourish. Decades of documentation offers us the evidence that Malaguzzi was right!

Atelierista Anna Golden tells us that, ‘artmaking is not just an aid to thinking but a way of thinking. We think with materials.” 1

Describing the atelier Anna continues, “It’s a space that will complicate or clarify thinking. It’s a space where spelling, scale, counting, and measurement happen in the context of figuring out a big idea.’ 1

The atelier offers space for children to develop techniques to explore and develop symbolic languages through painting, drawing, working in clay, movement, music, dance, digital art and storytelling. The atelier is also a space in which educators can tune into how children use a multiplicity of languages as vehicles to communicate big ideas, wonderings, and evolving understandings of the world.

Within the atelier Malaguzzi recognized the need for an atelierista – someone with an art background who collaborates with the teachers and children. The atelierista’s unique perspective shapes and enriches the children’s experiences and learning, helping to interpret the multiple languages and learning strategies children use.

Sara del Rio likens her role as an atelierista to that of a translator:

By actively engaging with children’s explorations, an atelierista develops a deep understanding of their thinking strategies, unraveling the intricacies of their cognitive processes and problem-solving approaches. 2

Being a translator in this context is a profound responsibility and a privilege entailing empathy, open-mindedness, and an attunement to the subtleties of children’s interactions with materials and other people. 3

Ateliers and atelieristas are no longer confined to the geographical region of Reggio Emilia in Italy. Arteliers are thriving in many infant-toddler programs, preschools and school-age programs throughout the world. Yet in many Canadian and North American educational programs and systems, the perspective and use of the arts as a language to enable deep and complex thinking is still viewed as confounding and revolutionary.

Why?

Why is it that something so natural as children and art is mostly confined to known, predictable experiences like playdough with rollers and playdough cutters, painting on an easel, fingerpainting, and crafts?

How Does Learning Happen? – Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years’ underscores that “Children are competent, capable of complex thinking, curious, and rich in potential.”4

Could it be that if we listen with our whole selves to the ideas and connections children are exploring through materials; if we hold in our minds and hearts that children are born curious, rich in potential, demonstrating their readiness to learn from their moment of birth; if we recognize that, as educators, our role is not about teaching but rather to create the conditions for children to learn; that maybe, just maybe the arts will revolutionize our practice too?

Curious to know more about ateliers and the potential of art in your work with young children?

Kelly Mills Kallin (atelierista of the stunning early learning program in Sweden) will guide our thinking as she shares her work, experiences and pedagogy with early learning educators on May 4, 2024.

 

Join Kelly and me at Early Learning Café for the Online Conversation:

Staging Early Learning Environments for Program Success.

 


1 Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange, Spring 2024, p. 14 

2 Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange, Spring 2024, p.9

3 Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange, Spring 2024, p.10 

4 How Does Learning Happen, Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years, p.6