The kids at Canterbury Community Nursery School are big fans of abstract expressionism. "They absolutely love it when we study Jackson Pollock," says Mia K. White, Canterbury's executive director. "We do Pollock, and they get to go outside and throw paint." Sounds like a win-win for a 4-year-old. Just don't tell little Timmy that he's learning, too. Canterbury is one of many area preschools treating art not just as an afternoon pastime but also as an important educational tool.
"Children are very sensory oriented," White says, "and when we allow a child to dig in the dirt, paint with their fingers, to get messy, it leaves a bigger impression on the brain."
At the Henrico County preschool, which serves 123 students, art is "an everyday, throughout-the-day" thing. "Children learn through the power of play," White says, "and art is the most natural vehicle for play. We believe that art strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and adds to overall academic achievement and school success."
At Richmond's Tuckahoe Montessori School, serving 64 students, art education is a key component in the teaching method, which speaks to the independent learner. "There's always an element in the Montessori classroom of ‘free art,' " says executive director Amanda Edmonson, who adds that exposing children to creative expression at an early age is invaluable. "It's that time when they don't have the boundaries that we have. They can use their imaginations and see things that we as adults don't see." For kids who are 5 and older, Tuckahoe Montessori offers additional instruction from local artist Pam Connolly.
Art teaches preschoolers in other ways, Edmonson maintains. "It helps them understand what has happened when they put on too much glue, not enough glue, or don't clean their brush and then put it in another color… ‘Oh, it turned brown.' " At this age, the quality of the outcome is not the point. "It's about what they are learning when they do it. Whether it's one green line or a gorgeous rainbow … it's all about them taking that risk for the first time."
"Art is a part of the language of children, just like music, dance and spoken word — a way for children to convey their ideas," says Jean Oswald, the preschool director of Bon Air Presbyterian School in Midlothian.
"We think of art as process, not as a product," she says of the school, which has 66 pupils enrolled. "We give the students a lot of materials, teach them to use the materials and then give them a lot of time to muck around and try it out. How is watercolor different from chalk? What can you do with this wire? How to make something three-dimensional out of paper, how to mix and create colors. All of those things, they get to explore."
Oswald, a nature photographer, also engages the students with her own art. "We have a little nature museum area, and my photos are up there all the time, and I'll change those in the seasons. We're taking photographs all the time. We'll take close-ups of bugs and animals so the kids can see them more clearly."
Staring down bugs and splashing paint around — some moms and dads may question the value. "But what better place to do that than school?" asks White of Canterbury. "Parents sometimes don't want their children to do that at home, and that's why we ask parents to dress them in clothes they don't mind them getting dirty in. We want them to play, we want them to cultivate that creativity."
"Art gives them a means of expressing themselves," Oswald adds. "It gives them another way of being in the world."