Rough Notes on Art as Vital Learning Activity in Early Childhood


The deep link between creativity and education, although universally acknowledged in recent educational literature, was not always accepted as axiom.  The idea of creativity as an indicator of cognitive and emotional growth in the early education of children (as established in educational research) did not really catch on until the 20th Century.

Recently, I have been revisiting works about early childhood development and observed growth/development found in creative output. Further inspired by the work of Brosterman on the origins of kindergarten and Fröbel’s gifts, I have started keeping personal notes around the subject of early childhood and creativity as a vital learning activity. It seems as though Fröbel arrived at the notion of fostering the creative instinct as pedagogy first, because pedagogical research for the early 1800s isn’t exactly easy to find.

Beentz, Erntekindergartengruppe

Although one can easily locate Vygotsky’s The Psychology of Art, the work isn’t strictly about early learning, early childhood, pedagogical practice, or creative development outside of interpretation of artistic works. However, Vygotsky does discuss art as educational tool. In the introduction to one of the later chapters, he explains that “art has always been regarded as a means of education, that is, as a long-range program for changing our behavior and our organism…the significance of applied arts, involves the educational effect of art. Those who see a relationship between pedagogy and art find their view unexpectedly supported by psychological analysis” (Vygotsky, 1925).

Vygotsky is respectful of the work of others in the domain of teaching research. He shares that “we must take into account the specific peculiarities facing one who deals with children. Of course this is a separate field, a separate and independent study, because the domain of child art and the response of children to art is completely different…There are remarkable phenomena in the art of children” (Vygotsky, 1925).


Eleanor paints a picture (2015)

Although Vygotsky’s book dealt with some of these ideas at a superficial level with regard to early childhood, the work of Dewey and Piaget extended the idea of art as an experience associated with learning. Dewey was driven to promote the link of experience to learning (art being only one of the ways to engage in that experiential learning), and Piaget (and Inhelder) were observing the behavior of children to possibly gain insight into their cognitive development. The interpretation of childhood drawings can yield artifacts of psyhological and cognitive development. But, does one get a true picture of what is happening in the interior of the child’s thought?

Harriman and Zernich (1980) suggest that Piaget’s Cognitive-Structuralist Theory (and his own descriptive examples of a child’s cognitive development and response to increasingly abstract phenomena) can be observed in the artistic growth of children and that this increased complexity of thought and interpretation reveals a broader cognitive development at work. The limitations of this work are obvious considering the nature of the data collection and research: only observed actions were used to perceive possible changes in growth. The perception and creative output of children provides another, richer view of their experience and cognitive and emotional development.


Pre Kindergarten student draws me and the class (1995)

Taking account of the unique phenomenological experience of children for the purpose of understanding their cognitive and emotional development was really highlighted by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher that occupied Piaget’s former chair at the Sorbonne, where he lectured on child psychology and education from 1949-1952. Although Merleau-Ponty was well-known in the areas of aesthetics and phenomenology, this period of his writing provides a great bridge between art, psychology, philosophy, and early childhood.

Merleau-Ponty built on Vygotsky’s (pre-Existentialism!) idea that learning is experienced through the body, not just the mind. His work of this period seems to echo Vygotsky’s idea that “art performs with our bodies and through our bodies” (1925). In this way, experience is surely unique for every person. Even if an experience is shared, our own interpretations of it and the implications of its assimilation may be vastly different from one person to another. This complicates pedagogy. It is the basis for the differentiation of instruction.

What does this mean for art as a tool in today’s early childhood centers or elementary schools with which to engage learners individually? It seems Fröbel was tapping into something which we now better understand. However, where is art education today? Is it soley a piece of our pre-kindergarten experiences, never to be addressed in middle or later childhood?

Experience and cognition are not separate activities, and every one of these thinkers mentioned understood that to some degree. Early childhood seems to be one of those areas that we don’t really completely understand. There is no formula for educating all children, because each child uniquely experiences the world.







Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience

Hardiman, G., & Zernich, T. (1980). Some considerations of Piaget’s Cognitive-Structuralist Theory and children’s artistic development. Studies in Art Education, 21(3), 12-19. doi:1. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. (1925). The psychology of art

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2010) Child psychology and pedagogy: The Sorbonne lectures 1949-1952

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1956). The child’s conception of space.