Talking with children about their artwork

A mother took her four-year-old for an admissions interview at a private school. During the course of the meeting, the headmaster asked the young boy to draw a man and a woman, which the child did.

''Who is the man?'' the headmaster asked, pointing to the the drawing.

''It's a man,'' the boy answered, since he had not been asked to draw anyone in particular.

''But who is it,'' she persisted.

''It's a man,'' the boy answered again. But sensing that the headmaster wanted an answer badly, he blurted out, ''It's George Washington.''

Muriel Silberstein-Storfer coordinator of the parent-child workshops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, relates this incident as a case of adult expectations imposed on a child's work.

''Children will make up as many stories as parents ask of them,'' she says. ''When children start explaining things away, the parent is satisfied, but the children become less and less involved with artistic expression.''

Mrs. Silberstein-Storfer believes children should not be asked for an explanation of their work unless it is offered; the visual statement is enough in itself, especially for a young child. Later, when school-age children are asked to represent themes in their work, such as ''a place where an animal lives ,'' or ''a place where I like to go with my family,'' explanations may be in order.

''What is it?'' questions can quickly erode self-confidence and stifle creativity, says author Peggy Jenkins in ''Art for the Fun of It'' (Prentice Hall Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N.J. $6.95). For young children who generally produce nonrepresentational art, a more appropriate question might be ''How did you do this?'' This question is easy for children to respond to since they are often more wrapped up in the the process than the final result.

If the parent or teacher refers to a child's scribbles from the beginning as ''designs,'' the child will have an answer to any ''What is it?'' questions, and he or she will not feel obligated to produce drawings of only recognizable objects.

When commenting on a child's work, adults should acknowledge the piece in a way that can't be misinterpreted, says Ms. Jenkins. They should try to avoid value judgements and praise the effort rather than the product.

Indiscriminate praise and comments, such as ''That's gorgeous'' or ''Great,'' have little meaning for a child, and after too many superlatives, he or she may start to doubt the adult's sincerity.

Instead, experienced art teachers advise adults to make specific remarks about the artwork, mentioning an original idea, a new form, an unusual texture, or a graceful line. This will often help children see something in their work they may have overlooked.

When parents and children are both working on art projects, Muriel Silberstein-Storfer reminds parents to remember a child's point of view. Adults should never say, ''That's wrong'' or, in an effort to be encouraging, ''Yours is better than mine.'' She believes it is more helpful to say, perhaps, ''That's the way you see it. I see it a different way.''

Parents and teachers should also resist any temptation to tamper with a child's work to make it look the way they think it should look.

''Parents often do not understand where the learning is happening, and are impatient for the final result,'' says Mrs. Silberstein-Storfer. Parents should avoid comparing their child's work with that of others of the same age. Rather, they should realize children develop at their own rate and their work will improve naturally. Choosing an art class

A good way to get a taste of art is to enroll in a class. Before signing up, try to visit the class in action and observe the teacher's attitude, Mrs. Silberstein-Storfer advises. Look to see whether the instructor encourages personal experimentation or an imitation of his or her own style of work. If the projects come out looking too similar, the teacher may be saying and doing too much.

Art teachers should be sensitive to the feelings of the students and encourage growth of the individual. Instructors who make comparisons between students may be establishing an undesirable competitive atmosphere.

The class should also convey a sense of order.

''People often do not realize the importance of the proper structure and setting,'' says Mrs. Silberstein-Storfer. Most art programs offer a tactile experience but the children don't really learn anything, she finds.

Teachers should be explicit about rules and procedures, and they should make it very clear which materials are to be used and which are not. This does not mean the studio facility itself has to be fancy, but there should be someone in charge with enough experience to know how to set things up.

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