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Plows, J (2015). Three-year-old children’s visual art experiences. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 18, 37 - 51.
Three-year-old children’s visual art experiences
This art-based study investigated the verbal and non-verbal communication of five children, three boys and two girls. Previous New Zealand research about visual art learning in the early childhood education field focused mainly on the practices of teachers. In this study, participant observations and audio-recordings were complemented by visual data collected through video recordings and photographs for the purpose of understanding how young children speak, use gesture and action, relate to other people and interact with resources while making art. The children’s existing knowledge and cognitive processes were evident through the multiple ways they expressed themselves. Children’s communication processes during these visual art events were complex and dynamic.
The main threads revealed in the data analysis were: children making art alongside peers and adults, interactions with art tools, links between the home and the early childhood setting and the way that children set their own goals. The findings suggest that teachers’ evaluations of three-year-olds’ visual art experiences are likely to be accurate when children’s actions and narratives are considered.
Key words: Visual art; arts; communication; intrapersonal; interpersonal; listening; visual art-based research; video; making meaning.
This study looks at the visual art making of three-year-old children. It investigated how children talk to others, speak out loud to themselves, use body language, and interact with visual art equipment.
An increasing amount of literature about young children’s talk during visual art experiences links with the widely advocated pedagogy of listening (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1993; Rinaldi, 2001; Stephenson, 2009). Not only do children express ideas verbally during art making processes but the artifacts that they create are also seen as a mode through which they communicate cognitive processes (Ring, 2006).
The NZ early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) supports children being creative and becoming proficient in using media to express feelings or for representing information. In addition to visual literacy and speech, young children express themselves in multi-modal ways using a repertoire of non-verbal communication such as facial expression, gesture and expressive body movement (Flewitt, 2005; Wright, 2010). Flewitt’s (2005) research showed that non-verbal signs are a crucial means through which children convey thoughts and express meaning.
Parallels between children’s visual artifacts, thinking and language have been made because their utterances elucidate their ideas, knowledge and creative intentions (Coates & Coates, 2006; Pelo, 2007; Ring, 2006). Coates and Coates (2006) state that “much can be discovered about children’s interests, enthusiasms and culture from observing drawing activities and listening to accompanying narrative” (p. 240). Furthermore, young children’s curiosity led to interactions with the researchers during their project. For example, a three-year-old child chose the researcher to be the subject of their drawing (Coates & Coates, 2006).
Hill (2011) suggests that social constructivism, informed by Vygotsky’s cultural-historical ideas, places the teacher in the role of a reflective practitioner. A sensitive, insightful teacher will be aware of their influence on the range and extent of visual art learning experienced by children and will also become cognisant of how children make links between the early childhood education settings and their home environments.
The current study reported here takes children’s everyday learning experiences into account, reflecting the participatory model of pedagogy posited by Hedges and Cullen (2012). Furthermore, the ‘funds of knowledge’ concept highlighted by Hedges (2012) was relevant in this research as the three-year-old participants’ existing knowledge was revealed by their words and actions and it was evident that this was an essential aspect that motivated and shaped their visual art learning.
A case study of how five three-year-olds used self-speech (intrapersonal occurrences), interacted with others (interpersonal occurrences) and interacted with resources during visual art making experiences was conducted. The field-based approach enabled interaction with the children. My decision to take up a participant observation role was informed by both innovative arts-based and qualitative research perspectives (Leavy, 2009; Pope & Mays, 2006; Smith, 2009). Factors that influenced the design of my research methodology were the increasing academic interest in innovative perspectives and the way that visual art-based research extends the means by which qualitative data is collected, analysed, reported and represented (Leavy, 2009; Smith, 2009). One aspect of arts-based research is a/r/tography, described by Smith (2009) as an arts-informed research approach in which “art practice, research and teaching interconnect” (p. 265). The digital photographic montage (see Figure 6 later in this paper) is inspired by this a/r/tographic process. Whereas qualitative educational research may be represented as text only, a visual-art based educational study places significant value on the visual data. In my research the information in the photographs and video footage were inextricably linked to the written and printed text at all stages from observation to dissemination.
This methodological approach was compatible with the social constructivist framework that underpinned the study (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 1999; Rogoff, 2003). To achieve in-depth qualitative data in a short period of time multiple data collection methods were used and this suited the objective to comprehensively document the voices and actions of the children.
The use of digital technologies in this study aligned well with White’s (2011) proposal that video has the potential to emphasise the competence of children. White also believes that educational research will benefit from expanded notions of voice (including visual forms of communication) when interpreting children’s communication modes. To investigate the young participants’ involvement during visual art making I used digital video (Flip Mino HD) and digital audio recordings (Olympus WS 21O WMA digital voice recorder), digital photographs (Sony camera) and field notes to collect data. Previous educational researchers noted the technical difficulties of video recording in noisy environments (Flewitt, 2005; Gunn, 1998). Acknowledging this challenge as both technician and participant researcher I used a combination of digital video and audio recording to achieve audio clarity. Although the video device was positioned at least two meters away to capture children’s gestures and actions, the small audio recorder was placed nearer.
To achieve triangulation and authenticity I also sought the viewpoints of the parents and the teachers about the five children’s visual art experiences. A video-elicitation method that enabled concentration on detailed visual art episodes featuring each of the five three-year-old participants was used in a digitally audio-recorded focus group interview with teachers. Informed by the visual art-based approach of photo-elicitation (Rose, 2007), this method encouraged depth of engagement. The teachers watched edited video footage I had taken and following each clip they participated in a discussion facilitated through three prompting questions about intrapersonal occurrences, interpersonal interactions and the art making resources.
The children’s parents were emailed a questionnaire. This consisted of questions pertaining to their child’s engagement with visual art materials and asked them about children’s verbal and non-verbal communication and how their child expressed themselves during art making at home. All parents replied to the questionnaire.
The final data collection method was my own reflective research video diary, a method relating to the practice of a/r/tography (Irwin & de Cosson, 2004; Springgay, Irwin, Leggo, & Gouzouasis, 2008). The digital video diary facilitated the efficient capture of my spontaneous, evolving thought processes and aligns with Rahn’s (2008) finding that video was quicker than written or audio methods for capturing information. Leavy (2009) suggests that keeping a diary is one way that a researcher can monitor validity. At the end of each day of data collection I went to another location such as the university or my home to video record my reflections.
The combined innovative art-based educational research methods and traditional qualitative approaches facilitated appropriate data collection to address the research question and helped to ensure reliability and validity.
Sample and ethical considerations
Criteria for the purposive selection of the research site were that daily visual art experiences were prevalent and that video recording technology was familiar to the children. The site was then randomly selected from a list of recommendations from early childhood professionals. It was an all-day, teacher-led, fully licensed privately–owned early childhood centre.
Centre daily routines included group times and snack times, however for most of the day the children were able to freely choose their activities. A wide range of two-dimensional and three-dimensional visual art media (pencils, marker pens, charcoal, paints, dyes, printmaking equipment, paper, recycled objects, clay) was readily accessible on low shelves, at easels and on child-sized tables.
Most children were enrolled for three-hour sessions on particular days, whilst a small number attended for a full-day. Some of the participating children attended only on particular days of the week.
Ethical permission for the study was gained from the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee (UAHPEC). The centre, teachers and families of children were asked for their consent to participate and informed that they could withdraw from the study at any time. With respect for children’s rights and taking their moods and feelings into account, if a child showed any sign of being disturbed by the presence of the recording equipment or observer then I would cease recording immediately. I created a child’s assent form using a process similar to that articulated by Dalli and Stephenson (2010) in their discussion about the rights of young children involved in research in educational settings. The authors cite an exemplar from Stephenson’s (2009) research where a child’s assent form incorporating a picture of the researcher was provided to parents with instructions to help their child to fill out the assent form. In my study the child’s assent form included a photo of my face and a brief explanation about the research followed by a yes/no option.
The random selection of children involved inviting every fourth child from an attendance list of names, resulting in three boys and two girls as the child participants. The parents granted permission for their children’s first names and images to be published in the reporting of the research.
The study focused on the voices, actions and interactions of the children. The photographs and video footage taken captured some of the visual art experiences of Ethan, Nessa, Sam, Lucia and Joshua in the winter of 2012.
The following five segments and associated images provide individual snapshots of the observed children. A range of emotions, cognitive processes and learning dispositions were evident during their visual art making, including humour, persistence, and endeavour to achieve self-set goals and joy following accomplishment.
The five children communicated their ideas and feelings via speech, body language, facial expression, visual language, gestures and actions (Plows, 2013). Findings revealed that the participating children used private speech occasionally, interspersed by interpersonal interactions.
Joshua spoke about the challenges he encountered
McArdle (2003) advises teachers to be present while young children make visual art in case a narrative is given. When rolling the printing ink during the mono printing preparation process, Joshua attempted to spread the ink evenly on the tray to cover thinner patches (see Figure 1). He verbally expressed the problems he encountered saying, “it’s not working yet”. Joshua’s account of the issue provided information to the teacher who listened and offered encouragement.
Intersubjectivity, referring to two or more people being tuned into a common experience (Smith, 1998) was reflected in this occasion as the teacher and child both contemplated the ink-spreading issue. Joshua’s problem solving strategies were evident as he mastered a way to steady the tray with his left hand while holding the roller in his right hand as he distributed the ink.
After watching the video excerpt of this event the teachers spoke about Joshua’s awareness of the varying consistencies of the different printing inks and how he verbalised his thoughts while exploring the motion of the ink roller. His parents commented that at home Joshua discussed his visual art with a dual sense of excitement and earnestness.
Nessa’s intense interaction with the resources
In accord with Wright’s (2010) findings that children often convey the ideas behind their visual art making using both words and gesture with a running narrative that mirrors their drawing, Nessa’s mother said her daughter narrated to herself when making art at home. As an example, while drawing circles that covered the whole piece of paper Nessa said repeatedly “I’m drawing a circle”. Nessa’s mother said that her daughter “likes lots of praise!” about her art. At the centre I observed Nessa’s persistence in mastering the use and manipulation of scissors, adhesive tape and other resources. Nessa used visual art apparatuses competently and explored drawing tools such as pastels and charcoal. During the teachers’ focus group interview the conversation centered on Nessa’s intense involvement with her charcoal drawing (see the image in Figure 2).
At the early childhood centre the teachers sometimes drew while sitting beside the children. While watching the video footage one teacher observed that Nessa was “very engrossed” in the drawing process and sometimes glanced at the teachers’ adjacent sketch. The teachers were thus also a resource to Nessa as they role modelled processes.
During this study the children did not imitate the teachers’ drawings. However it was clear that they naturally accepted this process in the same way as they might expect parallel play in an early childhood setting.
Sam used a range of communication modes
Sam interacted with the resources using a combination of private or self-speech, verbal communication and gesture. His interactions were in accord with Flewitt’s (2005) findings that children use a range of modes to express meaning.
Smith (1998) posits that ‘private speech’ describes the stage where children talk to themselves out loud, externalising their internal thought process. Sam approached visual art making whole-heartedly, exhibiting total involvement in drawing, painting and clay experiences. It was evident from his enthusiastic exploration of ways to transform the clay that he perceived himself as an active participant with the resolve to persist until he completed his self-set tasks (see the image in Figure 3). When viewing video footage, the teachers commented on Sam’s intense interactions with resources during drawing and painting. Sam mostly acted autonomously and occasionally sought affirmation about his individual creative processes from adults and peers. He often held art tools in both hands at the same time. Painting at the easel with a paintbrush in each hand it was evident that Sam was using every method possible to convey meaning. Sam’s mother said he communicated verbally at home where his art experiences included handprints, butterfly prints, and mark making. On one occasion at home he asked his mother to join him in his delight at how paint colours changed when mixed.
Ethan’s words and sound effects during his transformation of objects
Creative processes often involve transformation (Wright, 2010) and this was evident in Ethan’s art making as he moved a glue stick, in a circular motion over yellow marker lines and noticed that the glue substance transformed the yellow and lightened it (see Figure 4). He said, “It looks a bit cloudy, see?”. Ethan initiated conversation with me and his peers as he informed others of his intentions. Ethan talked through his ideas and revealed what he was thinking. This observation agrees with MacDonald’s (2009) findings about the power of children’s visual art to communicate ideas and feelings. Ethan’s excitement was seen in his facial expression and movement.
In some instances he spoke to me directly but at other times he used self-speech as illustrated in the following example:
After going to the shelves to collect the materials that he wanted, Ethan sat inside at a table. Another child was busy there and several other children were occupied in other areas at the early childhood setting. Ethan held a black marker pen and paper. Assembling a clear plastic container, a lid, zig-zag scissors and a cardboard tube he said he was going to make a racing car with flames on it. Ethan enjoyed onomatopoeia, using phrases and sounds to represent symbols and to accompany actions whilst making visual arts. After a brief conversation he continued with his creative process. Ethan said (to himself): “e-o-ll”. He made sounds as he drew with a marker pen on paper and then while he assembled a cardboard tube, clear container, lid and paper. As he drew on the cardboard tube he said (to himself) “draw the flames”. “That’s a flame car” he said (to me) and then Ethan used actions to move the tube from side to side through the air as fast as he could.
In accord with Wright’s (2012) explanation that children sometimes coordinate sounds and movements to embody actions, Ethan used physical actions to emphasise his description of a racing car. His sound effects added meaning to the visual artifacts. For Ethan, art experiences at home complemented what he experienced at the centre. Ethan’s mother explained that he particularly enjoyed making things from objects and he made cars and spaceships at home from big boxes. She said, “They get played with and reinvented for weeks”.
Lucia’s words revealed her imaginative approach
Wright’s (2010) claim that children’s visual art often reflects popular media was evident in one particular episode when Lucia drew on a large piece of paper alongside several children inspired by an animal character from a popular book and movie.
Lucia cheerfully announced that her drawing of the animal would be different. Imagination is often inferred as a feature of creativity according to Deverson (2006) and Thwaites (2011). Lucia exhibited the ability to think ‘outside of the square’.
Wright’s conclusion that the visual art of children contains a blend of fiction and non-fiction was exampled by Lucia who demonstrated her factual knowledge of animals while transforming her sketch into an amalgam of creatures. With concentration she drew from both her imagination and comprehension (see the image in Figure 5). She said “it (has) an elephant’s feet with a hamster’s head and a porcupine tail”. The ‘funds of knowledge’ that children bring are often evident in what they say according to Hedges (2012).
During the focus group discussion about intrapersonal occurrences a teacher observed in the video footage that Lucia, the eldest of the participants, appeared to internalise her thoughts whereas the other children were primarily externalising their thinking. Verbal communication occasionally punctuated her silence when Lucia gave a commentary about the reason behind her selection of art materials or clearly identified elements of her visual art making process.
Lucia’s art featured many aspects that held meaning for her, for example through a story about one of her drawings she made cognitive and affective connections with a beach that she had visited with her family. Lucia’s parent stated that she paid close attention to detail during visual art experiences at home in the same way as I observed at the centre. Lucia regularly talked about her visual art with family members, and this finding agrees with MacDonald’s (2009) claim that children often narrate following their visual art making. Richards (2009) visited child participants in their preschools and homes and reported that families influence children’s art and the knowledge children hold. In my study, the data from the parents was significant because it contributed to understanding how the three-year-olds made solid connections during visual art experiences between events in their lives in the centre and in their home setting.
Motifs and implications
Four of the motifs or themes emerging in this study were:
- The three-year-olds’ visual art goal setting competence was evident.
- Children’s visual art topics linked to home and community experiences.
- The children interacted intensely with art making tools.
- Young children readily expressed themselves while making art.
In the first theme of how the three-year-olds’ showed initiative, intent, goal-setting competence and extensive problem solving skills the findings suggest that the cognitive processes of three-year-old children were intricate and vibrant during visual art experiences.
Figure 6 below presents a montage (created with Adobe Photoshop CS4) showing similarities in the ways that children used their hands in complex ways to manipulate the visual art resources for the purpose of achieving their own self-set goals.
Secondly, particular topics of interest to individual children were experienced both in the home and the centre environments and the children made links between settings cognitively and affectively. For example, Ethan’s interest in cars was evident in his art making at home and at the centre.
A key implication from the findings of this study is that communication between parents and teachers about children’s art at home and at centre might help to strengthen the guidance and support that both sets of adults can provide to children (Hedges, 2010; Richards, 2009; Terreni, 2008). Hedges (2010) highlighted the value of early childhood professionals’ positive communication with parents. She asked teachers to think about how they involved parents in the programme. As a researcher I asked the parents of the participating children about children’s art making and included their views in the analysis.
Teachers should be aware that the visual art subject matter initiated by children is often a result of experiences from both the home environment and the early childhood education setting. In assessing how children’s topics of interest are fostered to increase their comprehension of a range of overlapping subjects it would be pertinent for teachers to take a holistic approach to learning and teaching. The NZ early childhood curriculum for example states that “experiences, activities, and events may be based on forward planning or may evolve in response to a particular situation” (Ministry of Education 1996, p. 10.). Ideally teachers should be using in-depth photographic, written or visual documentation when planning, assessing and evaluating children’s visual art learning experiences.
Thirdly, the way that the children interacted with the art making tools in an intense manner captivated the teachers’ attention when they watched the video during the focus group interview. This included Joshua’s earnest efforts to manipulate the printing roller, Nessa’s grip on the two pieces of charcoal (one in each hand), Sam’s total involvement in manipulating the clay, Ethan’s full attention to the transformation of colour and Lucia’s focus on her drawing.
The fourth theme was the natural way that children expressed themselves during visual art making. The children’s interests were very apparent in their words and actions and teachers and family members were sensitive to this in being willing to observe and listen. The children sometimes sought affirmation of their individual creative processes; however most of the time the positive presence of an interested peer or adult provided plentiful encouragement. Episodes of mutual attention where adults and children were jointly focused on a visual art learning process were evident in this research. Additionally, in the same way that young children experience other learning areas alongside adults, these young artists were involved in visual art experiences with teachers who would often draw in parallel to children at an art table. By observing other children and adults young artists will further develop techniques, such as drawing with charcoal.
The study has relevance to tertiary teacher education programmes and how student teachers are instructed concerning appropriate early childhood visual art learning strategies which as this study has identified are: listening, observing, engaging in child-led conversation, scaffolding, encouragement, role modelling, documenting children’s processes with digital photography and video and ensuring parent-teacher communication on children’s art making (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Hedges, 2010; Vecchi, 2010). Respectful parent-teacher relationships cultivate more awareness about how the many interests and events that children experience in the family setting are demonstrated in their visual art making.
This study looked at the way that three-year-old children interact with themselves, with others and with visual art resources. It found that visual media is indeed a language of its own as a mode to express a mood, situation or significant event (Anning, 2002; Flewitt, 2005; MacDonald, 2009; Vecchi, 2010).
It is recommended that when assessing the visual art learning experiences of young children the discussion of early childhood professionals would benefit from centering on in-depth documentation from close observations of children’s learning in conjunction with knowledge about children’s art experiences at home.
Further research could extend on this study and look comprehensively at the verbal and non-verbal communication of infants during visual art making processes.
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I wish to acknowledge the exceptional support from the manager, the teachers, the five children and their parents throughout the research project and the exemplary guidance and direction provided by my university supervisors.
About the author
Julie Plows has a background in visual arts and early childhood education and works as a teacher educator at NZ Tertiary College. Julie became interested in visual arts education by pondering the nature of young children’s visual arts experiences in early childhood settings. She has recently completed her Master of Education at the University of Auckland. Julie has a continuing interest in visual arts education. Future research plans are to undertake a longitudinal visual arts education study.
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