Master Class: Toddler Learning through the Masterworks
Two-year-old Junie sticks both fingers in her ears and closes her eyes. Then she makes noises with her tongue. Devon, a three-year-old boy, steps into a puddle and watches mud ooze over his white tennis shoes. Then he jumps. Mud splashes onto his clothes and face. Immature? Yes. However, as these children explore the world around them, they soak up information at an unbelievable rate. Did you know that a child’s brain has two times the neural circuits of an adult’s brain? Junie discovers new sounds with her experiment, and Devon learns how mud feels and moves. This is exploration; this is creative learning.
“No longer do we consider the first five years of life to be a vast cognitive wasteland during which [the] brain undergoes an arrested development. The neural networks by which all future complex learning will be based are forged during this crucial early period and by a specific series of vitally important brain processes.” This excerpt, taken from the article “Early Brain Development and Learning,” by Kenneth A. Wesson, Education Consultant for Neuroscience, explains that toddlers and preschoolers are capable of learning more than parents sometimes think possible.
Meet the Masters
The Masters, all those famous artists whose works deck the walls of prestigious museums, and the composers whose music graces the air in theatres around the globe, have much to share with youngsters. If we limit children to modern art depicted in cartoons and picture books, or expose them only to early childhood music with easily memorized lyrics, we withhold the greatest works (and at a crucial time, when our children’s brains are most active). The art of Monet, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart are not too complex for youngsters.
“[Toddlers] are new to the planet,” says Bette Setter, founder of the mobile art education program Young Rembrandts. “They have a big responsibility in decoding everything. Art and art images help children develop in their natural quest for knowledge.”
With her students as well as with her own children, Setter notices that exposure to the arts at a young age makes children more aware of details. “They become whole thinkers,” she explains. “And they keep the art images for life.”
Sarah Herbert, early childhood teacher at The Center of Creative Arts in Missouri, explains that teaching children art and music through the works of the Masters encourages development of many skills. “When they are painting, they’re becoming more autonomous.” Herbert recognizes fine motor skill development from working with paints and other media. The scribble of a two-year-old is actually pre-reading and writing development because of the symbolism created.
Herbert suggests questioning what your child wants to say with his creation instead of asking what the creation is. By asking your child what he wants to tell you about his artwork, you present the concept that what he created stands for an idea.
Children who are encouraged to play percussion instruments begin to understand rhythm, which is a precursor to language development. Free movement to music encourages individuality and self-confidence. “You don’t ever have to teach a child to dance,” says Herbert. “They have a need to wiggle their bodies.” The syntax of music also promotes logical thinking, which helps with math and reading. “People with a proclivity for math are often drawn to music.”
How can parents apply works of the Masters to early childhood education?
Let’s Talk Art
“The way a child thinks about her art is more important than the way you think about it,” says Herbert. “Never impose limitations and never say, ‘I’m not good at this.’ It introduces fear. Never evaluate a preschooler’s music, art, or dance. Make observations from fact. Say, ‘there is a red circle,’ or ‘see these three red lines.’ Evaluating may inhibit creativity or discourage a child.”
The concept of children understanding art in their own way is not new. Charlotte Mason, a liberal-thinking educator in the late 1800s, wrote in her book Home Education, “We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the children’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at a single picture.”
Parents cannot travel inside their child’s brain and ensure that all the educational efforts they make are learned, stored, and applied appropriately. They can be certain, though, that introducing art and music, which have struck emotional chords in humans worldwide for centuries, will enrich an education. The developing mind of a child will soak up whatever it is surrounded with, so why not provide the best history and culture we have to offer?
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