The early childhood hand-print debate: One hundred languages or one thousand thousand hands?
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The early childhood hand-print debate: One hundred languages or one thousand thousand hands?

by Dr Gai Lindsay

May 12, 2019

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.

“Our main interest was to illustrate the extraordinary, beautiful and intelligent things children knew how to do and sweep away (or so we hoped) the widespread work circulating in early childhood services at the time, where mostly teachers’ minds and hands were central and children had a marginal role, which led to the same stereotyped products for all” (Vecchi, 2010, p. 132).


From time to time early childhood social media groups explode with the great ‘child-as-stamping-implement hand print activity debate’.  Educators either question or promote the production-line proliferation of children’s hand prints being embellished by adults and turned into ‘cute’ Santa sleighs, fish, flamingos and flowers.


Those defending or justifying their alterations of children’s arranged hand-prints suggest that no harm is done, especially if these ‘special-occasion’ activities are balanced out with quality open-ended arts experiences at other times. Justifications listed in defence of such activities include fine-motor benefits, colour recognition, the need for children to learn to follow instructions and even the suggestion that children learn creativity when replicating the adult template… (what the???). Some educators justify such products because they are considered to be cute mementos particularly valued by families. The suggestion that adult-directed processes should be minimised and that any defence of such practices suggests a lack of pedagogical reflection is often met with vehement denial.


During my two decades as an early childhood teacher, I never believed it was appropriate to draw on a child’s hand prints to turn it into an object or animal or to make or control children’s artistic expressions. I was taught to respect children’s work and to avoid writing on or altering it to suit adult agendas. However, I must come clean and confess that I did once made Christmas wreath patterns on calico wall-hangings using children’s hand prints?!


Time to reflect I have also constructed paper Christmas tree displays using cut-out tracings of children’s hands (mostly cut out by frantic educators) and printed my own children’s foot and hand prints onto cushion covers for the grandparents.  But this blog is not addressing concern about basic hand print experiences. There is nothing wrong with hand prints as long as they are not modified by teachers, parents or educators and as long as children are authentically afforded agency and rights. However, when adults use children’s bodies to create an image designed to be ‘cute’, often restraining the child’s inherent motivation to stamp their hands everywhere, they are restricting rather than expanding children’s experience.


We must think more deeply about the experiences offered to (or imposed upon) children in the name of art. We must reflect about the production of adult-controlled, adult-altered child hand prints and strongly advocate for children’s human right to make and express meaning through the arts and to “engage in play, recreation and cultural and artistic life”? (UNHRC, Article 31).


As Vecchi (2010) states, when adult hands, minds and processes are central, children’s capacity to demonstrate their individual, beautiful and intelligent strengths and capacities is pushed aside and restricted. Production line activities limit children’s opportunity to develop agency and to learn through authentic discovery-based experience. Children (and the adults who work with them) are capable of so much more and have a right to experience rich and meaningful arts-infused curricula.


In a recent online discussion, Melissa Brown, an early childhood teacher and educational leader (The Hills Little Learners, Seven Hills, NSW) shared a story that powerfully illustrates why adult-directed hand print activities and structured processes inhibit children’s creativity and capacity to think for themselves. Thanks to Melissa for allowing me to share her story here.


“I once had a child start at my service who had come from another service. An assortment of paints had been placed on the table and she asked me if she could paint. When she sat down to begin her artwork she looked up at me, a mere 3 years old, and said, “I do handprints now?” I responded, “of course if you want to.”

She then put her hand out in front of me and waited. Upon noticing this I gently encouraged her to try to paint her own hand. She looked at me uncertainly and appeared to ponder this for a moment before picking up a brush and asking, “what colour should I use?” I responded, “which ever colour you want.”  If I’m being honest, she almost looked overwhelmed at how many colours were available to her, but with some guidance she began painting her hand. 

“Where should I stick it?” She asked. 

“Where would you like to place it?” I asked in return. She responded, “I don’t know? What’s it going to be?” (At this point it was clear to me that this child had been exposed to a great deal of structured art activities.) I replied, “whatever you want it to be!”

 She then looked at me, smooshed her hand onto the paper, smiled at me and said, “it’s just a hand this time.” 


 What do the products of art tell us about the value of the process?


In Reggio Emilia, beautiful visual arts inspired products are a testament to beautiful learning processes (Cooper 2012, p.301). In fact, you can learn much about the value of the processes undertaken with children by evaluating the product or artifact that results from children’s work. The arts experiences offered to and enacted with children do matter.


Elliot Eisner suggested that the art product bears witness to the quality of the process and the degree to which the child has expressed their own ideas and learning and suggested that to ignore the interplay of process and product is to be pedagogically naïve (1973-1974). Applying this concept to the production-line use of children’s hands as an adult-controlled stamping implement and adult-embellished additions to children’s hand prints, I suggest that such products tell the story of children who are being denied their own voice and the opportunity to authentically learn and communicate through child-centred artistic process.


Choosing best practice – ALL the time.


To justify any learning experience that potentially restricts a child’s agency is not acceptable. The early childhood teacher and educator participants in my PhD research that practiced high quality visual arts centred curricula explained that their day was too rich and full to clutter it up with meaningless adult-driven activities that may be detrimental to children’s developing confidence and capacity with quality visual arts materials and processes. While the occasional close-ended activity might not ‘kill a child’s creativity’ in one fell swoop, any message that says ‘follow this template and I’ll draw on your work to turn it into something else’ and ‘I don’t trust you or your parents to value your authentic work’ may indeed impact negatively upon children’s developing artistic identity. If teachers and educators learn that a pedagogical approach is outdated or less than best practice, every effort must be made to raise the quality of practice at all times (even when looking for seasonal gift ideas!). If we truly advocate for children’s right to high quality learning experiences, poor pedagogy must never be excused.


Children have the right to experience nothing less.


The null curriculum


The visual arts experiences offered to, and enacted with, children matter. While educators correctly state that children learn through every experience, the type of experience offered can either stagnate or expand children’s learning, growth and development (Lindsay, 2015a).


Dewey (1938) explained that not all experiences are equal, stating:


“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience” (Dewey, 1938, p.13).


Despite this, many educators defend their choice to implement adult-directed, close-ended, production-line activities with the claim that such activities never did them any harm. However, I would suggest that when educators unquestioningly or stubbornly hold on to the view that such activities are just a bit of harmless fun, they are actually providing evidence that such childhood experiences do shut down a person’s future confidence to make and express meaning through and in the arts and influence educators’ capacity to appreciate the value of open-ended experiences and the types of learning that restrict children’s agency and identity.


In my PhD research most of the participants recalled the actions and choices of teachers as being instrumental in their loss of confidence in their own artistic capacity. For example, one participant was moved to tears, recalling that while she had no memories of art making during her preschool years, she vividly remembered a moment where she felt “really, really embarrassed” when a teacher publicly criticised her drawing. She noted that this personal lack of confidence in the domain of art directly fueled her feeling that she had no knowledge or capacity to implement visual arts learning experiences with children. She believed that close-ended teacher-directed learning activities were not appropriate, but had no confidence or visual arts content knowledge to effectively discern how to implement quality visual arts learning experiences with children. Eisner (2002) called this the null curriculum. This is the quality curriculum children miss out when educators who lack visual arts content knowledge and the confidence to implement quality learning experiences instead engage children in adult-directed, close-ended products.Such experiences communicate to the child that their own ideas and processes are not considered adequate.


Hand prints and artistic pedagogy


Children have the right NOT to have their artistic identity hampered by the adults who are supposed to guide and support their growth. But…what if you are an educator who, like those in my PhD study and many in society do not believe that they are artistic? (Lindsay, 2015a). What if, because of this lack of visual arts confidence and knowledge, following instructions and gathering activity ideas from Pinterest is your default solution to planning visual arts learning experiences? (Lindsay, 2015b).


I truly believe that teachers and educators are motivated by the desire to deliver the best possible curriculum they can and that when teachers and educators are supported to know better – they will do better. Consider watching an online learning module I developed for Early Childhood Australia titled “Visual art and creativity in your curriculum” to reflect with your colleagues about arts centred pedagogy (Lindsay, 2015c). Or consider reading some great books to build your knowledge and capacity (see for example Scarlett, 2018 and Talbott, 2017).


Ideas for quality hand print art

Too often educator practice is challenged, but little is offered by way of suggestions about ideas for better practice. This post therefore concludes with some authentic and child-centred ways to engage children in handprint art (and even the odd keepsake!).


Hand study projects of inquiry: Explore hands with children. Research the structure and purpose of hands. Have the children ask and answer and consider questions such as, “What can my hands do? What can we use hands for? How are hands the same or different?” Investigate the bones and muscles of hands. This type of project of inquiry can lead to meaningful and authentic arts learning experiences, including but certainly not limited to the ideas listed here.


Aboriginal perspectives: Investigate and experiment with hand print art inspired by Aboriginal artists. Make paint with clay slurry, natural materials and ochre powders and print these with hands.


Cultural Perspectives: Research and gather images of a range of hand decoration practices and consider cultural arts practices involving painting on and decorating hands, e.g. henna designs.


Art appreciation: Gather and display images of all kinds of hand representations in portraits and sculptures. Visit any statues in your community and take photographs, do drawing studies, feel, measure and trace shadows.


Clay:  Rolling cylinder shapes and constructing ‘fingers’. Using hands to create, make and develop a relationship with the medium of clay. Mark-making, hand tracing and hand imprints into slabs of clay.


Photographs: Close-up photographs of children’s hands working and making (along with the date and the learning story) are a powerful keepsake for families and effectively support the child and the family to be witnesses to children’s strong capabilities.


Charcoal: hand tracing and charcoal prints.


Painting: Painting on and with hands. That’s it…no embellishment required! Choose complimentary colours so that even when the colours mix, the resulting product will be aesthetically pleasing. If you want a keepsake, either frame the work or pop it onto a cheap canvas!


Finger-painting: Good old home-made cornflour paint coloured with strong vegetable dye is an absolute sensory and visual delight – and prints can be taken when children have finished swirling and making patterns. Such prints could be framed and accompanied by a photo of the child at play! Get the recipe for finger-paint here.


Plaster-casts: Smooth out some damp sand, make a hand indentation and fill the space with plaster of Paris.


Mono-print or gelli prints: Amazing handprints can be created using the authentic printmaking processes of either block printers ink on Perspex plates or acrylc paints with geli-plates. If you are not sure of these processes there are plenty of you-tube instructions to seek out.


This article has been reprinted with author permission. Find the original here.

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