‘CHILD ART’ - History in education

In the context of the nature/nurture argument in education, this essay will attempt to explain what ‘child art’ is and how it came to exist. A basic summary of the nature/nurture argument is as follows. The naturists believe that childhood is a natural stage of development that generates its own unique experience relative to the individual child. It is a privileged stage of life; the role of education in this respect is to encourage such development with as little interference as possible. The nurturists argue that education should impart knowledge and social skills in preparation for participation in society. Children are presumed capable of learning these skills and knowledge at all stages of development to varying degrees. The polarities between these two sides show the reactive state of educational beliefs and theory. It is within this context that concepts such as ‘child art’ have evolved.

To begin this discussion it is necessary to trace the origins of the educational ideas that produced such concepts as ‘child art’. One of the early arguments, of a distinctly educational viewpoint on natural development and child rearing, is that of Jean Jacques Rousseau. His educational romance Emile, presents an unconventional (at the time of writing) view of educational and social reformation, based on his beliefs about ‘nature’ and individual freedom. His views on childhood education were centred on the notion that natural development, encouraged in accordance with the individual’s own nature, could only be achieved through “well-regulated liberty”[1]. He viewed freedom as being something controlled by the rationale of the upper classes, and the ‘unnatural’ constraints and lies imposed on individual truth, by religion and the state.

Rousseau was looking for the universal nature of truth common to all “men;” it was in this search that he saw the promise of a new and ideal society. He saw childhood education as the means by which to change society through ‘natural’ development. The emphasis was on learning by individual experience, and the treatment of children in accordance with evolutionary stages of development, free from the influence of social constructs of adult morality and reason:

Natural growth calls for quite a different kind of training. The mind should be left undisturbed till its faculties have developed; for while it is blind it cannot see the torch you offer it, nor can it follow through the vast expanse of ideas a path so faintly traced by reason that the best eyes can scarcely follow it. (Emile, p. 200)

The implications and influence on pedagogical education, generated by Rousseau’s romantic notions of natural and evolutionary development, show in the ideas of educators that followed, like Freidrich Froebel, Franz Cizek, and Wilhelm Viola. Rousseau’s celebration of “natural liberty” and childhood education paved the way for notions of education, like ‘art education’ and ‘child art’, to emerge in response to the apparent need for a form of expression that was natural, and relevant, to the early stages of childhood development. As Stuart Macdonald has pointed out, ”the concept that art education for the child should differ from that for adolescents and adults stemmed from Rousseau’s scheme of education in Emile ” [2]. It must be noted that Rousseau did not place any importance or relevance on ‘art’ in relation to a child’s natural development. In fact, he saw it (‘art’) as a corrupting influence that was morally ‘bad’ and detrimental to nature at that stage of a human’s life.

Rousseau’s naturist ideas were largely idealistic and romantic, and because of this, they were not coherent enough at the time to justify as a form of education for children. Froebel, along with others, developed the ideas expressed by Rousseau as a basis for such an education. Froebel believed that drawing was the means by which children developed naturally. He developed the concept of ‘Kindergarten’ as a place for individual children to develop in accordance with the laws of nature. Froebel’s ideas were scientific in that he used esoteric precepts of psychology, in relation to understanding what a child’s drawing represented:

Beautiful drawing . . . demands the spontaneous, skilled use of the senses . . . the development required for drawing, conditions in the same way a harmoniously unfolded soul, a feeling, experiencing mind, as well as a thoughtfully comparing, intelligent, and perceptive intellect, forming judgement, correct conclusion, and so, finally, an idea of that which is to be formed . . .

As can be seen, his naturist idealism peppered with psychological jargon, shines through in his views about the importance of child drawings. His educational philosophy, which is based on the notion that the child is a self-determined vessel of creativity, inspired other educators and artists later on like Franz Cizek, Paul Klee, Alexander Bain, and the Bloomsbury group, to name a few.
Like Froebel and Rousseau, Herbert Spencer championed the naturist ideals about drawing and childhood education, except he “modified [it] . . . from the scientific viewpoint of a nineteenth century evolutionist”[3].

Spencer saw children’s drawing as an evolutionary process. In fact, he believed it was the main factor in human development. He was of the opinion that the science of psychology was the means by which education could develop, and a culture could come to understand itself, through the interpretation of children’s drawings. Thus, childhood art education became important as a tool to understanding and determining “self-culture” and progressing as a culture in general.

Spencer’s educational theories attacked the nurturist arguments of mass-education theorists like Henry Cole, who ran state controlled institutions that were geared up for social and industrial production. Spencer’s ideas were also nurturist, in the sense that they supported utilitarian ideas of training children to be productive members of society. However, his ideas were more naturist in origin (following on from Rousseau’s ‘nature of the child’), in that they argued that there is a natural development process (“phylogenesis”) in drawing, that should be integrated into childhood education.

Spencer’s ideas are also important to the concept of ‘child art’ because any development (according to him) in the individual, and therefore the whole society, could be influenced and reflected by the drawings of the child. While it must be said at this stage that the drawings of children were not yet considered as art works, there was great importance placed on their significance as indicators of cultural and biological development.

Although there was a large void of disagreement between the two factions of thought (nature & nurture), ‘art education’ became an increasingly important concept to the curriculum of schools and to the educational theories of both sides. Cole is important here in this instance for he implemented the establishment of art schools in England, art training for teachers, and compulsory art education as a subject on an equal footing with other subjects. This is important in relation to the origins of ‘child art’ as well, because it generated interest in children’s drawings and paintings, in such a way that they became viewed as ‘art works’.

In other words, this social change provided the impetus and the infrastructure, wherein the claims and ideas about ‘art’ education and making ‘art-works’, as being essential to a child’s ‘natural’ development, began to be seen as educationally beneficial and logically defensible. With this implementation, and despite the negative impact on the radically nurturist Kensington system, ‘Art education’ (rather than ‘drawing education’) became to be a valid and accepted part of the infrastructure of educational teaching and training (educators).

Alexander Bain helped this along by following on where Spencer left off. In maintaining that “Drawing was not a universal mind-trainer, but also that art appreciation, or the cultivation of ‘Art-Emotion’ as he put it, was the important factor in education, not Drawing” [4]. His idea was that art education provided the means by which children could have fun and express themselves creatively. Other educational thought developed along the same lines until the idea of art education was more acceptable in Victorian education circles.

So far, children’s drawings were still not considered viable art forms, like other established adult art works and movements. The rise in anthropological studies and scientific (in particular, psychological) research changed all that with their growing interest in child drawing as an important means of developmental research. The influential and growing relationship, between education and science, meant that this perceived importance transferred to the educators, curriculum, and to the type of experience drawing was considered as. The Kensington attitude toward children’s drawings, as only having commercial value in industry, was its main weak point as it was in contrast to developmental (and naturist) scientific beliefs, which had popular and governmental support.

‘Art’ began to evolve as a practice along with the changing times. The continuing (but waning) influence of Romanticism encouraged a new style of expression that was more ‘primitive’ and ‘natural’, with an emphasis on the individual, freedom (in thought and from authority), and the ‘symbolic’. Like science, ‘art movements’ represented new ideas and invention, which had profound influence on the intellectual culture in which they existed. Children’s drawings were beginning to be seen, like the cave drawings of ‘primitive man’, in the context of symbolic interpretation and meaning. Comparisons between ancient ‘primitive’ cultures and children’s drawings increased, as artists became interested in ‘primitivism’ and the symbolic nature of cultural artefacts. The connection became apparent and soon artists saw in children’s works, that which they tried so hard to replicate in their own ‘art works’.

Children were seen as ‘artists’, naturally endowed with ‘artistic talent’, who could perceive their social and natural environment with an innocently naïve sense of truth and insight, reminiscent of primitive adult cultures from the past (Palaeolithic Age) and the present (Aborigine). This increasing concern with ‘culture’ and of children as artists whose work represents “the primordial origins of art”[5], was typical of artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and many others, who delighted and strove for the same kind of rawness and meaning in their own work. Like the nature/nurture arguments, these new theories on ‘art’ became embroiled with debate as to what the work in question signified. One thing that came from the debates of the modern movements, was that ‘primitive art’, and therefore ‘child art’, were viable art forms. Herbert Read suggested that “a growing appreciation of primitive art, tribal art and revolutionary developments in modern painting helped to bring children’s art within the general range of aesthetic appreciation” [6].

Franz Cizek, perhaps more so than others, defined what ‘child art’ was and what he thought it should be:

Child Art was disregarded, ridiculed, and scoffed at. Even now people visit me who, when I show them real infantile work, only laugh. I estimate very highly those things done by small children. They are the first and purest source of artistic creation . . .

and more definitively:

Child Art is an art which only the child can produce. There is something that the child can also perform, but that we do not call art. It is imitation, it is artificial. [7]

Cizek approached art education with a naturist view. His theory on child art, obviously influenced by naturist idealism, was a reaction against logic-bound, scientifically based, notions of education and child development. Whilst he still used scientific concepts to explain art, he based his ideas on naturist convictions, “all true art contains psychology, but so wonderfully dosed as only nature can dose” [8].

With the conviction of his own ideas and studies and the views of his other artisan comrades, Cizek concluded that children were naturally gifted as artists and producers of art works. He saw this quality in children in somewhat phenomenological terms, in that it was separate from the adult art world. Children were individuals who perceived the world on a more instinctual and natural plane than adults did. Paradoxically, it was this adult experienced (and therefore morally corrupt, re. Rousseau) world, that must not influence the children’s.

Cizek believed in the innate will of the child to be creative and to develop ‘naturally’ (re, Froebel) and in the power of nature to develop humans free from unnatural and socially constructed constraints (i.e., morals, sin, reason etc). Cizek’s theories on art education and child art, may display inconsistencies and contradiction, but to explain them, along with all the other flaws in the other theories mentioned, would take more word space than this essay will allow.

The major flaw in Cizek’s theory was that his own adult influence was a major factor in the production of paintings and drawings by his child students. Obvious training in technical aspects and adult ideas of artistic practice and formality/tradition were reflected in the children’s highly stylised and competent works. So what was essentially a naturist theory of art education, based on his own ideas and those of Rousseau and Froebel, was in practice a nurturist based exercise in art training that steered the children far from their natural stages of creative development (maybe?).

Cizeks’ theory provided a model for future art educators to base their justifications of their discipline on. This artistic ideology was the high-water mark of naturist education theory, just as Cole’s was the nurturist extreme. The gradual shift of focus in the ideology and allegiances of the education theorists, anthropologists, and from artists, culminated in debate to look for connections between ‘primitivism’ and the adolescent production of ‘art’. Artistic movements, more so perhaps than educators, contributed to the evolution of childhood art education and concepts about ‘child art’ through their assimilation and recognition of the drawing and painting of children as a viable art form.


[1] See Readings in the History of Educational Thought, ‘Rosseau’, edited by Alan Cohen & Norman Garner (London: University of London Press Ltd) p. 91.

[2] See The History and Philosophy of Art Education, Ch. 18, ‘The Recognition of Child Art’, by Stuart Macdonald (London: University of London Press ltd.) p. 318.

[3] Ibid, p. 321.

[4] Ibid, pp. 324 - 325.

[5] Quote from Paul Klee.

[6] See The History and Philosophy of Art Education, Ch. 18, ‘The Recognition of Child Art’, by Stuart Macdonald (London: University of London Press ltd.) p. 329.

[7] See Child Art, by Wilhelm Viola, Ch. IV, ‘From Talks With Cizek’ (London: University of London Press, 1948) pp. 32 – 34.

[8] Ibid, p. 32.

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