Playing with Art: Process Over Product

What is Process Art?

I am Rachel Gemlo, a Program Facilitator here at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota. My background is in early childhood education and studio arts. I recently gave a presentation on process art at the FACS to the Max conference at Minnesota State University, Mankato. While preparing my presentation, I discovered that many people misunderstand what true process art really is – and at no fault! So what exactly is process art, anyway?

Process-art-creative-educational-exploration-activity-for-kidsThe word process implies that there is an intended process or steps to be taken and art implies that there will be some sort of creative visual in the end. And there IS great artwork that exists that was made with a process (like drip painting, or printmaking) that creates an end result of creativity and beauty. This, however, is much different than the process art that comes to my mind. Process art to me is a type of creative play in which the artist, of any age, PLAYS with materials in an inspiring, encouraging, and open-ended environment with no expectations. This type of art, in my opinion, is ESSENTIAL in early childhood settings, elementary schools, high schools, and even into adulthood. And here at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, you will find that kind of art-making as well.

Can Playing with Art be Educational?

Absolutely! There are many benefits to exploring art with kids. But sometimes, that learning outcome –the finished product– does not and should not matter. When it comes to art, sometimes it is important and worthwhile to play for the sake of playing. Even in an educational setting. It is important that the person leading the activity  (such as a teacher)  believes that there is power in the process of playing with art and that it is not all about the end product. Throughout the course of the activity, some kids will create many pieces of artwork while others will make none – they might even throw it away after their time in the studio and that is okay!

Process Art is Unique

True process art is unique to the child (artist) and the time and setting in which it is created.

Process Art vs. Product Art visual comparison

On the left is an artwork created by a child that explored the outdoor space of a daycare/preschool. This artist found many objects and additions to help them express themselves and learn about their environment. On the right are many works created by different artists. They all look similar and were made by following step-by-step instructions with specific materials offered.

The Rules of Process Art

I don’t typically like rules in art but these ones are important in creating a studio that is open to endless possibilities and learning opportunities.

  1. No instruction: Sometimes materials need an introduction if they are new, explaining how they work in different ways and how to care for them when we are done but beyond that, don’t make examples or guide the creativity in any way if you can help it!
  2. No time limit: This would be ideal and can be achieved in many situations however we are often under time constraints. But this is where setup and clean up procedures come in very handy. Set up an inspiring environment with clear labels and encourage a collaborative, community responsibility to care for the space so that setting up and cleaning up takes minimal time no matter what the materials are.
  3. No pressure for an end product: The art experience is the process of working with materials, experimenting, fail and try again, sensory, etc… creating their own story – which is an ongoing work of art.

Benefits of Playing with Art

This is the shortlist of benefits achieved through playing with art. Art can oftentimes be a step away from reality, a meditative process – but it also has many real-life applications that can be practiced in a safe setting.

  • Social-emotional skills development
  • improved self-confidence
  • motor skill development
  • risk-taking
  • teamwork, collaboration, and community building
  • self-expression
  • science
  • observation
  • exploration
  • prediction
  • pride
  • independence
  • self-regulation
  • spatial reasoning
  • imagination
  • learning that mistakes are part of the learning process

Tips for Leading a Process Art Activity with Kids

As I said before, I don’t like rules, so here are some tips that I have discovered over time that create an open, welcoming, and productive studio.

  • Create an artistic environment.
  • While the artists are working, encourage the use of artistic language.
  • Resist the urge to ask “what is it?”
  • Try to stay out of the way unless an idea seems unsafe or impractical – then you could give suggestions.
  • Do not make examples. This only creates room for “mistakes” and self-doubt.
  • Think outside the box when it comes to materials.

Process Art in Action

The following photos are examples of process art in action. While most of these are in a preschool setting or with younger children, they can be completed with any age or adapted for other age groups if need be. Don’t be intimidated by a mess or not understanding because through the process and through the doing and working with materials is where the experience happens!







Please come and join me on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Children’s Museum in Cecil’s Imagineering Loft to PLAY WITH ART!

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