Process V Product – which is best?
I have recently read a wonderful article by Dr Gai Lindsey on the need for educators to value the work of children and not reduce creativity to a factory line existence churning out multiple copies of the same thing. There are so many examples on Pinterest, of cards and pictures made from children’s handprints which, whilst they are cute, involve little learning, are adult directed, remove children from their play and are created by means of a production line.
I think many of us have been in this boat at one time or another. I certainly have, in the run up to Christmas, trying to get 90 cards completed whilst practising for the nativity performance to parents! At the end of a long and tiring term I could have done without either! I thought they were meaningless in terms of children’s creativity and independence and I constantly asked myself, who is this for? Not for the children that’s for sure!
What is Creativity?
How we define creativity, I think, is at the heart of this debate as I’m sure there are many who support the product based approach who believe that they are providing children with great opportunities for creativity.
Having been a local authority moderator, in the past, I have seen first hand, just how structured some ‘creative’ activities can be. Some years ago (pre 2012), I visited a school who operated a carousel system, in reception. There were 6 tables, some with adults and some without, each set with an activity. When the bell was rung, children got up from one table, moved to the next and started on a new activity.
The ‘creative’ activity on offer was block printing and there were 6 textured stamps, along with a tray of different coloured paint and some white paper. One of the children gleefully got stuck in, dipping the stamps into paint and stamping them all over the place until he was stopped, by the practitioner, who told him he wasn’t doing it properly. She modelled which colours were to be used and where each stamp was to be placed and, when children tried to do anything different, they were stopped and reminded of the instructions, resulting in 30 identical pieces of work.
What we say to children is so important as they learn what they live and, if they are told often enough that their way is the wrong way, they will soon lose the confidence to explore and experiment, believing instead that there is only one way – the ‘right’ way as shown by practitioners. Nothing is guaranteed to squash creativity more than this. You can imagine my surprise when I was told that many children in the class were exceeding the early learning goals in creative development!
So what is creativity? If we could all agree on a definition it might make things easier but there are as many different answers to this question as there are people. I like the definition below, by punk rocker Henry Rollins.
“Starting with nothing and ending up with something. Interpreting something you saw or experienced and processing it so it comes out different than how it went in.”
This strikes a chord with me, as this is so open ended and speaks to my inclination towards using loose materials, natural and recyclable, for both the playscape and as resources for play and creativity.
Process v Product
This debate has been raging for many years with people, for and against, sometimes becoming entrenched in their positions. I came across yet another blog, on Facebook yesterday, discussing the subject of ‘creative craft – activity or craptivity?‘ I was surprised to discover that there is a Facebook group dedicated to ‘craptivities’ – a term coined for an entire range of mass produced, production line ‘creative’ activities. It even carries a strap line – No children were educated in the making of these products.
I must admit I did have a good laugh whilst looking at many examples on the site and agree that they provide little in the way of creativity, but I wouldn’t go so far as to denigrate the practitioners delivering them, as all educators aim to do their best for the children in their care and will most likely have genuine reasons for sourcing these activities. It could be that they are insecure and lack the knowledge and skills themselves in this area, due to a lack of professional development, and feel more secure following a step by step approach. Perhaps these are the practitioners I see on Facebook who, when a new activity is posted, message one another planning together to do this the following week.
I firmly believe that the process of any activity is far more important than the outcome. For younger children particularly, it’s all about the process as they enthusiastically explore new materials, often resulting in a gloopy, brown mess!
The process, or doing, is where actual learning takes place and where attitudes are developed. This is where you will find evidence for the characteristics of effective learning as children make links between prior and current learning, where they develop their own ideas, take risks and try something new and, where they show perseverance and resilience in the face of failure.
Who benefits from a product-based approach?
Although I fall mainly into the process ‘camp’, I have taught many children, over the years, who baulk at the idea of creating something without some sort of template or set of instructions. My grandson (aged 10) and who is currently being assessed for ASD, is a great example of this. He loves lego but cannot create anything without a set of instructions as he lacks the imagination to create his own and if pressed, becomes anxious and upset.
He needs to know what he is making, what it looks like and how it is made. He is completely at a loss when presented with a construction set or an open ended creative activity. He will occasionally, if he is in the mood, colour in pre-drawn pictures but does not like to draw or paint himself. I have taught many children with ASD who have also presented in this way.
It should be remembered however, that every child is an individual so there will be some children with ASD, and some neuro-typical children, who don’t fit into either camp.
Insisting children create from scratch is as prescriptive as providing them with a template to follow. I can think of many children I have taught, over the years, including my grandson, who freeze when faced with a blank piece of paper and were more comfortable following a template. If we are to meet the needs of the individual then we need to think carefully about how we can adapt our provision in order for them to comfortably participate.
Is there a middle ground?
I don’t think there is anything wrong in sometimes using a template but I do think you need to be clear as to why you are doing it and how. They can be used for introducing a skill or as a way to introduce adult directed, independent activities and as such are quite useful.
I believe we need to teach children a set of skills, across different types of media, such as a range of joining techniques, different printing or painting techniques then allow them time to practise, explore and consolidate their skills so they can use these in the process of their own creations. When introducing a technique for the first time, I often used a template, such as making split pin story characters, for example.
The body parts of a story character were drawn onto a piece of card for children to cut round, then join with split pins to create a moving character. This was definitely a prescriptive activity and, whilst I would agree that there was a pre-determined outcome and they all looked pretty much alike (dependent on their ability with the scissors) the children loved them, particularly those who were not too ‘creative’. The fact that they could create a moving figure appealed to many and, once assembled, they could be painted, decorated with colouring pencils, collage or a mix of media so were all different.
The learning intention was for children to be able to use a split pin to create a moving part and, if children decided that they wanted to create their own or to arrange the body parts in different ways, they were not reprimanded for this, instead they were praised for using their own ingenuity to create something new and different. I always liked to share children’s ideas as this often acted as a catalyst to a whole raft of new creations as children took ideas from their peers and incorporated them into their own.
One thing I should mention, which I think makes all the difference, is that this was not an adult led activity and children were not pulled away from their play to do them. These activities were presented as challenges and were modelled to the children at the beginning of the day, with the expectation that they completed them independently at some point. The template was removed, after modelling, so children didn’t copy the original but there was always an adult available to support the children should they need a re-cap of the skill being taught.
How to set up your learning environment to support the development of creativity
If you want to foster creative development, you need to provide children with access to a range of resources with which to create. Provide them with as wide a range of different materials as possible, the tools needed to manipulate them, different types of attachment to join them and colour, with which to change them.
Less is more and I wouldn’t advocate that you have everything in the workshop from day one, as that would cause chaos! Instead, this needs to be staggered so that once a skill has been taught then the resources can be introduced to the workshop in order for children to apply new learning independently.
Take play dough for example. Teach children the process of making the dough, make explicit the ingredients and measures needed for each, then provide them with the resources to make this independently. Support children in remembering the process by displaying a photo sequence for them to reference. This enables independence, first-hand experience of changes to materials and opportunities for problem solving when the dough becomes too wet or too sticky, as well as links to other areas of the curriculum.
Children who are still at the exploratory stage would benefit from the development of a separate area, enabling them to explore to their hearts content whilst allowing those who can make their own dough to shape, mould and create with it. Once children are proficient dough makers you can further develop the process by introducing texture or scent, loose materials or link this to role play by adding a cooker and kitchen implements or make salt dough creations ….. the enhancements can go on and on.
Moving to change
All practitioners develop their own pedagogy, formed over time through training, experiences of different settings, working alongside, or observing more experienced colleagues as well as through research, reflection and evaluation.
However with school budgets at an all-time low and access to training dwindling as a result, practitioners need to think smart about how they can work together to develop creativity in their setting.
Start by looking at your provision and daily routines. Do you value child-initiated, open ended process led experiences or, do you stop children when they are engaged in play to participate in an adult directed activity, with a defined end product, whether they want to or not? Are you teaching children the skills needed for creating, such as a range of joining or printing techniques, that they can then apply independently? Do children have choice in the materials that they use or do you provide these for them?
Share your views on what creativity means to you? What knowledge, skills and attitudes do you want to help the children to develop? How does this link to the enabling environment and the Characteristics of Effective Learning?
Discuss the strengths within your team. Who is confident delivering creative activities and the knowledge and skills that accompany them? Who is better at story telling? Who is more confident teaching outside? Take time to observe one another teaching as you will learn as much, if not more, than you would on a training course because you will see immediate impact on the children in your care. You can also link up with other settings in your area to further develop this practice.
From this you can reach a consensus as to why you work in a particular way. You can pin point the pro’s and con’s, from both an organisational and developmental point of view, before coming to an agreement on the core values of your setting, on which your pedagogy will be based, to ensure that you put creativity, in all its forms, at the heart of your curriculum.