Art in the Preschool Classroom: Finding Reality and Fantasy

One of the classes I’ve been taking this summer is “The Arts in Every Classroom” (you can view the same class here).  The arts seem easily incorporated into preschool, as the children are very naturally using music, movement, and visual art as a means of expressing themselves, almost constantly!  This class gave me a few new insights into incorporating the arts that I may not have considered before and I hope to be able to utilize the arts more in the future.  I’m particularly excited to utilize it during my “Experiencing the Arts through the Senses” theme I have planned for January!

As part of the culminating assignment, I needed to teach an art lesson.  Since I don’t start my school year until September, I used two of my own cutie pies as my star pupils.  I thought I’d share what we did here, in case you’d like to implement a similar lesson!

The objectives of this lesson are for the children to:

  • Consider the role of an artist as one who creates
  • Explore the combination of reality and fantasy in art
  • Look at well-known pieces of visual art and critique them, particularly on how they incorporate reality and fantasy
  • Create their own art and discuss the aspects of reality and fantasy within their own work

I started out by asking if they were artists.  We talked a bit about artists and what they do.  We focused on the fact that artists create.  Don’t forget that artists create more than just visual art (though that is the focus in this lesson).  Talk about creating music, dance, stories, etc.  After a short discussion, I told them I had a story about an artist I thought they’d enjoy.

I read the book  Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson.  This is a classic story about a boy who creates his own desired reality by drawing it around himself with his purple crayon. 

After reading, we discussed the story.  Was Harold an artist?  Yes!  He used his imagination and created something to show his ideas.  We flipped through a few pages and talked about Harold’s drawings, and what could really happen and what couldn’t.  I introduced the terms, “reality” and “fantasy”.  My boys particularly liked talking about the dragon and falling off a drawn mountain as fantasy, and being in their own beds as reality.  I talked briefly about how artists often mix the ideas of fantasy and reality.

Then I told them I had some pictures from some famous artists and I wanted them to tell me about how the pictures have some fantasy and some reality in them.  This can be a fuzzy concept for preschoolers, so I found it worked best to show them two similar paintings at the same time and have them point out which had more fantasy and then discuss the two pictures further from there.  I started with,

Toshusai Sharaku, “Portrait of Sakata Hangoro III as Fujikawa Mizuema”.  This is a fun picture to show children.  Sharaku particularly liked to include a bit of satire and exaggeration in his portraits, creating something like a caricature.  These exaggerations make it easier to point out the aspects of fantasy, particularly if you ask the children to try to make the same expression Sharaku painted on his subject.

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait de Lartiste sans Barbe.  This self-portrait is a bit more realistic looking, though the large, visible brush-strokes (more easily seen in the print than here) are certainly different than a real person appears.

Then we looked at two horse paintings.  The first:

Franz Marc, Spingendes Pferd.  Marc painted in the Modern Era.  That influence, coupled with his desire to depict the power and natural harmony of animals, gives his painting a wild, fantastical feel.

Next to it, we looked at :

Alex Colville, The Horses.  A very serene, realistic portrayal of horses.  Though also a part of the Modern Era, Colville is known for his realistic style, due in part to his using the technique of the French pointillists.   Thousands of tiny, almost indistinguishable brushstrokes give this painting a quality that makes you feel like you could almost pet the horses.

Because art usually contains both reality and fantasy on a continuum, in each set of pictures, it was easier to point out fantasy elements in one example when there was a more realistic example next to it.  While the children were quick to point out the obvious differences in fantastical and realistic qualities of these paintings, we also talked about how the “fantasy” paintings had realistic aspects (a man is real, a horse is real) but were presented in a fantastical way.  Likewise, the realistic paintings could portray something from the artist’s fantasy as well (though he had actually recently shaven before his portrait, van Gogh could have had a beard yet painted himself without; Colville could have painted horses even if he was sitting in an empty pasture).   Comparing paintings to photos would also be a fun way to make the fantasy/reality comparison.

Next, I told the boys that they would get to be artists.  I provided them with paper and a variety of tools and told them I would like them to create any picture they’d like, but that they needed to be able to tell me about the parts of their pictures that use reality and the parts that use fantasy.

The boys went right to work, and created with more intensity than I usually see.  I particularly like this photo of the two-handed, tongue-out technique!  Now that’s real focus!  As they drew, we talked about their pictures.    They explored with techniques and sometimes seemed to draw first, define later.  It really was about the process for them, thinking, exploring, explaining.  While that process was the more valuable aspect for them, here is what they produced:

My oldest son attached crayon shavings with Contact paper, saying they were “raining gumballs”, which he was quick to say is a fantasy.  (One I think he has personally had since watching the movie, “Bedtime Stories”.)

 He also made this picture of a Transformer.  The boys both talked about the transformers in the picture, and that they are “fantasy” because they’ve never seen real transformers, and that he was drawing them differently than the ones they had seen in cartoons.

According to my younger son, this is about the boy in the movie, “UP”.  I thought that was interesting, because I initially thought he was simply coloring and storytelling as two separate experiences until I realized  he had used the orange, black, and green that are predominant colors for that character.  He referred to the picture days later, giving it the same title and context.  (I also thought it was interesting that both boys pulled ideas from movies for their pictures, even though it had been weeks and even months since seeing some of those they imitated.)  We talked a little about the story “UP” and which parts were realistic and which parts were fantasy.

This was a fun activity to do with my boys!  They still frequently use the terms “real” and “fantasy”, days later.  This is a concept that preschoolers are just beginning to grasp and one that transfers from art to literacy as well, as they discuss fiction and non-fiction.  I also enjoyed incorporating famous works of art, and discussing them with the boys in the same way we discussed their own pictures.  This not only gives them exposure to great artworks, but conveys to them the value of their own work.  Additionally, the skills used to analyze and discuss the artwork builds their cognitive and language skills  right along with their creative skills.

Try this out with your preschoolers and see how it affects the way they talk about and produce their own art!

Top photo courtesy of piovasco.



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