In one of my four-year olds classes, we've been learning about fairytale characters -- princesses, dragons, monsters, fairies, and such. This week, I cut out stacks of construction paper crowns, and the kids each decorated one for themselves.
An important thing I've learned doing art with young children is to show an example of what is to be made first, as incomplete a product as is practical, and then to whisk it away into hiding as quickly as possible before they get too good a look at it. Otherwise, you'll end up with thirty-odd rough interpretations of your own example, rather than a fantastic display of the various imaginations of a classroom of four-year olds.
Children have incomparable imaginations. I've always known this as theory, but it's another thing to see it in action. Years ago, I watched a television study of children's art classes. Two different classes were assigned to draw flying birds. In one class, the kids were given no example, and no further elaboration -- the drawings had to come strictly from their own heads. They produced an incredible variety of flying creatures, many capturing details that generally go unnoticed by adults, and all of them unique ideas about birds. The other class was shown a skillfully-made landscape featuring migrating birds, and every kid in that class made the same drawing -- loose cursive "M" shapes, in "V" formation, like the ones in the painting. It is unlikely that most of those kids will ever draw a flying bird another way again. That's how I draw them, and it would take me a long time to think of a different way.
I gave my class only paper, glue, scissors, and a bit of encouragement, and we all got down to work. Being an adult, I naturally made my own crown as realistic as possible, with paper gems and diamonds, geometric shapes and stars. But my kids weren't so limited by experience and trivia as I was. Their crowns bore hearts and diamonds, but also crawfish, department stores, and bullet trains. I felt a little jealous, and very outdone.
Another teacher did the same craft, but seeing that four-year olds aren't so nimble with scissors, she cut out shapes for them, and they only glued them on. Their crowns had perfectly-formed geometric shapes, all sharp-cornered and neatly rounded, finely-executed hearts, stars, diamonds, and circles, but nothing else, and all the same. The children were still proud of their work, and they were thrilled to wear them as they left down the hall, and while I suppose that's what's important, I still felt a small loss.