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Ricardo Japiassu1

State University of Bahia-Uneb (Brazil)


Child art – arts teaching – teachers training programs – cultural-historical psychology

The article exposes a cultural-historical psychological approach to children art and proposes an original taxonomy to its developmental features. It also presents some problems related to art-teaching in Brazilian first levels of schooling today.

It would be utterly unfair to think that all the creating possibilities of children be limited exclusively to the arts. Regrettably, traditional education which has kept children from working has caused them to develop and manifest their creating capabilities preferably in the artistical sphere of action. 2

The issue of teaching arts in this country [Brazil] keeps in check today’s teacher education offered in the liberal arts graduations available (Visual Arts, Dance, Music and Drama) in pedagogy graduations, higher normal schools as well as in intermediate level teaching and teachers’ qualifying programs.
(1) What kind of information the professionals in education are acquiring in order to work with their students the various artistical languages in a methodical manner?
(2) If teaching qualification for children education and for the initial grades in grading schools is a prerogative for a school master, why the pedagogy graduations do not offer disciplines dealing with the esthetical specificity of every art form (Visual Arts, Dance, Music and Drama)?
(3) Why one cannot see an effort towards signaling methodological procedures for a systematic work with every one of the artistical representation in those graduations?
(4) If the pedagogical work with arts at children education level and at the initial grades in grading school (1st to 4th grade) is up to the artist exclusively, to the art-educator, and to the art teacher (the one egressed from the licentiate graduations in Visual Arts, Dance, Music and Drama) why is it so rare the presence of such professionals in those early levels of schooling?
It appears to me that by avoiding asking questions similar to the ones above – or by not bothering answer them – a silent orchestration towards “leaving it at that” is revealed. Thus I set out within this work to expose my point of view regarding such behavior.
I do not have the ambition of being the “truth owner”. Instead what I seek to propose here is equating such problems but not quite impartially. I understand that a teacher of children education and that of the initial grades is essentially “polyvalent”, that is, he is that “licentiate” professional who is able to carry out the pedagogical transposition of the knowledge of different fields, making it readily available for use in crèches, pre-schools and in the initial grades of grading schools (1st to 4th grade).

In Brazil now one has never heard math teachers or Portuguese teachers, for instance, being on duty at children education or even at the four first grades of the grading school system. Math and Portuguese licentiate graduations have as their goal enabling their teachers for teaching from 5th to 8th grade in the grading school system. The same holds true for the licentiate graduations in other fields of knowledge (such as arts, physical education, natural science, history and geography).3
Pedagogy graduations need therefore take on the specificity of the professional formation they intend to offer, creating thus the conditions of equality in the offer of the methodological directives for the pedagogical work with all the fields of knowledge. After all, being licensed to be in charge of children education and teaching the earlier grades in grading school is the schoolmaster’s prerogative.
Such a license is the ‘pit’ or core of a schoolmaster’s professional identity. It is of capital importance the commitment of the Education Departments at State University of Bahia-Uneb for the elaboration of a curricular mold that would not plight the excellence of the art teaching that Brazilian artists, art-educators and art teachers crave – and have long been seeking after.4
I have been seeking to be attentive to the development in the field of the Visual Arts in Brazil through specialized publications.5 Furthermore, I seek to attend to the meetings (both virtual and in person) promoted by the Federação de Arte-Educadores do Brasil/FAEB (Brazil’s Art-Educators Federation) because I am interested in studying children’s graphic plastic production both through the social historical psychology perspective and through its cultural-historical activity theory/CHAT.6
Contributing to teacher’s - the one who will be in charge of the early grades in grading school - (in)formation of the pedagogical practices with the Visual Arts, though in a modest way, is my goal within this text. I seek to show in an objective way within this article theorethical-practical resources that might be used by the teacher so that (s)he can understand and value children’s graphic plastic expression.

1. Towards an aesthetics of children art
The aesthetics of children art may refer the study of the production conditions and efects of children’s graphic and plastic (visual art) creation. That is a field of study that seeks to know the material conditions of production of children art and try to understand the aesthetical reaction psychism [fruition plus appreciation] of the perceivable results of children’s artistic creating activity.7
Many school masters, psychologists, teachers and art-educators have searched to know better and understand more, under several approaches, the aesthetics of children art. Including among those [alphabetical order] Ana Angélica Albano Moreira, Analice Dutra Pillar, Arno Stern, Celestin Freinet, Esteban Levin, Florence de Méredieu, Georg Kerschensteiner, Jean Piaget, K. Bühler, Herbert Read, Liliane Lurçat, Luquet, Luria, Rolando Valdés Marin, Rhoda Kellogg, Rudolf Arnheim, Schaefer-Simmern, Sueli Ferreira, Victor Lowenfeld, W. Lambert Brittain and Lev Vygotsky.
Scholars of the children art recognize, without exception, that there are phases, stages or periods that are common to the subjects involved in the process of appropriation of the drawing as a cultural-historical system of representation. As a matter of fact, from the scribble without intention of representation to a graph-plastic object representation properly said, any one can, clearly, identify invariant visual aspects in the process of appropriation of the drawing as a semiotic system on the part of the subject.
Evidently, children need to find themselves immerse in an environment in which pencil and paper, for instance, be part of the “tool kit” culturally made available to them while also in effective use by most experienced users in children’s social surroundings. Such objects (pencil and paper) and so their social meanings explicitly invite persons to use them in a very precise way. Their cultural meanings can only be effectively appropriated by the subject through their guided participation in a given social setting.8
The guided participation occurs in two ways: (1) from the peripheral observation of the ways in which the most experienced members, living in the same cultural setting as the person, use those objects (how they act with them) and (2) by means of explicit instructions to the subject on how (s)he must make use of those objects.
Some invariant visual aspects will be exposed later which will delineate the stages well-bread subjects, in the West literate cultures, have gone through as well as the guided participation process in those societies during her/his long “taking of possession” of drawing as a complex cultural system of semiotic representation.

There have been no account of, at least so far, in Brazil, an attempt to unify the different terms used to characterize the development of the plastic-graphic (visual art) expression of children. Usually the brazilian publications which deal with the issue use to borrow a specially formulated nomenclature of an author by the reason of that author be the way or main refference to penetrate the large ephysthemic ground of knowledge about children phsychografic expression - for example, Pillar9 and Moreira.10

Vygotsky approaches children art only in the eighth chapter of his book.11 He focuses drawing as an observable expression of man creative imagination therein. His work is meant to demonstrate the historical thesis of social constitution of imagination as a cultural psychological function (high function), and of how it is completely reformulated by verbal thinking.12
Sueli Ferreira clarifies that very well: “Vygotsky’s theory presents an advance in the way of interpreting the drawing” because “ (a) figuration reflects the knowledge of the child; and (b) their knowledge reflected in the drawing is that of their conceptions of reality which is built by the meaning of words.” 13
The terminology to characterize the stages of children art and the “etapização” (stage formation) of the psychographic expression of children which I present further is, therefore, an initiative of my teaching efforts towards representing an approach to children art that could cope with establishing a link between the theoric and methodologic fundamentals of cultural historical activity theory/CHAT and the post modern esthetic relativism or perspectivism – in which the educational directives are substantiated in order to comprehend the contemporary artistical productions.
What I basically do ahead is (1) (re)taking the concept of scheme14 formulated by Viktor Lowenfeld and W. Lambert Brittain;15 (2) (re)signing the terminology used by these psychologists to characterize the stages of children art;16 (3) Seeking to establish a dialogue between the terminology proposed by me and that originally used by Vygotsky;17 and, finally, (4) Justifying the pertinence of the terms I make use herein.

2. The development of children art according to Vygotsky

It is known that the first Brazilian study which mentioned the terminology used by Vygotsky to characterize the stages of the process of (co)elaboration of drawing as a cultural semiotic system is the book Imaginação e linguagem no desenho da criança [Imagination and Language in children drawing] by PhD Sueli Ferreira which is based upon her Master’s degree dissertation defended at Unicamp.18

I first met professor Suely when she was a member of the board of directors at Federação de Arte-Educadores do Brasil/FAEB [Brazil’s Art-Educators Federation]. Later, we always ended “bumping on one another” () in meetings of the FAEB and those of the Associação de Arte-Educadores de São Paulo/AAESP [Sao Paulo Art Educators Association] – and specially at III Conference for Sociocultural Research held in Campinas-SP.
Suely informs that the four stages identified along the psychographic development of children by Vygotsky are: (1) Scalon [echelon] of schemes; (2) Scalon of formalism and schematism; (3) Scalon of the nearest-reality representation and; (4) Scalon of representation properly said.19
Personally, I would rather name the stages described by Vigotsky of: (1) symbolic stage in place of “echelon of schemas” – for as he himself affirms “el pequeño artista es mucho más simbolista que naturalista” [The little artist is much more symbolist than naturalist];20 (2) symbolic-formalist stage in place of “echelon of formalism and schematism” – for he affirms that one begins in this period “a sentirse la forma y la línea” [to feel the shape and the (out)line];21 (3) veracious formalist stage (or likely formalist) in place of “echelon of closest-reality representation” – in which a “veracious representation” of the drawn objetcs comes into existence according to him22 and (4) aesthetics formalist stage (or formalist properly said) in place of “echelon of representations properly said” – for in this stage Vygotsky affirms being possible to identify “la imagem plástica” [the plastic image].23
I will be using henceforward the terminology described above to nominate the stages that characterize each one of the periods echeloned by Vygotsky and depicting them. It is worth reminding that Vygotsky makes a clipping in the cultural development of the children art by skipping the “prehistory” of drawing. For instance, the stage of the scribbles, scrawls and that of “amorphous expression of graphic isolated elements” does not concern the goals in his psychological essay.24
Indeed drawing as a semiotic system exists only after the scribbles period. In the scribbles period one cannot talk about a representational activity stricto sensu on the part of the children. As I have stated before Vygotsky’s intention in the book is to demonstrate the interrelations between the creative imagination and the infantile artistical creation in the way they present themselves and can be observed along three forms of aesthethic expression in schooling: Literature, Drama and Visual Arts/Drawing.
Vygotsky in his book, I repeat, is discussing the social constitution of an important cultural psychic function: the creative imagination. His subject of study is not children art as it is but, on the contrary, the relations between the creative imagination and the artistical creation in general.25 He approaches children’s plastic-graphic in a very quickly way. It only justifies its appearance in the book for being useful to the engagement in demonstrating the way in which the creative imagination expands itself and acquires an operation qualitatively superior along the cultural development of the individual as they interact with verbal thinking.

It is verifiable that the reasoning elaborated by Vygotsky in the eighth chapter of the book – in which he approaches children art – is developded in the form of a dialogue with the results of some researches conducted by scholars dedicated to the study of the psychographic expression of children of his time (Barnés, Bakushinskii, Büller, Kerschensteiner, Labunskaya&Pestel, Levinstein, Luquens, Pospiélova, Ricci, Sakúlina e Selly).

The essay brings also a little attachment with the reproduction of approximately two dozens of illustrations collected by those scholars. Vygotsky makes use of these illustrations to demonstrate the relevance of his “etapização” [stage system understanding of development].

The invariant aspects of children’s graphic art are demonstrated by him through drawings of various objects, human images and that of animals elaborated by children from different social backgrounds and ages. Following, let us have a look at these periods of development of children art and what distinguishes and characterizes them according to Vygotsky’s thought:

(1) Symbolic Stage [Echelon of Schemas] – It is the dummy’s stage “head-feet” which represents in a concise way the human image. It is the stage in which the vision of the object finds itself utterly subjected to its tactile-dynamic apparatus. This stage is described by Vygostky as the moment in which children draw the objects “out of memory” without any apparent concern with being faithful to the represented subject. That is: the individuals draw what they already know about the objects that they seek to represent by pursuing to contrast only the sketched segments they regard as being the most important ones [“schemas” in Vygotskian sense]. It is the period in which the child “represents in a symbolic manner objects that are very far from their true and real aspect” (italics mine).26 Vygotsky explains that an arbitrariness and the licence of children drawings in this stage is considerable because “The little artist is much more symbolist than naturalist” (my emphasis).27 Thus in the representations of a human being, in general, it has been proven that the subject limits themselves to tracing two or three parts of the human body causing their drawings to be “more like enumerations, or better yet, brief graphical reports on the subject they want to represent.”28 It is the period of the “x-rays drawings” too (for instance, drawings in which children sketch people dressed showing their legs under the garment).

(2) Symbolic-formalist stage [Echelon of formalism and schematism] – It is the stage in which one is already able to perceive greater elaboration of the sketching traces and shapes of children art. The vision and the dynamic-tactile apparatus of the individual fight one another in an attempt to subdue one of them. It is the period in which children begin to feel the need of not limiting themselves to enumerating the concrete aspects of the object they are representing. They also attempt to establish the greatest possible number of interconnections between the whole and parts represented. There is a kind of commixture of formalist and symbolist aspects in the graphic-plastic representation in this stage. On one hand it is noticed that the drawings remain quite symbolic but on the other hand though one begins to identify in them the germs of a closest-reality representation. It is a period which is not-so-easily distinguishable from the previous one though the drawings reveal a greater quantity of details. The represented figures appear more like the visual aspect an observer actually obtains with naked eye. There is a clear effort on the part of the subject in making her/his representations more verisimilar (likely). “X-rays drawings” are still pretty present in this period.

(3) Veracious-formalist stage [Echelon of closest-reality representation] – It is the period in which the symbolism which was present in the two previous stages ceases permanently. Vision shifts to utterly subject the dynamic-tactile apparatus of the person. Graphical and visual representations are faithful in this period but children still do not make use of the projective techniques. Naturalistic conventions which emphasize proportionality and size of the represented objects are often violated in this period thus destabilizing all the plasticity of figuration – according to a realistic aesthetic of representation.

(4) Aesthetics-formalist stage [Echelon of representation properly said] – The plasticity of figuration (from a realistic aesthetics point of view) is improved and expanded in this period because the visual motor coordination of the subject already enables her/him the victorious use of the projective techniques and of the realistic conventions. The achievement of a new manner of drawing is noticed. The subject is no more satisfied with the mere plastic graphic expression. S(he) seeks new representational habits, different graphic techniques, and professional artistic knowledge. Children art ceases to have an end in itself and becomes a creative work [artistic work stricto sensu].

3. The periodization of children art

Once children art “etapização” [conception of it in terms of stages] is stated by Vygotsky I proceed to expose a view of the periods that characterize the development or changes of drawing as a cultural system of representation according to what I consider the most adequate to a pedagogical mediation bearing in mind the formation of teachers to be in charge of children education and of the initial grades in grading school system:

  1. The uncontrolled scribble or doodle out of control – the uncontrolled scribble or doodle out of control characterize a period of development of fine motor coordination, necessary to the objectal manipulation of the marker (pencil, pen, paint brush, etc). The graphic plastic marks made by the individual on a base (e.g. sheet of paper, wall, floor), in this stage, are much the result of the exercise of a coordination of motor actions [ “praxies” ] absolutely indispensable to the adequate use of various cultural tools. Children art production has a much more expressive nature than a semiotic or symbolic one (see illustration 1). That is: the uncontrolled motor outflows causes scribbles and “zig-zags” on the surface to be marked. Only chance can lead an individual to sketching a line in this period, for instance, drawing a circular shape. Sketching a circle is still a hard task for children at this moment. The dexterity (preferred right hand-use) and the sinistrality (preferred left-hand use) cannot be clearly identified at this moment. One can notice that the marks go beyond the limits of the surface which is provided to the subject (drawing goes past the edges on a sheet of paper). It is also observable in general that the marks made by the child on the surfaces are ‘recorded’ thereon in such a way as if they suggested being caused by too much pressure applied to produce the scribbles or, on the contrary, being caused by a very light pressure of the marker on the surface. The use of more resistant markers such as a carpenter’s pencil, crayon, hydrographic pens, and large thick ink markers is usually recommended.

Illustration 1

Uncontrolled doodle
(2) The controlled scribble or doodle under control – The controlled scribble or doodle under control characterizes a greater differentiation between the marks produced on a surface by the same subject. It is noticed that the uncontrolled “zig-zag” of the initial stage gives place to circular shapes. That is: the circular sketches produced by chance now become clearly intentional. Circular shapes repeat themselves often in this period and they are continually enhanced according to the praxies [psycho-motor activity] which the child already possesses. Two strikingly phenomena are noticed at this moment: (1) a kind of proliferation of “juxtaposed circles” of different sizes as if they there were a production in series of many “little balls” (see illustration 2); and (2) the irradiation or drawings of a particular ciliated (hairlike) circular shape (see illustration 3). Children clearly demonstrate to be in an accelerated process of improvement of the sketching of circular shapes. They reveal clearly being able to keep their marks within the limits of the provided surface. In other words, the subject informs us to have acquired a greater control over her/his hand movements in this period. Long straight lines are also multiplied and enhanced by the child in this time too. The first graphical deeds or graphical act emerge – a deliberated attempt to represent objects through drawing.29 In the first graphical deeds everything occurs as if the subject’s early representational intention were “betrayed” along the execution of the, now, symbolic marks that are left on the surface. That occurs due to the difficulty which is still experienced by the child at coordinating complex motor actions which are required in the graphic plastic process of representing the objects. Parallel to that process, children begin to name their drawings by relating the marks made on the surface to concrete objects of their cultural world (they begin to say what objects their drawings seek to represent).

Illustration 2

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