Layers of Experience: Visual arts explorations with babies and toddlers

By Sally Maher (with Dr Gai Lindsay)


Please let me introduce you to Sally Maher, a Bachelor of Education – The Early Years pre-service teacher education student at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: I am a University of Wollongong Student currently studying in the Bachelor of Education-The Early Years degree. While studying, I work full time at Salamander Early Education with a team of outstanding educators. I am passionate about advocating for play based learning in which children are able to evoke their rights to freely express themselves in their own meaningful ways. I believe in the power of forming secure attachments with children as this sets foundations for their active participation as confident and involved learners within their environments.

At the time of writing this blog post, Sally had recently completed her third year professional experience (PEX) 0-3 placement. Sally shared a piece of documentation about a series of visual arts learning experiences she had delivered with children throughout  the PEX placement. With permission and thanks to the children and families at Narnia Christian Preschool and Early Childhood Centre, we now share this story of layered arts experience.

This documentation highlights the rich learning contexts that are presented when teachers intentionally use quality materials and processes with children and actively engage themselves in the learning experience to support, encourage and scaffold children’s learning.

Visual artists apply under-painting and layered paint treatments to add depth, texture and rich tonal quality to their work. In offering several visual arts experiences  to the young children in her PEX placement, Sally embraced the opportunity to explore techniques and processes with children over time, laying down not only layers of paint, but laying important foundations for children’s visual arts learning and her own professional growth. She worked sustainably by layering children’s painting and mark making explorations onto the one canvas. Thanks to Sally for sharing her work here and to Annie (PEX University Liaison) for bringing Sally’s wonderful project to my attention. – Dr Gai Lindsay

Sally writes:

Pablo Picasso reportedly  stated that “every child is an artist” (quote investigator, n.d.).

Yet how do we define art? How do children engage with art? These are questions my workplace colleagues at Salamander Early Education and I have been exploring as a teaching question with 0–2-year-olds. Initially, our art provisions with this age were simply a large piece of paper, pencils and some occasional paint. We always aimed to provide children with opportunities to develop fine motor skills through open ended creative expression, however educators were unsure how to plan for young children’s visual arts learning. That was until a parent asked whether the children’s art was sent home, or was gathered in a portfolio for them to receive at the end of the year. This got us thinking! We did not have much evidence of children’s art making. With this age group we believe art is more of a collaborative approach, with our intentions focused more on the process than the end product. But in our experience, more often than not the product may end up being ripped or disposed of. Therefore, as a team we reflected on our perspectives about art. Collectively we knew the importance of the process of creativity, however we all concluded that several beliefs were  holding us back. These barriers included flustered feelings about mess and a lack of enjoyment of our processes with the children because we were focused on ‘crowd control’ to prevent children from walking away with paint brushes, eating the paint or painting the furniture. Having examined our attitudes, we reflected on what the children seem to like about art making? The tools and art materials, or the end product? Instead of limiting ourselves to what is easier and within our comfort zone, we began trialing new ideas to provide us with some evidence to consider how children perceive the processes of art.

However, just as we began this team reflection , I started my University Placement in a 0 -2 year-old room in another service. With these workplace reflections fresh in my mind, I commenced my PEX, only to discover that one of the children’s favourite books was ‘The Artist who Painted a Blue Horse’ by Eric Carle . I observed the children responded enthusiastically to sensory play opportunities. This inspired me to plan a collaborative art project experience that could showcase moving beyond closed experiences to exploring and engaging with open-ended and playful visual arts concepts. I introduced a variety of art mediums and tools for children to explore. When engaged in creative tasks children discover and learn new ways of thinking (Vygotsky, 1978). Limiting children to stereotyped and predetermined outcomes restricts children’s creative languages and does not honour their rights to experience quality arts learning (Lindsay, 2022). Through meaningful art experiences and projects of inquiry, children explore their arts languages and practice cognitive processes of observation, analysis, interpretation, expression and innovation (Talbot, 2016, p.8).

A story of layered learning

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together

Vincent Van Gogh.


Throughout this project experience, children explored arts processes to build their confidence and capability to express themselves as artists. No child participated in the exact same way as another, each learning about the materials in their own way to promote their own understandings. After all, “Children are human beings in the season of Childhood” (Gai Lindsay, citing personal notes from 2008 Reggio Emilia international conference) and they learn and develop at differing paces. The arts involve complex levels of information processing and through this experience, the children engaged in exploring a variety of open-ended concepts through the sensory nature of mark making, using cognitive thinking to discover the different properties of tools and materials and how these can be manipulated to create different textures.

When children are involved in open-ended art experiences, they form a sense of satisfaction and exercise personal agency when choosing how they manipulate the materials (Englebright-Fox & Berry, 2008). John Dewey theorised that children learn by doing, leading to the production of “something visible, audible or tangible” (cited in Lindsay, 2016, p. 3 ). Thus, integrating varying types of art experiences guides children to build on prior experiences to support skill development (Lindsay, 2016). During this project experience, each of the resources used to add layers to the canvas were provided across several days, allowing children repeated opportunities for practice. This supported children to gain confidence and develop persistence as they decided what actions to take to achieve a desired effect or test theories they were formulating. Through the scaffolded experiences children were coordinating fine and gross motor movements to control their hands and fingers for a purposeful task. Additionally, these opportunities allowed children time to explore concepts of colour mixing, evidencing the play schema of transformation. They discovered how they can mix the paint together, what will happen when they do and how it looks and feels. Throughout this project, children participated in a collaborative environment of social and language interaction as they navigated the play space and shared resources. Vygotsky’s notions of child development guided my teaching intentionality in this project, as I scaffolded interactions to enhance children’s understandings and skill development. Vygotsky noted  that children’s learning is influenced by the social interactions surrounding them as they watch and listen to others (Wright, 2012). Consequently, through the manipulation of materials, children’s verbal and non-verbal communication skills expand as they convey their thinking of concepts (Talbot, 2016 p.28).

In conclusion, linking back to my original question of what do 0-2 year old children like about art, I reflected on whether it was predominantly the tools and mediums or the end product?

While the end product of our canvas is quite magnificent, the children did not  appear to be particularly interested in looking at it afterwards.

I wonder if the children  have feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment remembering their involvement in the processes and the ideas projected and understandings they took from it?

It was evident to me that the action of doing, of being immersed in the process of the art was more profoundly important to them as they engaged in deep levels of concentration and enjoyment. To quote Vincent Van Gogh “The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.”

While valuing the learning embedded in each layer of the arts process, perhaps adults, more than children, place value on the end product. As a pre-service teacher, this experience reassured me that the experiences offered in classrooms reveal the beliefs and practices of the educator who planned the arts experience (Lindsay, 2022). My professional goal is to commit to layering quality learning experiences for both children and myself as together we learn practice artful learning. 


Englebright Fox, J. & Berry, S. (2008). Art in Early Childhood: Curriculum Connections. Early Childhood News. Retrieved from

Good Reads quotable quotes. (n.d.).

Lindsay, G. (2016). Do Visual Art Experiences in Early Childhood Settings Foster Educative Growth or Stagnation? International Art in Early Childhood Research Journal, 5 (1).

Lindsay, G. (2022). Defending the Ninety-Nine: Visual Arts Pedagogy as Advocacy. Pedagogy+ the art of teaching. IBSN 978-0-646-97422- August/July Issue 12.

Quote investigator (n.d.). Every Child Is an Artist. The Problem Is How to Remain an Artist Once He or She Grows Up

Quote investigator (n.d.).

Talbot, J. (2016). Joy and Mess: A Handbook for Educators. Big Fat Smile Group Ltd

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Wright, S. (eds). (2012). Children, Meaning-Making and the Arts (2nd ed.) French Forests, NSW: Pearson

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