“Ms. J!  Ms. J!  Come look what I painted!”

Ella beamed at me from around our art easel in my 4 year old classroom yesterday, barely able to contain her excitement.  It was catching.  I wondered what I would see as I rounded the side of the easel: her name written across the white paper?  A rainbow with pretty flowers underneath?  Maybe an ocean with all sorts of sea creatures that only a 4 year old imagination could conjure?

Nope, I saw BROWN.

Brown.  Brown paper, brown easel stand, brown paint brushes.  Oh, they didn’t start out brown.  They were initially red, yellow, green and blue.  But now, each of the easel’s paint pots were a murky brown and each brush was dripping with the same goopy concoction.

This story could take two turns at this point.  I, as Ella’s teacher, could have chastized her for mixing the colors, rendering the easel unusable for the rest of the day and the rest of the class.  I could have reminded her of our rule to take care of our room and the things in it so that everyone could enjoy it.  And, I could have taken her paper down and thrown it away, calling it a “mess”.

If you know me, though, this is absolutely NOT something I would do.  Instead, I told Ella that her work was “impressive”.  It was a good word choice; it is quite neutral while still sounding encouraging.  I then asked her to tell me about her painting.

Ella, in her own words, described to me her exploration of the primary colors.  She mixed yellow and blue on the paper and realized she had a green color, but it didn’t match the green in the paint pot.  So, she tried adding some red.  And then some more yellow, and some more blue.  Pretty soon, she was swirling colors together and making a “yummy chocolate pie” on her paper.  Yes, that’s exactly what it looked like to me – pie, but without the boundaries of a crust.  Free exploration with a lesson in color making.  Wow.

That is what art needs to be for children – free exploration.  Children need the freedom to create and explore in a non-threatening environment.  They need encouragement and praise, even when all we see is a mess of brown.  Becasue, in that brown is a lesson to be learned, and it is much more valuable than keeping the paint colors separate.