It Is Probably Not An Open-Ended Art Experience If . . .

We love all things art. We stop by booths at festivals, attend local mommy and me classes every now, and visit our nearby children’s museum to play with whatever art materials others have to offer. I have experienced two classes of sorts with my daughters, in which the educators spoke of their strong support support for open-ended art experiences and then immediately provided the exact opposite.

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I can only guess that open-ended art, just like so much about parenting-related phrases like “natural parenting” or “free range parenting,” is defined and interpreted by the implementer. Maybe to some people, an art experience is considered open-ended if the children can participate at some point without direction.


To me, open-ended means that children have access to art materials and use them as they see fit, as long as they are using them safely. Too broad a definition?


Here’s some things to keep in mind if you are trying to determine if the activity is open-ended or not. If these things are happening, then I think it’s more likely than not that the cookie-cutter approach to art-making is afoot.


This art is probably not open-ended if . . .

-You are giving directions or describing steps to complete the project.
Example, “Now it’s time to glue the leaves on.”


Instead, an open-ended art experience would have no directions. None.  The only possible exception is explaining the potential uses of tools if they are unfamiliar, such as, “This glue will make the paper stick together.”


-You have pre-cut or  pre-assembled any part of the art materials for convenience. Example: the teachers had the children making a wreath. The children had access to beautiful and various colored pre-cut leaves. The children, in this instance, were left to their own to glue the leaves to the plate – the open-ended portion – but by preparing the leaves in specific colors, the teachers determined what leaves looked like rather then the child determining the color, shape and/or texture.


-You determine when the art is finished (and there is no invitation to pick up another time if time has run out).  Example: the teacher tells the child that she has used enough paint/glue and encourages them to move onto another aspect of the project or something else all together.


Some children need to use too much. While the adult may see no space left for glitter or feel that the the painting that is now turning brown is now less than appealing, remember that the child is having an experience shaking, making brushstrokes, and seeing what will happen next. When the adult intervenes, it is likely because they are prioritizing the preservation of a product rather than preserving the child’s right to see what will happen if . . .


-The child can not tell their work apart from another child’s.  When the art is all laid out and it is time to take it home, the child cannot tell which one is hers or his because they are all so similar and made from the same materials/objects.



No two children are identical, so why would their art appear to be that way?  Children can make many decisions and thoughtful choices during an art experience. From choosing colors to deciding the types of marks to make, they most often remember which work they did when they are the ones making the artistic decisions. Just as a quick test, I laid these two watercolors out and asked Greysen which one was her sisters. She knew instantly, and so did I.



From scribbles to clay lumps, art is a record of the experience that children have had. When there are fewer decisions for children to make, there is less distinction between their work, and ultimately less ownership.


-The child points to the art and says, “My teacher did that.”  When I asked Greysen to tell me about something she had made, she readily told me what it was, as well as what contributions her teacher had made to the project.


Since there are no expectations for a final product in open-ended art experiences, adults have no need to contribute to the completion of a work.


Of course, there are many reasons and many people who choose not to provide open-ended art experiences. If, however, you are someone who believes in the value of open-ended art experiences, especially in the early years, and you contribute a little here and there, I hope this list will help clear up how a little help makes it less the child’s art, and more the adult’s.




  1. Kelsey says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. Shoshana says:

    I love this. Just the other day when I was picking Maya up from school we have to go find her painting that was still attached to one of four easels, all with paintings on them. They all looked similar to the ones you show here, however, not only did she know which was hers right away, I also knew which was hers just by looking at it because it was her style. I also love that you mention the open access to materials. Other parents always look at me like I am crazy because Maya has open access to art materials in our home. No, my house does not look perfect, and yes there is paint, etc. in places it was not originally intended to be placed, but I love that it looks lived in by young children and that they also get to make it their own.

    • Marisa says:

      Yes! Similar but distinct. From bold marks to light, drawings can reflect a child’s style, experiments, preferences and feelings.

      It sounds like Maya has a lovely lived in home.

  3. Francine says:

    This post is very serendipitous as I just today published a post in a similar vein after a recent experience with my son

    I love all these tips and will be keeping them in mind going forward!

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