I have often heard comments from art teachers about the challenge of inspiring children to make collages in choice-based art classrooms. We know that kids respond strongly to the collage illustrations of Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, Ezra Jack Keats, and other visual storytellers. So what happens when we ask children to make a collage as an intentional act? Why is collage sometimes less appealing to them than drawing or painting?
Let’s start with what we mean by collage. Here are a few definitions I found on line: 1. a technique of composing a work of art by pasting on a single surface various materials not normally associated with one another, as newspaper clippings, parts of photographs, theater tickets, and fragments of an envelope. 2. a work of art produced by this technique. 2. a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric onto a backing. 3. An artistic composition of materials and objects pasted over a surface, often with unifying lines and color.
So collage is both process and product. It is a way of thinking that involves combining, juxtaposing, and recombining disparate elements into a new whole.
Here’s my theory about how children choose a medium or process. When children are offered a variety of art-making choices, they gravitate to the material or process that offers the best vehicle for expressing their ideas. They also tend to repeat the things they are good at while avoiding materials or techniques that make them uncomfortable. When they can choose from easel painting, pencil sketching, clay modeling which are fairly direct processes, or collage, which is more indirect, it makes some sense that young children are not always drawn to collage.
What do I mean by “indirect” vs. “direct” processes? Every kind of art-making involves thinking. It is a dance between the idea and the chosen material or materials. Collage, as a way of working, involves multiple steps. It’s not as simple as picking up a paintbrush. I don’t mean to imply that making a painting is more simple, it’s just more direct. To make a collage that is more than just a randomly assembled bunch of papers glued down, a child must employ a thinking process that delays the final product until several intermediate steps are taken.
A collage artist must first select their materials, then cut the materials into the shapes they want. Next, they must arrange the selected shapes onto the page. This might involve editing, since not everything chosen will fit. The design will likely evolve a bit as the child experiments with what looks good together. The last step is to glue all the elements down onto a paper or board.
In addition to the thinking steps, there is the process itself that can be challenging. Making a collage can be messy, and glue can be hard to control. So, to summarize, you’re dealing with a bunch of elements that need to be glued down in a particular arrangement. You have at least four steps from the initial choosing to the final gluing down of elements. It can be hard for some children to stay motivated when there are so many steps. It takes good executive function skills* (the brain functions that help us organize delay gratification) and a strong visual memory to keep the idea in mind from start to finish.
If you observe your students who make collages, you will begin to appreciate the kind of thinking they are using, and you will also realize why this kind of work is not for everyone.
Young children naturally compose on the fly. Their spontaneous compositions are charming and seemingly effortless. If you have ever watched a child make a painting, one brushstroke leads them to the next in a free-flowing stream of mark-making. Once the space is filled or the idea is on the page, they will tell you “I’m done.”
Collage, when handled like this, usually results in randomly glued papers that can lack expressive content. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does not seem to be as satisfying to children as the painting process with it’s constant magic. On the other hand, when collage materials are presented as options in a “materials center,” these materials are often integrated into other projects such as toys, puppets, or masks. In the end, it all depends what we mean by the word “collage.”
Executive functions are the cognitive abilities that control and regulate most of what we do in day-to-day life. Executive functions include the ability to initiate, plan and organize, set goals, solve problems, regulate emotions, and monitor behavior. Because these skills play a role in all most aspects of life, Executive Function deficits can hamper a child academically, socially and emotionally. While they are present from an early age, problems with Executive Functions often do not become apparent until middle school, when the demands for working independently increase.
Here is another wonderful blog post on introducing collage to children. http://playfullearning.net/2016/03/introducing-collage-young-children/