An Art Curriculum for the Elementary School

An Art Curriculum for the Elementary School

As schools everywhere try to economize, one of the areas that, regrettably, they decide they can no longer afford is the position of the art teacher.

Why is art education so important for our children? Many teachers and parents think that the way students deepen their spiritual dimension is by increasingly learning and coming to understand biblical truths. That is true, of course, but we also deepen our spiritual dimension by learning or doing new things that might seem to be unrelated to faith, such as studying objects through a microscope, gaining a deeper understanding of numbers, or by allowing ourselves to become deeply moved by art, poetry, and music. These activities encourage an appreciation for the significance of human life and for the great mysteries of the Bible and of creation.

The spiritual dimension cannot always be explained in rational or intellectual terms, but it includes a wonderful sense of awe and gratitude. Christians who work to deepen their spirituality in many areas of life find themselves growing in their religious faith. In planning curriculum, Christian teachers want to find many different ways to help children deepen their spirituality, and art education is one of them. In an article that appeared in on May 13,2013,  Joanne Van Reeuwyk, professor of art education at Calvin College said, “I believe I can speak for the general community as well as for the higher education community when I say that without the arts, we suffer deeply.” She then gives eighteen reasons why art education is so important in elementary schools.

  1. To participate in the arts is to be fully human.
  2. Art is a way of knowing and a form of communication.
  3. The arts teach problem-solving, risk-taking, creative thinking, collaborative thinking, and innovative thinking. Indeed all of the higher-level thinking skills.
  4. Art helps form multiple perspectives. It gives voice. It helps us identify and express issues that are global, common to all people groups.
  5. The arts emphasize value.
  6. To participate in the arts is to live in culture and in history.
  7. The arts help make sense of the world. The arts help us pay attention.
  8. Art nourishes our emotive side.
  9. Art develops our cognitive abilities.
  10. Art can be (and often is) healing and supportive.
  11. Art teaches limitations, boundaries, yet encourages and promotes creativity and innovation.
  12. Art teaches about how parts belong to a whole—that all parts matter.
  13. The arts incorporate “big ideas,” and cutting-edge curriculum.
  14. Art teaches and reinforces community.
  15. Art celebrates thinking, creating, doing, and living.
  16. Art teaches us how to pay attention to detail as part of a broader spectrum and world.
  17. Art helps keep students in school, motivates them, and increases math, science, social studies, and language scores.
  18. Schools that incorporate the arts show longevity in teachers and enthusiasm on the part of the students.

Van Reeuwyk goes on to say that these are not in any hierarchy.

They are equal in importance and give ample reason for including the arts in all of life and especially in education. With all this in mind, and with the knowledge of how critical our education system is to our future and to our health as a city, a state, and a nation, can we afford to exist with even less artistic opportunities? We aim to meet needs of diversity, to teach all children to live complete and full lives and yet we continue to propose that the arts be cut back or even eliminated when finances are an issue.

It is unfortunate when the position of the art teacher has to be eliminated, but   classroom teachers can do their part in attempting to fill the gap. Many teachers at the elementary and middle school level teach students how to draw and paint. But few schools include in the art curriculum knowledge of works of visual art of such quality that they have stood the test of time. Prints of the works of art selected for a particular grade level can be hung in the classroom all through the year. The following artists and their works would be part of an excellent art curriculum.


Pieter Bruegel—The Adoration of the Kings, Peasant Wedding, A Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap

Grade 1

Johannes Vermeer—The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Grade 2

Vincent Van Gogh—Starry Night, Bedroom at Arles, Portrait of Artist

Grade 3

Georgia O’Keeffe—Red Poppy, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Red Canna

Grade 4

Rembrandt van Rijn—Self-Portrait, The Prodigal Son, The Night Watch

Kathe Kollwitz—Loving Kindness

Grant Wood—American Gothic

Grade 5

Claude Monet—Morning Haze, Marine Near Etretat, Lily Pond

Pablo Picasso—Guernica, Three Musicians, The Three Dancers, Self Portrait: Yo Picasso, The Old Guitarist

Grade 6

Leonardo da Vinci—The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, Madonna and Child

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, Moulin-Rouge, The Jockey

Grade 7

Marc Chagall —Over Vitebsk, The Violinist, The Praying Jew, I and the Village

Paul Klee—Fish Magic, Around the Fish, Landscape with Yellow Birds

Grade 8

Salvadore Dali—The Persistence of Memory, Crucifixion, The Sacrament of the Last Supper

Andy Warhol—Campbell’s Soup Can, 100 Soup Cans, Money

Kathe Kollwitz—Lamentation

In commenting on our list, Professor Van Reeuwyk suggested the addition of more women and artists of color as well as three-dimensional work. We have included Kathe Kollwitz, a German printmaker during WWII. In addition, Professor Van Reeuwyk suggested the following:

You might include works by Henry Moore, a sculptor from England, who deals with family and relationships. Another sculptor, this time contemporary, is Andy Goldsworthy, who tries to understand nature by using only nature in his art.

Students would enjoy the Harriet Tubman series of African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence. Any of the collages of Romare Bearden, another African-American, would be appropriate at all grade levels. Both artists deal with social issues.

Faith Ringgold is famous for her storytelling quilts that developed from the stories of her slave ancestors who made quilts as part of their plantation duties and are presented in contemporary terms. Her Tar Beach is an enchanting picture book that grew out of her quilt by the same name. The book is a weaving of contemporary fiction, autobiography, and African-American history and literature.

I strongly recommend that teachers consider using any of the paintings of Canadian artist Emily Carr, but especially her paintings of totem poles from the West coast. She was the first woman to travel in these remote areas and to challenge herself with the Native American issues.

Jacob Van Wyk, art professor at Dordt College, suggests the following to teachers in grades 7 and 8.

Add more difficult and controversial works for the older kids, such as works by Jackson Pollack and the other abstract expressionists. Also, add nihilist works such as those by Duchamp and the pop/conceptual works of artists in the 60s and 70s, such as Andy Warhol, Marc Hanson, and George Segal that are more of a social critique. We want students to realize that contemporary people don’t all live among flowers and that they don’t all acknowledge God’s grace in this world. This would give teachers a chance to talk about common grace and realize that Christian and non-Christians alike produce beautiful/truthful things for us to contemplate and put in proper perspective.

Instruction in the work of great artists does not need to take very much classroom time. It is far more important that they are part of the classroom environment and that the teacher shows great interest and appreciation for the work and the artist than that the students remember every one. The teacher can ask questions such as:

  • What is the first thing you see when you look at this picture?
  • Look at the picture for thirty seconds. Now shut your eyes and tell me everything you remember.
  • If this picture were part of a story, what might have just happened? What might happen next?
  • Why do you think the artist chose to paint this picture?
  • What season of the year is it in the painting? What sounds might you hear if you were there? What smells might you smell?
  • What do you like the most about this painting?

The art and the lives of the artists should be discussed and students might even attempt to copy the work or write stories that reflect the painting. Students’ knowledge of visual art and other aspects of the spiritual dimension can be assessed. However, since knowledge and appreciation are so closely related in this dimension, it might be better to avoid assessment.

A deep appreciation of the world around us, of music, of art, or of poetry will not make one become a Christian. But Christians who have developed a knowledge and appreciation of these aspects find that their faith deepens because they have richer ways of responding to their Creator.