Ordinary painting with large brushes, powder paint and big pieces of paper is one of the basic activities offered by nursery groups and is usually enjoyed by children at home where this is possible. Very young children often experiment with the mater-ials in a way which reflects their approach to other new experiences. Some dab gingerly, others will fill their brush and apply it as hard as they can to the paper, some do not seem to relate the paint on the brush to what, is happening on the paper and do not realize they have to dip into the paint more than once. Other toddlers give up the brush altogether and find using their hands more satisfactory. Many children do not have the opportunity to paint at home and their first experience of this is when they join a nursery group or Ont O’Clock Club. Some children may take a long time before they try it, others make it their first and most frequent activity and yet others may go right through two years in a nursery group without ever wishing to paint.

In an attempt to find out what children do with paint in nurseries, group leaders have been asked on various occasions to collect one painting from each child in each nursery over a given period. This gives a picture of what was done in those groups over that particular time-no more than that. A collection made at another time, for example, early in the term when there are new children, may be quite different. When the weather is very fine children may do less painting than usual. In groups which lose the bulk of their children to school only once each year their collection of paintings would look quite different before and after the summer holiday. Nevertheless there were some common points in each collection. The paintings were sorted according to age groups each covering six months from three to five years. As far as possible the conditions were controlled to the extent that the colour and size of paper offered were the same in each case and at least six or more agreed colours were provided.

Nevertheless in every group there were some non-painters. There was a distinct preference for the primary colours showing red, yellow green and then blue followed by purple, pink, orange, black and white. Older children used more colours and made more use of the non-primary colours but just as there were a few three-year-olds who used eight colours there were a few five-year-olds who only used one or two. The majority of three- to four-year-olds used either only the centre or half of their piece of paper but again a few five-year-olds did this too, just as some three-year-olds used the whole area. The most common painting stroke for each age group was a line closely followed by patches and squigg-les and there was little difference between the age groups. Circular movements and dots showed up more in the paintings of the older children, but even so a good third of the children in the three-to-four-year-old groups used them. Charts of the length of time taken over a single painting showed that older children took longer. On the other hand a young child may stay at an easel for just as long as the older child next to him but do three or four ‘ paintings’ in this time.

In some cases children had named their painting or implied in their conversation that it was meant to represent something in particular. These too were fewer than most adults had expected but on the whole it was the older children who did this. Relatively few of the younger children talked at all while they were painting.

A great deal more information emerged from these exercises, all equally inconclusive, and the lesson we learned is that one cannot draw conclusions from children’s painting. Some three-year-olds paint more like five-year-olds, some five-year-olds more like three-year-olds – it is a question of stage rather than age. Some children use paint to express emotion, some to express ideas and thoughts, some use it to experiment and others use it because their best friend suggests it.

Group leaders who, after listening to illustrated lectures, seeing exhibitions and reading books showing examples of children’s art, had been a little depressed and concerned about the painting in their groups began to see why there appeared to be a difference in what other groups achieved. One has to pick out the interesting paintings which show a particular point. In preparing these selected items one mounts them, tidies them up and arranges them carefully. The element added by the adult in selecting and presenting adds an importance and finish that no painting ‘ wet from the playgroup’ ever has. Nevertheless in some of these transverse-section collections there were some undoubted differences between groups. The importance of mixing good, clear, strong colours emerged. Where children have to choose and return pots from a central tray they are likely to use more colours than if each easel face has one or two pots placed in the tray and a positive effort has to be made to go round to the other side to get a different colour. Many groups use coloured paper and the finished results obviously look better if the paint-mixer has taken the paper colour into consideration. In some nurseries there may appear to be an element of adults influencing children though to be fair this did not occur in any of the collections these particular groups of students made.

Viewed as a basic activity for nursery groups, the value of painting is that most children enjoy it enormously, that it is not always possible to have it permanently available at home, that children can use the simple materials at whatever stage they are at and even regress if they need to, that they can use it for learning, reinforcing, and as a means of self-expression. Adults can help most by providing good quality tools and materials, giving up time and space and offering encouragement and interest as necessary to each individual child. The main teaching element lies with helping parents to understand what is happening, since under-five painting is relatively new and many adults never had an opportunity to do it. The parent who interferes, even deprecates efforts, or at the other end of the scale makes’ doing mummy a painting to take home’ a ritual chore, needs explanation. She too has been misled by the permanent nature of the end product and has not considered the value of the experience.