PUBLISHED: Monday, January 6, 2020 by JO

Mary Ellen Bardsley & Tracy Galuski

Published: January 6, 2020


About the Authors

Dr. Mary Ellen Bardsley (left), an associate professor at Niagara University, has been involved in early childhood education for over fifteen years. Dr. Bardsley holds a doctoral and master’s degree from the University of Buffalo and bachelor’s degrees from Cornell University and Medaille College.

Dr. Tracy Galuski (right) has worked in the field of early childhood education for many years. Serving initially as a toddler teacher, she moved into different roles such as preschool teacher, child care program administrator, training specialist with both the Child Care Resource Network and Success by 6 at the United Way, and finally as a college professor at SUNY Empire State College.

Mary Ellen and Tracy co-wrote Open-Ended Art for Young Children, published by Redleaf Press. Open-ended art is defined as art activity where children are free to use their imagination as they explore a variety of materials without a planned outcome. When teachers embrace open-ended art, they emphasize the process of creating, and observe the developmental growth being experienced by the children. Open-ended art provides children an important opportunity to think about, feel, and express ideas. It helps teachers slow down the pace of the day and appreciate the beauty that comes from simple experimentation with art materials.

Mary Ellen and Tracy answered our questions about their path to Early Childhood, learning outcomes for art, and how to implement open-ended art for infants.

Can you share a brief timeline of your educational and professional life?

Tracy Galuski:

After earning my first degree in early childhood education from SUNY Fredonia many years ago, I began teaching toddlers, then preschoolers, and finally moving into the role of administrator. Many jobs and a couple degrees later, I am an associate professor at Empire State College and teach courses in early childhood education while serving as the department chair for educational studies. I enjoy presenting at state and national conferences on a wide variety of topics related to early childhood education up through school-age care, and I enjoy those opportunities to share experiences and learn from others. I have held the NYS Training and Technical Assistance Credential, Level III, since 2010.

Mary Ellen Bardsley

After college, I worked in community banking for several years spending time at various branches as a management trainee and assistant manager. I was often training people for various positions. When my family relocated to the Buffalo area, I decided to pursue teaching. I thought I wanted to teach 4th & 5th grade until I student taught and realized I enjoyed early childhood. My first teaching position was with Head Start where I had amazing mentors who pushed and encouraged me. When I was working on my master’s degree, I had several professors who invited me to become involved in their research projects working on early childhood curricula and working with early childhood educators. That lead to my position in higher education. I’m currently an Associate Professor and Associate Dean for the College of Education at Niagara University where I teach early childhood courses and have the opportunity to work with early childhood programs in Niagara County.

What are the benefits of open-ended art in the classroom?

Engaging in art and creative experiences helps children develop a variety of skills including problem solving and help children communicate their ideas and thoughts regarding their feelings and the world around them. When children experiment with open-ended art, they have a real opportunity to develop their individual skills and talents. They can create whatever they are feeling, rather than creating what someone else has put together for them.

What aspects of environment should be considered when cultivating creativity?

The foundation of a creative environment is an art center that includes a wide variety of interesting materials that children can use to create. Interesting materials don’t need to be expensive but need to invite children to touch and manipulate them. In addition to engaging materials, children need time to explore the materials and tools and to figure out how materials and tools can be used to express their ideas.

Often educators think they need to be “hands off” when children are using an art center and its materials and tools. Observing children as they engage in making art will provide educators with information on what skills may need to be modeled or taught. For example, if a child is having difficulty sticking papers together, an adult may want to introduce the child to glue, tape, and how to use and care for the tools. This provides for a safe environment. Additionally, if a child is interested in learning how to work with a material such as clay, a teacher may want to model some basic techniques such as rolling or pinching. When programs are able to provide these materials, and then support children in different ways to use the materials, creativity can blossom.

How can learning outcomes be applied to artistic creation?

Art creation and appreciation can provide many opportunities that can relate to learning outcomes. Learning outcomes can define the skills we expect children to demonstrate, rather than a specific product. Focus on what the children are doing and the process, rather than the final product. For example, if your goal is to have all children cutting with scissors using a swift up and down motion by the end of preschool, provide many opportunities for the children to cut. They might cut scrap paper and magazines in the art center, they might cut playdough with scissors, or they might snip the leaves off some basil plants using a kitchen scissors. As the activities progress teachers can observe the children, see who struggles to snip the paper, and who is beginning to use the up and down motion. Provide more materials so they can practice the skills, then reassess. Trust that they will all get there as they have more practice.

Looking at art with children and talking about what they notice can support learning outcomes for art and other content areas or developmental domains. Discussing how a child made an artistic creation, or looking at others’ work, provides opportunities for learning outcomes related to vocabulary, communication skills, perspective, and many other areas.

How can art be implemented into infant learning plans?

In our book we discuss the notion of pre-art, and how age-appropriate experimentation with materials is enough in an infant classroom. It’s really important to focus on caring routines and relationships, but simple activities like reading to infants, while looking at the pictures and illustrations together is the first step. Another example is hanging famous works of art and talking about them with infants as part of the day. Lastly, as they grow and are able to grasp a crayon, pencil, or paintbrush, teachers can begin to provide opportunities for infants to scribble as they begin to develop fine motor control.

How does open-ended art transform with developmental milestones?

Teachers who work with young children understand that all children are at different developmental stages. When we observe children to assess their skills, we can plan activities that support their growth and development. When teachers expect everyone to do the same thing at the same time– some children might find the activity very easy and breeze through it, while another child might become frustrated. When we look at art from a developmental perspective, we understand that one child might need a little more practice with scissors, while another child is still learning to grasp a pencil. Giving them opportunities to create with a wide variety of materials allows them to develop their cognitive abilities while working on these skills at their own pace. It also gives the teacher more time to move around the room, observe the individual children, and support their skill development by asking questions, and offering support.

What motivated you to write a book about open-ended art for young children?

Several years ago, we had breakfast with a few colleagues during an early childhood conference in Verona, NY. We were discussing the keynote address and popular training sessions, including one about open-ended art. After years and years of attending this state-wide conference, we wondered why the same topic was still being offered. Someone asked, “Hasn’t everyone heard about open-ended art by now?” We discussed some of potential barriers that prevent teachers from applying developmentally appropriate practice in the form of open-ended art in their classrooms, and that conversation evolved into an article, a research project, and eventually this book.