Do Your Students Ever Ruin Their Own Artwork?

One of my four-year-old students made the most beautiful pieces of art. It was an unusually beautiful painting of an ice cream cone on a small cardboard canvas. As I walked by and saw what she had made, I immediately stopped to admire her work. Just as I started to comment on it, she picked up a paintbrush and covered the entire thing with black paint.

“Nooooo” I gasped, and she looked up at me in surprise. I caught myself overreacting, pulled it together, and smiled. Secretly, however, I was crushed that she had ruined her beautiful piece of art. I wanted to save it. I wanted to celebrate her wonderful work of art by hanging it up on the wall. I wanted her parents to see it too. But instead, I was left wondering to myself, “Why did she decide to ruin it?”

That’s the interesting thing about young children. As a general rule, young children don’t set out to ruin a work of art. Instead, they set out to explore a process. Whether they are exploring drawing, painting, gluing, cutting or other forms of art, their focus is on the experience of creating and they keep going until it’s a big mess.

In contrast, adults can’t help but focus on the results of creating. We love colorful lines and shapes over big brown blobs. We enjoy seeing sweet designs made by the hands of a child hanging up on our walls or refrigerators. We celebrate the “good” art by hanging it up on the wall and toss the “blobs” in the trash when the children aren’t looking.

The fact that adults desire beautiful art isn’t a bad thing. Beautiful designs and brilliant colors inspire us to keep introducing all kinds of art experiences to our students. But it is important to understand that what we love about art is different than what children love about art. The difference in what inspires and ultimately motivates adults versus children is important to take note of.

Adults are inspired and motivated by the possible results of creative art while young children are interested in and motivated by the experience of creative art.

To wrap up this discussion, let’s go back to the opening question. Why do young children love ruining their artwork? You might tell me that all children’s art is beautiful but even my own students have no interest in hanging up their big brown blobs of finished artwork on the wall. They only want to hang up what they think looks beautiful. Confusing isn’t it?

Key Take-Away

Young children are not trying to ruin their art. They are focused on satisfying their need to experience art and to satisfy that need, something like a big brown blob can often be the result.

Now it’s your turn!

Take a second and share your take-aways or ideas in the comments below.

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About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Janice Mulroy December 16, 2018 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Children that have not had much experience freely using art supplies are more likely to”ruin” their art. I’ve noticed this when other children come to visit my class. My kids have free access to art supplies, paint, bottled glue, glue sticks, markers, etc. I also spend time introducing the items and allowing messes to be made. I also realize that not all children like art, just like all children don’t like music.

    • Deborah Stewart December 16, 2018 at 11:57 am - Reply

      Such an interesting perspective to add here Janice! When I find a child that doesn’t enjoy art, I think to myself, “How can I redefine art for me or for the child so that I can find something in the arts that is interesting to that child?”

  2. Sheryl December 16, 2018 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Wonderful article Deborah! Thank you! I had a 4 year old in my class one year that folded his art several times before he put it on the drying rack.

    • Deborah Stewart December 16, 2018 at 11:54 am - Reply

      Haha! Oh boy!

  3. Elena M Hooley December 16, 2018 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    @Janice Mulroy I totally agree with you and have seen this over and over in my classroom. Our children have free access to glue/scissors/paper/yarn/string/etc but not to paint. By mid-year our students no longer create huge puddles of glue or gigantic streaks of purple glue from the gluesticks, but they are still experimenting with layering and mixing and blobbing tempera/bio/watercolor paints. It is truly fascinating to watch the process change and evolve according to how much time they have to experience the different tools and medium of the art supplies.

  4. Margaret Welwood December 16, 2018 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Ellie likes to paint on flyers, and she cheerfully folds her masterpieces and puts them in the garbage when we’re done. The same with cutting paper. She’s learning to handle scissors and happily puts the pieces in the garbage. She also loves to rip paper. When I see her tearing the paper off her crayons, I ask her if she feels like ripping. If she does, I produce some suitable paper.

  5. Julie S December 23, 2018 at 10:57 am - Reply

    I teach 3-year olds and also am an artist in my non-teacher life. I put out colors that I know will work well together – I can’t help myself. That satisfies a handful of my littles but most of them just want to keep adding more colors and I happily oblige them. I love that, too, because they are always fascinated with the way the colors mix, the way the paint feels on their hands (and arms!), the way big brushfuls of paint makes the paint drip to bottom of the easel… The masterpieces they create are truly their own – even if to us philistine adults it just looks like a brown blob.

  6. Jackie December 26, 2018 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    I was trained with product art and “teaching” children how to not make a mess like saying dot dot not a lot when using glue, I hated it. With my own children we had an art box and the only “rules” were to stay on the tiled area of the house and you had to clean up when you were done. When I started the “art” area in my class room it was hard for some of the other teachers in my classroom to give up control. Putting scissors tape glue and whatever else they wanted in an area was even more challenging for adults but thrilling for the children.

    • Deborah Stewart December 27, 2018 at 3:00 pm - Reply

      It’s extremely difficult for adults Jackie. I know because I have had to work on it in my own teaching practice. I wish I would have had someone like you show me the way when I first started out. I think the longer we wait to get started, the harder it is to “think process” but when we do get started, there is nothing more rewarding.

  7. Katy December 28, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I’ve noticed this time and time again. I think they just want to see how much a piece of paper can take! I mostly think the children just aren’t “finished” and to keep going they must “ruin” their work. So i try to stress that more paper is readily available!

  8. Elena January 13, 2019 at 3:20 am - Reply

    ugh!!! Usually I am really great at observing the process of children’s art until this past week when we were making clay sculptures. One of our students made this amazing lamp (really!!) with the clay. Just as we were admiring it, he stood up and crushed the whole thing down. I startled him with my “Oh No!” He looked up at me and said I can make something even better. He made a snake 🙂 and he LOVED IT and talked about it for the rest of the day. But, my oh my, that lamp was really something else!

    • Deborah Stewart January 14, 2019 at 9:53 pm - Reply

      Hahaha! I feel your pain!!

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