Fine arts traditionally include drawing, painting and sculpture, but in modern understandings also include multimedia arts (including photography, video) (Wright, 2012).
As well as developing children's appreciation and engagement in art, fine arts experiences provide opportunities for developing children's language and emergent literacy.
Engaging in emergent literacy through fine arts
Drawing, painting, sculpture, craft, and multimedia experiences allow children to express themselves, and to make meaning:
- Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (2016).
(Dinham and Chalk, 2018; Wright, 2012).
Because of the close relationships between spoken, written, visual, and tactile modes of communication, educators can use fine arts experiences as opportunities to embed various emergent literacy learning foci. These include fine motor, making meaning and expressing ideas, exploring and creating texts, concepts of print, and phonics.
Elements of design and multimodal literacy
The following building blocks of design can be explored through various media and can be used to create balance, pattern and contrast (Dinham & Chalk, 2018).
- Lines are marks that are longer than they are thick. They can vary in thickness, travel in multiple directions (horizontal, vertical, diagonal), and along different pathways (straight, curved, zigzag, wobbly).
- Lines can be used to create: outlines, movement, and shading.
These include geometric shapes:
- free form shapes, that can be abstract
- represent objects, people, or places.
Playing with shape and colour can be great ways to explore emergent literacy concepts in fine arts experiences.
- Value refers to how light, or how dark lines, shapes, or colours are
- Artists can play with how light, dark, or colourful marks are.
- There are three primary colours (red, blue, yellow), and when mixed together form secondary colours (orange, green, purple).
- The concept of colour can be explored and used in fine arts experiences, through mixing of colours and the addition of white or black.
- This is the quality of surfaces, that can be felt or represented. Textures differ in how rough or smooth they are.
These elements of design form part of children's meaning making capacities (Callow, 2013), and allow children to understand the "multimodality" of literacy:
- VEYLDF (2016)
The concept of "multimodal literacy" is important for understanding the links between emergent literacy and fine arts. Children learn to convey meaning in multiple modes (e.g. visual, auditory, gestural, and tactile and spatial, systems of meaning as well as oral and written language) (Kalantzis, Cope, Chan, and Dalley-Trim, 2016).
Multimodal texts are those that combine two or more of these modes to create meaning. For example, when books are read aloud to children the presentation is in both visual and auditory modes.
Through fine arts experiences, children can learn how to use elements of design and other modalities of meaning making to communicate sophisticated messages (Crafton, Silvers & Brennan, 2017), and support the emergence of conventional reading and writing at later ages.
Creating opportunities for learning
It is important to consider whether a fine arts experience is "just making stuff". Dinham (2011, p. 143) provides some questions to consider whether the experience offers opportunities for authentic, rich learning:
- are there opportunities for creativity and individual ideas?
- what concepts of art and language are being embedded in the experience?
- can children express their own ideas and creativity in the experience?
- are there cultural connections between the experience and the real world?
- will the experience provide opportunities for children to learn about how art and literacy works?
- is the experience part of a wider unit of inquiry or exploration?
The VEYLDF recognises the importance of reflective practice for highly effective professionals and states that "[r]eflecting on and critically evaluating practice is a core part of all early childhood professionals' work" (p.8).
Drawing starts with earliest attempts at mark making, and develops into sophisticated use of materials to communicate meaning.
Drawing can facilitate children's understanding and expression of complex ideas. Drawing media include:
- dry media: pencils, chalks, crayons, charcoals
- wet media: ink, textas.
Drawings can act as an anchor for children's ideas as they begin to experiment with letters and engage in emergent writing activities (Mackenzie, 2011). Facilitating children's drawing experiences are opportunities for learning about the arts, as well as engaging in the earliest forms of written expression:
- Mackenzie (2011, p. 338).
When using fine arts experiences to develop emergent literacy skills like fine motor and early writing attempts, drawing becomes an important facilitator of written/visual expression.
Though it is difficult to make a distinction between drawing and painting, usually drawing involves lines, less colours, and drier media, while painting involves areas of paint, greater use of colour, and wetter media.
Children can engage in painting experiences from an early age, with the use of hand/finger painting, sensory experiences using paints, moving towards using paintbrushes.
Painting allows children to explore colours and colour mixing, and use this medium to create meaningful artworks that engage children's senses (e.g. tactile). Much of what has been described for drawing also applies to painting, including the benefits for verbal, visual, and written expression.
Painting experiences can be used to facilitate children's telling stories or exploring ideas. Painting can also just be an opportunity to enjoy paint and explore "dripping, spreading, dabbing, swirling, and building up layers" (McArdle, 2012, p. 44).
Sculpture and craft
Sculpture and craft takes the fine arts from two-dimensional (2D) to three-dimensional (3D) work.
Many different materials can be used. Commonly used media in early childhood include:
- play dough
- balsa wood
- recycled paper and cardboard materials
- fabric offcuts
- string and twine
- pipe cleaners
- everyday items like paper clips, pop sticks, pegs, coat hangers
- natural materials like sticks, bark, driftwood, gumnuts, leaves, flowers, seed pods, grasses, shells.
Sculpture and craft experiences allow children to explore the elements of design in three dimensions, and create shapes, structures, and objects for multiple purposes. For example: buildings, dioramas, animals, people, robots, natural landscapes, hybrids.
These experiences are also an opportunity to develop fine motor skills.
In multimedia arts experiences, children's creation of their own media artworks is facilitated.
The possibilities with the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are endless, as new software and hardware open up new avenues to push the boundaries of media arts experiences.
- photo stories
- digital story books
- story boards
- comic strips
- animation (including claymation)
- sound recordings (e.g. early podcasts or radio plays
- posters/book covers.
Conventions and techniques that can be introduced in multimedia experiences include:
- titles and credits
- image composition
- camera angles.
Multimedia making experiences also allow educators to model functional emergent literacy skills, as they read, interact with, and write into multimedia making programs, to collaboratively create the artworks.
Embedding emergent literacy in fine arts
- When planning fine arts experiences, educators should consider what emergent literacy skills can be included
- Provide opportunities for turn-taking, modelling, and imitation of fine arts techniques
- Encourage children to use art experiences to express meaning, communicate nonverbally, retell and create stories using a visual medium
- Plan for open-ended or guided experiences depending on your learning intentions
- Provide children with visual and auditory prompts/provocations to help stimulate their imagination when creating artworks
- Choose resources and plan experiences which will encourage interaction and teamwork between children, and with educators.
When using fine arts as a teaching practice for emergent literacy, there are a range of learning foci that educators can embed, including
- Use sculpture experiences using clay or playdough to develop children's fine motor control and strength
- Start with more basic modelling experiences (such as rolling, cutting and moulding dough into large shapes), into more challenging experiences (like creating coils, and shaping these into outlines of shapes, numbers, and letters
- Consider the fine motor requirements of any writing implement or material you provide children
- Support children to use writing implements for all kinds of writing experiences from mark making, through to using print to supplement their fine arts pieces.
Making meaning and expressing ideas
- Introduce children to some conventions of visual communication; that is demonstrate how colours, shapes, and materials can be used to symbolise different concepts (e.g. Red may mean angry, a grey and dark painting may appear scary, doves are a symbol of peace)
- Encourage children to use these conventions when they create their own artworks/visual texts
- Model and scaffold children's mark making, then more complex and varied marks, scribbles, drawings, and later shape/letter/number forms
- For older children, provide support to start to annotate, label, and add other written words to their artworks.
Exploring and creating texts
- Use oral and written stories as stimuli for art making experiences, for example you may encourage children to draw, paint, construct, or record their favourite character, or part of a story you have enjoyed together
- Use story boards, comics, and poster making experiences to demonstrate the parts of a story (start, middle, end)
- Use the texts from reading and writing experiences as stimuli for art experiences (including picture storybooks, non-fiction texts, functional texts like recipes and instructions)
- Discuss choices made by artists and children during experiences, using open-ended questions (e.g. What do you think of this sculpture? Tell me about your art?)
- Discuss children's own choices after they have made their artworks.
Concepts of print
- Use book-making experiences to construct a collection of children's drawings, paintings, or other artworks; and talk about concepts of books, pages, and directionality of the book
- Allow children to experiment with letter shapes, stamps, stencils etc., and incorporate words or letters within their artworks
- Use these experiences as opportunities to discuss the letters in children's names, and differences between upper and lower case for example.
- During functional uses of print when creating labels, signs or annotations for children's art, model how simple sound-letter (phonics) patterns can be used to spell short words
- Model sounding out and writing a letter (or letter pattern) for each sound in the word
- Model segmenting the sounds in children's names, as they write it on their artworks.
Theory to practice
Dinham and Chalk (2018) describe the multiple links between learning and the arts, including:
- the arts as first literacies
- understanding art as "children's 'first languages' - their primary way of seeing and knowing the self in the world" (McArdle & Wright, 2014, p. 22)
- the arts as having inherent qualities
- open-ended approaches to learning
- practise for improvement – allowing children to revisit art forms multiple times to refine their artwork
- creative thinking processes
- wonderment and aesthetic awareness – inspiring "awe, curiosity, thought and innovation … [as] fuel for many of children's own explorations …" (Dinham & Chalk, 2018, p. 47)
- the arts as playful engagement in serious learning.
The work of Piaget (e.g. 1923, 2009) is in keeping with these ideas, seeing symbol-making capacities as innate to children.
The human child is endowed with ingenuity and symbol-making propensities to go beyond reality as immediate experience. By using the symbol systems of art, music, dance, and play/drama, children manipulate images and concepts, thus joining with others who share a culture…
- Wright (2012, p. 2)
Fellowes and Oakley (2014) have argued that emergent literacy skills are dependent on children's development of the following capacities:
- first and foremost, children's meaning making of images and other symbol systems (art, music, dance, and play/drama) (Wright, 2012)
- various oral language skills including concept development and vocabulary, grammar, and narrative comprehension
- emergent literacy skills (scaffolded by adults) like concepts of print, early letter-sound awareness (phonics), and knowledge of text types (genres).
Embedding learning (including language and literacy) within the arts allows for children to engage in learning in rich and meaningful ways:
As children explore the nature of being, belonging and becoming in this world, they are fruitfully engaging in learning. They are laying the foundations for reading, writing, and numeracy, and developing capabilities and learning dispositions that will help them ride the wave of their unfolding future.
- Dinham and Chalk (2018, p. 54).
Establishing an evidence base for the arts as a mechanism for developing children's emergent literacy, is a difficult task for researchers. The evidence suggests a correlation between engagement in arts-based learning, and improved academic outcomes; though Winner and Hetland (2000) have noted that it is difficult to determine if the arts, themselves, were driving this change, or if other factors were at play.
However, preliminary studies have indicated some of the benefits of arts-based approaches on literacy and numeracy outcomes in older children (Martin et al., 2013; Smithrim & Upitis, 2005). Further research is needed to establish the causal links between arts-based approaches, and improvements in language and literacy skills.
Links to VEYLDF
Outcome 1: identity
Children feel safe, secure and supported.
- explore aspects of identity through role-play.
Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities.
- explore different identities and points of view in dramatic play.
Outcome 2: community
Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation.
- cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
- build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
- understand different ways of contributing through play and projects
- are playful and respond positively to others, reaching out for company and friendship.
Children respond to diversity with respect.
- become aware of connections, similarities and differences between people
- listen to others' ideas and respect different ways of being and doing.
Outcome 3: wellbeing
Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing.
- combine gross and fine motor movement and balance to achieve increasingly complex patterns of activity, including dance, creative movement and drama
- manipulate equipment and manage tools with increasing competence and skill.
Outcome 4: learning
Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.
- use play to investigate, imagine and explore ideas
- initiate and contribute to play experiences emerging from their own idea.
Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials.
- explore ideas and theories using imagination, creativity and play.
Outcome 5: communication
Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes.
- interact with others to explore ideas and concepts, clarify and challenge thinking, negotiate and share new understandings
- use language and representations from play, music and art to share and project meaning
- contribute their ideas and experiences in play and small and large group discussion
- exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play
Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts.
- view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
- actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
- recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.
Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media.
- share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
- use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning
- experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media.
Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work.
- use symbols in play to represent and make meaning
- develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them.
Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking.
- identify the uses of technologies in everyday life and use real or imaginary technologies as props in their play
- engage with technology for fun and to make meaning
- use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing.
Experience plans and videos
For early language users (12 - 36 months)
Learning foci and teaching practices
Making meaning and expressing ideas (emergent literacy)
Making meaning is central to emergent literacy development. Children gradually develop the ability to comprehend texts and express ideas using various media.
Writing with children
Explore how educators can create authentic, and engaging writing experiences with children, while embedding important learning foci for development of emergent literacy.
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Dinham, J., & Chalk, B. (2018) It's arts play: Belonging, being and becoming through the arts. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Dinham, J. (2011) Delivering authentic arts education. South Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia
Fellowes, J., & Oakley, G. (2014). Language, literacy and early childhood education, 2nd Edition. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.
Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Chan, E., & Dalley-Trim, L. (2016). Literacies. Port Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cambridge University Press.
The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34(3), 322-240.
Martin, A. J., Mansour, M., Anderson, M., Gibson, R., Liem, G. A. D., & Sudmalis, D. (2013). The role of arts participation in students' academic and nonacademic outcomes: A longitudinal study of school, home, and community factors.Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3), 709–727.
McArdle, F. (2012). The visual arts: Ways of seeing. In S. K. Wright (Ed.), Children, meaning-making, and the arts. 2nd edition (pp. 30–56). Frenchs Forest, NSW, Australia: Pearson Education Australia.
McArdle, F., & Wright, S. K. (2014). First Literacies: Art, Creativity, Play, Constructive Meaning-Making. In G. Barton (Ed.), Literacy in the Arts: Retheorising Learning and Teaching (pp. 21–37). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
Piaget, J. (1923, 2002). The language and thought of the child (Vol. 10). Psychology Press.
Smithrim, K., & Upitis, R. (2005). Learning through the Arts: Lessons of Engagement. Canadian Journal of Education, 28(1), 109–127.
Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016), Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF), Retrieved 3 March 2018,
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018,
Winner, E., & Hetland, L. (2000). The Arts in Education: Evaluating the Evidence for a Causal Link. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 3–10.
Wright, S. (2012). Children, meaning-making and the arts. 2nd edition.Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.
Reviewed 14 April 2023