To stencil or not to stencil? That is the question.

Stencil. A word fraught with judgement and controversy. Say it out loud in a room of early childhood educators and you are sure to have a dozen people lecture on the merits or dangers of using stencils. It seems like everyone has an opinion on stencils. So what are we actually talking about?

The dictionary definition of a stencil is " a thin sheet of card, plastic, or metal with a pattern or letters cut out of it, used to produce the cut design on the surface below by the application of ink or paint through the holes". So it is referring to something like this. Do you remember using these in your childhood?

However, these days, especially in an EC setting, "stencil" can refer to any type of printed or photocopied material. It even includes colouring books.

So why all the controversy?

Well, it seems that much of the issues with stencils stem around the idea that they stifle children's creativity and freedom of expression. A lot of the research behind this stems from Victor Lowenfeld's work in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a professor of Art Education at Pennsylvania State University and his 1949 book "Creative and Mental Growth" is often credited as the single most influential textbook on art education. You can see an example of his stages of drawing development here .

McArdle and Piscitelli (2002) did some investigation into the current thinking on Art in early childhood and wrote :

"In preschools, child care centres, kindergartens and lower primary schools all across Australia, children draw and paint on a regular basis, and that is certainly a good thing. However, their art education is usually of the laissez-faire style where the old slogan "the process is more important' than the product" dominates teachers'philosophies and

classroom practices. This point of view has dominated Australian early childhood education from the 1960s with the publication of Frances Derham's (1961) classic text Art for

the Child Under Seven."

Note that Frances Derham's text relied heavily on Lowenfeld's theories. Her book had a lot of strict rules and even had a list of what a teacher "Don't" messages for the classroom such as "Don't have copying in any form; Don't suggest that a child fill the page; Don't draw or trace any outline for the child to cut around;" etc.

Since the 1980s there have been a number of newer influences in art education for the early years and a more social constructivist approach has been favoured. The difference between what a child can do unaided and what they could do with guidance has been explored and there is a wealth of evidence to support this approach. Making artworks in a climate of co-construction and community collaboration has been espoused by many including Kolbe (1991) and Rinaldi (1993).

Personally, I use stencils, guided art/craft for a variety of reasons:

  • If I was paying for series of art lessons and from the very first lesson the teacher showed me a whole table of materials and said "just create whatever you feel like" well, I would feel very cheated. The reason I was attending a lesson was so that someone who had more experience and training could show me what to do. If all I needed was to explore on my own, then what was the teacher getting paid for? I would prefer if the teacher spent a few lessons showing me some techniques and then allowed me to explore these on my own with some guidance as the lessons went along.

  • Some children like to be scaffolded and supported. Giving them blank paper with no instructions can cause unnecessary anxiety. It is important to cater to all learning styles.

  • Not every art lesson is about art. Sometimes it is about exploring a child's capacity to follow instructions (one of the developmental milestones according to the EYLF) and be a part of a group activity.

  • Creating a common or similar artwork helps us feel like we are a part of a larger group and build a sense of community. We can also achieve this by creating group artworks, but this is not always practicable for a variety of reasons. By creating similar works across a theme - Easter, Christmas, etc. every person in the room can see that they have done something similar to their friends and can have shared discussions about it. I find great comfort when I see displays of children's work, all similar, but not quite identical and feel like it is a wonderful expression of us as a community.

  • Creating a group artwork or "template" artwork is a way for children to understand that not everything is about them. There are times when we put effort into engaging in a task because it makes us a part of a group or because it shows caring for another person (eg mother's day card). This is good way to encourage empathy and show caring.

  • Colouring books are now well regarded as a "mindfulness" activity that can have the capacity to calm the mind. Children could use this as a tool to relax or as a quiet activity while others are sleeping.

  • I believe that the reason that so many adults now enjoy colouring books is not only because of the mindfulness/mindlessness of the act of of colouring, but also because it evokes a sense of their own childhood and perhaps a more carefree time. By not providing children with colouring books, are we robbing them of a chance to reflect back on their carefree childhood as adults?

  • Colouring is a good way to encourage hand-eye coordination (King, 1991) and fine motor skills. It can help strengthen grip in order to pave the way for future success in drawing and writing.

  • Its a good way to assess a skill in a different way. I particularly like visual discrimination worksheets where you need closely observe and identify differences in pictures. This is a great pre-writing and pre-reading skill and can help with some of the later issues around mixing up letters such as b and d reversals and mirror writing. You can use stencils to represent a whole heap of concepts, such as grouping, matching, etc. Of course you would do these with concrete materials as well, but using photocopied or pre-prepared worksheets are an additional tool that you could use. Helping children to understand that concepts can be represented in this way is also a good way to set them up for success in primary school where they will mostly be tested in this way.

So, to stencil or not to stencil? I say all things in moderation and with intention. As long as you are purposeful in your use of stencils and are aware of the arguments for and against, then I say use your best judgement for the children that you are educating.


Australian Government Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Early Years Learning Framework Practice Based Resources - Developmental Milestones.

Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

Australian Government Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, being, becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

Derham, F. (1961) . Art for the Child Under Seven. Canberra: Australian Pre-School Association.

(Further editions: second, 1962; third, 1967; fourth, 1970; fifth,1973.)

King, I. L. (1991). In search of Lowenfeld's proof that coloring books are harmful to children. Studies in Art Education, 36-42.

Kolbe, U. (1991) . Planning a Visual Arts Program for Children under Five Years. In S. Wright, (Ed.), The Arts in Early Childhood, Sydney: Prentice Hall.

McArdle, F. A., & Piscitelli, B. (2002). Early childhood art education: A palimpsest. Australian Art Education, 25(1), 11-15.

Lowenfeld, V. (1947). Creative and mental growth (1st ed.). New York: Macmillan. (Further editions: second, 1952; third, 1957; fourth, 1964; fifth, 1970; sixth,1975; seventh, 1982; eighth, 1987.)

Rinaldi, C. (1993) . The Emergent Curriculum and Social Constructivism. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini and G. Forman (Eds.), The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emelia Approach to Early Childhood Education, Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.


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