Malin, H. (2012). Creating a children’s art world: Negotiating participation, identity, and meaning in the elementary school art room. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 13 (6).


This qualitative case study examines the outcomes of the art-making process of a group of elementary school students over the course of a school year. The goal of the study was to gather insight on how the process of making art in school prepares students to connect, collaborate, and communicate in society. The researcher found that, while there are guiding rules in the art classroom, the children discovered that they were able to work both within and around these rules in art making, which in turn made the process a personal and creative one. The art room functioned as a microcosm in which they developed their own personal identities, as well as defining their roles within the community.

Key Findings:

  • Art-making allows children to experience what it feels like to be active members of a community of practice, with the ability to fully engage and shape what is happening in the art classroom.
  • Students were able to explore the boundaries set up by the art teacher and on occasion, ignore them, in order to push the limits of their own creativity and process, thus functioning as artists often do in the adult world.
  • Students developed a community of enforcement and critique, encouraging each other to abide by the structures set in place by both school and teacher, as well as offering a critical analysis of each other’s work throughout the art-making process.
  • Students found the process of making art meaningful as a self-fulfilling process, in that they were making sense of their world by applying their own rules as well as ascribing to the cultural norms of the group. In making art, the students developed their sense of self while also defining their place as participants in a community.

Significance of the Findings:

If education is designed to help students become critical thinkers and active participants in a democratic society, it is important for policymakers to understand how to create opportunities for students to practice these skills within the confines of a school structure. This study suggests that art-making provides young people with just such an opportunity, as well as offering students the ability to exercise agency in their own learning. The study also explores how art-making engages students in a process that is meaningful to them, thus allowing for exploration of the self and development of their identity as people within a cultural and social context


The researcher conducted a qualitative case study with fourteen elementary school students, selected in collaboration with their classroom teachers for their interest in art and ability to verbalize their experiences, as well as their gender, ethnicity, and age in order to ensure a diverse group. All were students at a low SES charter school whose mission includes the arts as a central focus. The researcher observed six visual art classes a week over the course of two semesters. The classes were all taught by one visual art teacher. The researcher also conducted several focus groups, and one to two interviews per student over the course of the school year, as well as photo documenting the students’ artwork to be analyzed as artifacts and used during the interview process. The researcher coded the data in two phases—open and theory-based—in order to look for indicators that “art is a meaning-making activity” or that “art making causes social and/or cultural transformation.”

Limitations of the Research:

The researcher notes that the study is limited in that it was specific to the context of one classroom in one elementary school and that more exploration is necessary to understand how this phenomenon might function in different settings. It is also of note that the researcher is a former elementary school art teacher; while this experience provides the researcher with a unique understanding of the elementary school art room, it may also lead to some potential bias with regard to the findings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study offers insight into how the arts may play a part in helping to develop the child as an engaged, active participant in a democratic society. If art-making fosters a sense of community among students, encourages them to develop their individual identity, make decisions, and explore their own agency in the classroom and the world at large, what can educators and policymakers do to support art classrooms as a vital element of a holistic education, particularly in light of a current climate focused on academic standards-based testing?