The Purpose of Self-Portraits

Eliza Clark
November 28, 2011

Sometime during the first few months of many preschools, children are asked to sit down at a table with a set of pencils and crayons, perhaps some collage materials, a piece of blank paper, and a mirror. A mirror? That's something new. They pick it up, they turn it around, they make funny faces into it, they check to see if all of their friends have mirrors too.

Then, the teacher explains: "Today, we are going to make self-portraits." And, in a teacherly way, asks the children to look at themselves in the mirror and draw what they see. You may have seen these pictures displayed in your child's classroom or in your child's portfolio during parent-teacher conferences.

Why do so many schools begin the year this way? Why do they often repeat the activity more than once throughout the year? What is the purpose of the process?

A child's self-portrait can reveal many things. As with any drawing, it shows the development of a child's fine motor, observation and focusing skills. But it also can give insight into a child's self-concept. In other words, it's the best way for a grown-up to see a child through that child's own eyes. How do these little ones perceive and represent themselves?

Children's self-portraits test our adult observation skills because the telling elements are often in the details. Why did she draw herself with a red shirt? Why with earrings when she doesn't wear any? Why is his mouth wide open, or his hair standing on end? Preschool teachers will often ask kids to comment on their pictures, and their statements are recorded along with the portraits.

At the end of the year, looking back at their self-portraits from September, kids and adults alike can see just how far they have come with their skills, and how much they have grown inside and out.

This simple, rewarding activity is so easy to replicate at home (it's just one of the many brilliant activities that we love to copy from preschool teachers). And it's also an activity that has infinite variations! This week we'll be hearing from some of our Savvy parents about the kinds of self-portrait projects they've developed with their kids: painting, photography, journals, video... it all works. And over time, the practice of making self-portraits can develop into an eloquent means of self-expression, from childhood through adulthood.

So do join us this week, and give it a try with your kids.

From the Parents

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