Wednesday, January 1, 2014

From Crafts to Creativity...

"Creativity is an area in which younger people have tremendous advantage, since they have an endearing habit of always questioning past wisdom and authority" -Bill Hewlett

The art studio in our classroom continues to challenge us year after year. I have so many questions about how to support student learning, how to foster their creativity, and how to "control" materials without "controlling"

I have seen so many beautiful art spaces while visiting different learning environments. They are full of loose parts, beautiful materials, and different mediums for children to use in their representations. But how ... without sitting there for the full day, do you slow children down? How do you support students in making thoughtful decisions and using materials purposefully?

Is it ok that a student takes 35 pompoms and glues them onto an egg carton? What are they learning? Are they experimenting with glue? Do they have a purpose that they are unable to verbalize? I see these "scenarios" so often and I am often at a loss as to how to interact. I watch, I ask questions, I try to find meaning in all experiences.

We have spent a long time in our art area slowing down children, asking them questions about their thinking, guiding them to think carefully about what materials they will need for their creation or art. I personally feel that we have done a lot of intentional work to support young children in this area of play.

We have set out small wooden bowls so that children will choose materials a few at a time to bring back to the table rather than bringing all of the pipe cleaners and using them at their disposal. We have presented materials in transparent jars and sorted them with the children by type or colour. The simple idea of sorting by colour really encourages children to make purposeful decisions. "What colours do I need?" they think, rather than sticking their hand into a mix of crayons and grabbing a handful.

Further, we slowly add to our art area. We began the year with pencils and sketching materials. We slowly added pencil crayons, crayons, scissors, glue, recycled materials. Each time slowing down to ask the children about the new materials, their purpose and how they can be used.

"Making a plan" is something that we encourage children to think through. I have seen other educators use paper and have children draw/sketch out their ideas sometimes record the materials they need. We have tried this a few different ways and I believe for some children it is helpful/useful. However, more often than not the children evolve their plan and make decisions in the process. When working on a larger project or idea we do encourage them to draft plans, but there are children who are turned off by this process or uninterested. So, we still aren't sure about planning...does it need to be on paper? can it be a discussion? how detailed? how specific? how open?

Although this area is a constant learning curve for me, one thing I know for sure is that it is open ended. Sometimes we add materials to provoke children's thinking, but never do we set out something to complete, copy, or "do".

We have moved quite far away from "crafts" in our classroom. We don't make turkeys at Thanksgiving or snowmen that all look the same once the snow falls. Although there is nothing wrong with doing a crafts. I see a place for crafts with family or friends at home. However, in the classroom we have thought critically about the purpose of crafts and their role.

Crafts do not encourage children to think outside of the box, they are prescriptive in that they encourage children to "all do the same thing", and they (in my opinion) mostly teach children to follow directions. Moving away from this "craft" mindset also saves so many hours! We do not have to cut out hearts or circles for the children.

One drawback...parents LOVE crafts. They absolutely love to see little chickens coming home around Easter! Not all parents of course...and as we have moved through FDK into our 4th year our families are really starting to value and appreciate the children's personal art/creations. But it was a journey of education for parents as well.

We try to document the process of the children's creative expressions to illustrate the depth of thinking that can come from these experiences. We want the parents to see and appreciate the process that we get to experience in the room, so we try as much as we can to make the process visible through documentation.

We can learn so much about a child watching them create - are they resilient? will they brainstorm when things go wrong? what do they know about different types of materials? do they slow down and think about their decisions? do they plan?

I wanted to share an experience that came up in our classroom this year. I was really interesting and sort of crossed the path of "prescribed" and "child-centred". One of our students shared that he knew how to make a hat using just a single sheet of paper. He took out a long paper and began to go through the steps that he had learned, at home, to create a hat.

His peers were amazed that with simple folds a hat could be created!

Other children observed him as he talked through how to fold and create a hat. Some children used a paper to follow his instructions and attempted to fold their own.

This student began supporting his peers verbally with directions and also helped them with the steps when needed. 

Tape was added to make the hats more waterproof. The children experimented by getting the paper wet to see what would happen if they didn't cover their hats and wore them in the rain. 

This area grew so popular and full of children that a list was created and when there was space and room the child running the area would go and get them!

Interestingly, not a week later the Oktoberfest assembly approached. The whole school was "making hats". Normally we would opt out of a prescribed activity but when we chatted we approached the students to see what their thoughts were. They felt confident in making hats and a few students offered to help others who were having difficulties.

The different areas of academics that entered into this experience are incredible! There were so many areas: personal/social expectations, visual arts, mathematics, procedural writing, and fine motor persistence. 

This experience was interesting because on a surface level it seems and looks somewhat prescribed. The children are all making the same thing, following the same steps. Yet, it isn't? The play came from a place of interest and was rooted in the children's knowledge. We didn't teach them how to make hats, to be quite honest I didn't have a clue how to! They were empowered, excited and involved...what more can you ask for?

Final Reflections...
I don't know if this post was helpful to others or at very least allowed you to see a bit into our art/creation area. 

Art and creation is more about the process than the product.

Materials should be available and visible. It is our job to continue to teach and support children in respecting the materials and using them.

When you get stuck along the way, ask the children! We have so many focused learning session that "zone in" on areas in our room that we want to talk more deeply about. For example, how do we keep art area organized? What new materials could we add? How do you use tape or glue?

I think ultimately, this area is not meant to be "perfect". Art and the process of art is far from "perfect". It is meant to be an area of the room where children can express themselves in another way. Art is a very personal way to express oneself and our thinking in different forms.

My goal for the new year...continue to embrace the learning and joy that is coming through in this area. Worry less about the materials being used and more about the process of their construction/creation. Continue to find interesting materials to add that will spark children's creative minds! Continue to be proud that we do not support "prescribed activities" in an area that is meant to be open ended and creative.

"Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up" - Picasso


  1. Tracy,

    Happy New Year!
    To answer your question, yes, it is helpful to see your reflections. I follow blogs like yours precisely because it is the reflection piece that offers the most in terms of helping me think about my process. It's not just the wonderful ideas in terms of provocations, or the perfectly-chosen photos (all appreciated!) but the way you map out the changes that took place, that are helpful. I know I will be relying on you even more next year as our school becomes an FDK school too. Thank you for making the learning visible.

  2. I agree with Laurel that this has been helpful... the relief that it is not just me that struggles in the art studio/atelier with the boundaries between control and freedom - in how we as teachers can scaffold the children to create meaningful art rather than just experienceing the materials or the fine-motor skills - and yet these experiences are so valuable - so I always start with experiences... I have now worked a year with this group of children and now - and only now I feel we are starting to move towards more meaningful art after I had made the decision to expose them to as much sensory art as possible...
    I am feel excited about the prospect of what can be created in our atelier in 2014...

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and allowing me more time to chew on my own thoughts about just this...

  3. Tracy, excellent post and right on par with what we in room 1 are also thinking about.
    I am planning on going into the classroom tomorrow and the art studio is a place and I often reflect upon; what should it include and how to manage it. I appreciate your thoughts and to be honest feel relief and I am not the only educator out there who struggles with our art studio!

    All the best in the New Year!

  4. Thank you Laurel, Suzanne and Lillian for the incredible responses. I so appreciate the connections and conversation. I think it is always powerful to see the struggles, up/downs, and successes of our colleagues - it allows us to reflect on our own selves.

    Art is absolutely a challenging area, but also one of my favourites. I never considered myself an artist until I began exploring and playing with the children in the classroom.

  5. I too can relate to the challenges inherent at the art centre. I appreciate reading your thoughts, perspective and reflections. I teach FDK and am also a fine arts major, yet I am constantly rethinking many of my choices here. I agree that our children should explore and be provided with open ended materials, however, I do see value in creating projects that have some guidelines. In my classroom we have been exploring famous artists and inviting our students to create pieces in the same style. There is still choice and artistic expression involved in terms of the materials, tools, composition, colours etc. What are your thoughts on this? I would love to hear what you think and have a dialogue so that we may both reflect further on our practice. Thanks again, I have really enjoyed reading through your blog. :)

    1. Thanks Alaina for the feedback and response :)

      I have gone back and forth with studying artists and types of art with the children. I think it is a great way to expose children, teach them some of the history, provide them with thought provoking examples, and often it leads to learning new "techniques".

      I think that there are many opportunities for direct teaching and small group instruction in the art area. Children need to experiment with new tools, but they also need to learn techniques and ways to use them.

      I think when you put out different art pieces and materials (e.g., Picasso picture) it is a great way to provoke their thinking. Where the problem comes, in my opinion, is when the children visit the art that the only thing they are "allowed" to do? I have been in many rooms where the provocation was uninteresting to a particular child who then was discouraged from doing something else in that area. If the provocation is open ended and there for those interested I think that is amazing, I would just encourage others to think carefully about how we approach what we put out to provoke children.

      Hope that makes sense? Sounds like your children are very lucky to have such an incredible and reflective educator!

  6. I loved reading this post because of the passion for programming it conveys and the obvious deep reflection that you have made visible. We have had a lot of similar conversations in our classroom particularly around the idea of closed-ended activities and materials. We feel that we've spent a great deal of time and effort on the environment in our classroom and that this sends a strong message about philosophy. The same message is sent by what children are bringing home from school. We had a short discussion on colouring pages and while of course there are skills within this type of activity, we felt that we could get at these skills in a more open-ended way through other activities. For us, it really has all come back to reflecting on our philosophy and programming. And while skills such as sequencing can be touched on in closed-ended crafts, we feel that there are other more rich and meaningful ways to get at this skill throughout our day. What I have been struck by with this change in approach is the creativity spilling out of our children. We are constantly and pleasantly surprised by the imagination and care that is going into art projects. One thing we continue to talk about is the types of materials to put at our centre. We have also found that by separating our colours, children are slowing down and making more deliberate decisions and I thank you and Cheryl for sharing that idea with me!

    Sometimes it feels as though we are over-analyzing things. I felt that way particularly about my feelings on colouring pages. But I liken it to the idea of the theory of loose parts: it's not about the loose parts themselves but the theory behind it. And thus, it's not about the colouring pages or stickers or closed-ended crafts but the theory and reasoning behind all of the rich and meaningful open-ended we are inviting our children to explore.

    Tessa :)

    1. Tessa, it is colleagues like you that make me push myself daily. You are so reflective, insightful, and "over-analyzing" is all a part of that!

      Colouring is fun. I loved colouring books when I was a child, LOVED! Is there anything wrong with them? No. But, you are absolutely right...are they quality activities for young children to do in a classroom? How else can that "love" for colouring be brought into the room?

      I know our children "colour" quite often. They sketch, draw, paint...and then fill in their own lines. I am a huge advocate for black fine tips (I know we have chatted about this before!) and I think that they create opportunities for children to express themselves much more artistically than a colouring page/book.

      I also personally love "crafty" stuff. I was never a strong art student ... can't draw to save my life! However, when we moved towards a more open ended focus in our art/construction area I became more confident as an educator which I found interesting. I no longer felt as though "I am not an artist".

      My next wondering/thought .. what is art? Is constructing a sled with cardboard boxes, tape, string and found materials art? Or is it construction? Ahh! Never ending over-analyzation!

  7. Ooh, this is such a wonderful topic, close to my heart! I just had to come back and read it again.
    Loose parts arts, or more specifically collaborative arts, invite students to take risks and play with materials in a way that honours the process with much less stress on the product. Weaving is one such activity - I was struck by how many students who didn't partake in painting or drawing invitations were drawn to the hands-on, sensory pleasure of winding naturals materials and strips of colourful fabric into our various weaving frames.
    Balance art, like the gravity-defying Peter Reidel's structures, elicit a strong response from students. Some may leave it at that - expressing wonder, admiration. Others naturally try their own, stacking and balancing the many odd shapes we have in the class (beach-softened bricks, logs, wood slices, driftwood, tubes) and as they explore, the pride they take in their accomplishments is quite different from something you can send home to put on the fridge. The arts curricula specifically mentions problem-solving, which happens naturally when working with materials that invite plying, stacking, arranging, etc. Not only this, but the conversations I overhear (and sometimes enter but not always) often include talk of pattern, form, texture, and other elements of visual arts. Add in the sensory pleasure of making music with cascading marbles or wood blocks "thunking" together, or the tinkle of acorns being dropped into glass bottles (this exact musical discovery came up in my reporting this week), the splash and slosh of water as it moves, and you have art and music everywhere in a lose parts classroom.
    I find that parents who follow our class on twitter no longer wonder why so little paper or "finished product" goes home. The see daily evidence of the collaborative nature of our creations (books made together, mobiles and mandalas, design explored at the sand and light centres) and don't wonder where the learning has gone.
    The most powerful provocation this year, in terms of response, was a Lawren Harris print I shared. As part of our tree inquiry, I chose various group of seven pieces from different seasons to share, beginning with a lovely, colourful fall forest which sparked some awe, but this Harris painting really moved my classes. I showed "Beaver Swamp", a moody late fall scene with drooping, backlit trees. Fewer than half of my students created a painting or drawing in response, but nearly every student offered an opinion of the piece or talked about what they saw in it. Responding to various works of art (and equally in music this is true) is as important to creating it, in terms of the meaning-making value for students.
    I think this is why I so loved your comment above about beginning to feel like an artist. What a wonderful treat, learning along with your students the power of true aesthetic PLAY!

  8. Wow! I just learned so much! This area in the room steals all my time. I'm always stuck in this area of the room not just because I am "supervising" but because I learn so much from the students as they're participating in this area.
    This section of the room also tends to give me anxiety from time-to-time. This post answered so many of my questions! Thank you!

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