Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Loose Parts and Schemas: Enclosing and Transporting

I’m always fascinated by young children’s drive to fill and empty containers, and how a simple collection of containers and things to put inside can engage children endlessly, as they fill and dump, arrange and rearrange, and carry their collections from place to place. Teachers sometimes try to label these activities in curriculum terms like “sorting” “identifying” and “classifying”, but so often, what engages the children is the simple act of combining materials together and exploring the relationship between empty spaces and objects, between containers and what can fill them.

 One way to describe this play is through schemas. Enclosure (putting objects in containers, or creating containers for objects) and transporting (moving objects from place to place) are more than simple motions. They’re the ways that children experience and create understandings about the world around them.

I watched this play develop in my two-year-old classroom recently, first as children began to scoop loose parts from large baskets into smaller cups and bowls.

First, the movement was from one basket to one bowl, but soon, they lined up rows of containers, distributing rocks, shells, and poker chips into all. They weren’t interested in sorting or counting, just moving the objects from one container to others.

 Next, they sought out containers with tops to fill just slightly or to the brim.

And carried objects to different areas, seeking out anything that could be used as a container.

I don’t know what the children’s criteria were for choosing materials, or deciding where to put them. I don’t know what connections were being formed in their heads, and I couldn’t label the specific“science” or “math” or even “problem solving” skills that would satisfy a prescribed list of early learning standards. But anyone could watch these children at play and see without a doubt that they were engaged, they were curious, and that they were processing the environment around them. This is how meaningful learning takes place.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Painting With (and on) Fingers and Hands

“Paint goes on the paper.”
“Use your brush, not your hands.”
“We’re not finger painting today.”

I’ve heard these phrases over and over, as teachers try to guide the children to use whatever painting tool and surface that had been provided, and not stick their fingers into the paint. Or not trace the brush up their hands and arms, or not finish their work by swiping their hands across and around the paper.

The fact that each time a paint is provided, children are drawn to use their hands and fingers means that there’s something compelling to them about using those tools rather than a brush or whatever object the teacher had planned. If this is how the materials are speaking to the children, and we truly believe that art should be focused on process, not product, then why do teachers spend so much time trying to redirect children from their innate drive to create art in the most tactile way?

Last week I put out the paint trays with q-tips (cotton swabs). For the younger children, the small q-tips are easier to manipulate than large brushes. Also, knowing that it’s likely some children will abandon the brush, or use all the brushes at once, q-tips are more manageable for me and are easier to clean up.

The work started with children using the q-tips to make designs and blocks of color on their paper.

But then, the exploration shifted. A finger, and then a hand, became the palette to apply paint to.

 And then, the rainbow striped finger became the tool to apply paint to the paper.

 None of this was random. The children concentrated as they applied paint, layer by layer, observing as the colors blended or not, noticing stripes and dots and waves across their hands. They noticed the shades mixing together, as red and yellow became orange and blue and green and red became black. 

As they moved the paint with precision across their hands, I wondered, why would we value the art created on the palm of a hand any less than the art created on paper?

Why stop the fingers dipped in paint, why send the children off to wash the masterpiece off their hands before it’s completed? Instead, why not move into the child’s world, and appreciate the work before us – even if it’s on a hand instead of paper.