Saturday, December 17, 2016

Painting Their Way - Pouring Paint

It started as a simple watercolor paint activity. Two colors of liquid watercolor paint in spill proof cups, and sheet of watercolor paper.

The children started to paint with the brushes, but soon one child picked up the cup and began to pour out the paint. “Spill proof” doesn’t mean “pour proof”, and soon drips of paint were puddling on the paper.

I suggested, “Why don’t you try using your brush?” which she did, as she poured, and then let her brush fall to the paper. Obviously, this particular artist wasn’t interested in brushwork today. Another child, observing her neighbor's work, put down her brush and turned to pouring and shaking the paint cups instead.

The paint tumbled into in blue and purple pools on the paper and the surrounding table. I brought out some paper towels to wipe the table. The children took the towels, but instead of wiping the table, wiped their paintings instead, watching as the color soaked through the towel and the paint swirled on their papers.

In the end, their paintings were beautiful blobs of muted color.

The paper towels too were works of art, and the children examined the shapes and designs they had created as they soaked and wiped them through the paint.

Watching this process, I kept thinking of the contrast between how we teach child artists, and how we value adult artists’ work. Even as I watched the intent with which a child was determined to pour paint onto the paper, I still felt a need to encourage her to use her brush. How many other teachers would have put a complete stop to pouring out paint, because “that’s not what the paint is for” or “we’re using brushes today?”

These children were in complete control of their artistic process and were completely engaged in the exploration of how liquids move and are absorbed. Teaching is more than instructing the children what to do, it’s knowing when they don’t need instruction. We look at works by Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, and are mesmerized by their technique, and by those artists' ability to think outside the limits of conventional art. We need to be able to look at children’s art the same way, and trust that they know what they are creating, and how to create it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Size Lesson Does Not Fit All

After observing how engaged my two-year-olds were while filling containers and exploring the concepts of empty space and fullness, I decided to introduce some other materials that involved filling spaces.

I set up a pegboard and pipe cleaner activity that a previous group of two-year-olds had used extensively, lacing the pipe cleaners through the holes, passing them back and forth through front and back of the board, working intently both alone and alongside others. I thought the children in my current class would have the same experience.

Several children did put the pipe cleaners through the holes. One child even laughed happily each time he pushed a pipe cleaner through and it disappeared as it fell through the hole. But within minutes, the pegboards were forgotten, and the activity turned to gathering up the pipe cleaners, each child grabbing for as many as they could hold.

My attempts to redirect the children to the pegboards were completely ignored, as the game became to pick up as many pipe cleaners as possible and hold them tightly so no one else could take them.

Then I said to one of the children, “I don’t have any. Could you please share some with me?” She handed me one, to which I said, “Thank you.” Then I pointed out another child who didn’t have any. Could she give some to her? She did, and that child smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Soon the gatherers were handing pipe cleaners to each other, exclaiming, “Thank you!” and then laughing as they handed them back for a “Thank you!” in return. The pegboards and filling activity was completely forgotten (not that there was a lot of interest to begin with). Their play was about passing materials back and forth, not about filling holes or fine motor development or any of the tasks I had considered.

While I was a little disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. The original pegboard activity that was so enticing had been planned based on observations of those children’s activities. Not just on my guesses of what they might be interested in, but by introducing materials for play that they had shown interest in before. Those children weren’t just interested in the concept of filling holes, they had helped teachers hang curtains on pegboards, and came up with the idea of threading pipe cleaners through holes on their own. Their participation in the planning of the activity (even if they didn’t realize it), is what made it interesting to them. But another group of children, with a different set of interests and experiences, focused on another aspect of the activity, simply gathering the pipe cleaners into bunches and passing them to each other. 

As teachers, we’re so often pulled in by Pinterest pages and curriculum guides that show us perfect activities for every concept, every theme, and every topic. Sometimes those activities are just as interesting to the kids as we hoped they’d be, and sometimes, they inexplicably fall flat. The best teaching is an interaction between what we as teachers know, and how children see the world. There is no one activity, no one size fits all curriculum plan that will work for every child or every class. Our job is figuring out what fits.