Thinking About Art

On Tuesday, I am presenting Project: Preschool’s inaugural workshop series: Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. I am super excited and nervous about it, as it will be the first time that I have presented my own material, outside of this blog. I have no doubt that everything will be fine, because I have spent the past two days making sure that everything is prepared. I even found a huge technical glitch today that I thought had been resolved months ago – I am definitely learning the lesson about checking behind myself.

Over the weekend I have had a thought bouncing around in my brain. It never really rested and solidified until today. I was thinking about children and art. Since the workshop is on creativity (and I am working on another one related to art in the classroom) I have planned for participants to complete an art project. But in the beginning, I had prescribed what they were supposed to create while doing the art. The thoughts that bounced through my head were questions about why I was structuring the workshop activity in this way, especially since I am discussing the points of motivation having to do with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Obviously, prescribing an end that participants should meet would give them a purpose, but I’m not sure that is the type of purpose that I am going for. It doesn’t give participants autonomy, because I am telling them what to create. I guess I could argue for mastery, because participants would get better at creating whatever it was that I told them to create, but to what purpose am I telling them to make it?

If you are confused yet, I am sorry. But the entire thing made me stand back and take a hard look at just what exactly I was calling “open-ended” or “child-centered” art. Of course, sometimes when we do art, we do have to prescribe an end. But for most art projects, simply giving children materials and letting them create at will teaches us a lot about their interests and their character. It also shows us what skills they have and what they need to work on, and gives them the freedom to experiment with tools and materials in ways that interest them.

I’m sure that I will be thinking and talking about this subject more after my workshops. One of the cool things about teaching is that you are able to learn as much as you are able to teach. I am looking forward to learning more from other teachers while we discuss different aspects of creativity, and I am looking forward to diving deeper into the activity that we call art.

Teaching About Tools

In a post I did that feels like it was written ages ago (simply because I haven’t stopped talking about it since I wrote it), I talked about how children need time, tools, and tolerance in order for their productive self to emerge. The idea is great in theory, but the truth of it is that sometimes young children do not know how to use the tools that they encounter. Usually it is a process of experimentation that they use in order to figure it out.

Case in point: I have several pairs of beginner’s scissors that I keep in the classroom. The children seem to understand the concept of how to use them, probably because they have seen them used by me in the past, but they have a hard time getting them to work for themselves. Once they figure out how to get the scissors to open and shut, they begin exploring what to cut with them. The most common exploration that I have seen with young children is putting the tip in their mouth and exploring the open and shutting process with their teeth or lips. Of course, this isn’t the way that they are supposed to be used, and I have had a few cases of clipped lips from that process. Then they move on to their hair, shoelaces, and anything else they can think of to clip with the scissors. At this point, there are a few different options for teachers to teach children about how to productively use scissors:

  1. Hair should only be cut by an adult. Period.
  2. I usually tell the children in my class that scissors are only to be used for cutting paper, but as I type and think about the curious nature of children, I feel that I am selling them short. Of course, they want to know how and if the scissors work for other types of materials as well. And they need that experience. Cutting other types of materials can help increase small muscle strength in the hands. However, they should be told that only the provided supplies should be used with scissors, not their own clothes. Nothing on themselves should be cut at all.
  3. Teachers should be aware of what they are comfortable with. Do not provide an experience for the children that you are not comfortable with, but ask yourself questions about why you are not comfortable with that activity. That will help you in developing future experiences for children.

The children in my class will be moving to a new classroom this week, and I will be moving with them. Because they are older now, the expectations will be a little different than they have been in the past, as well as the materials that they will be using. As I was thinking over the scissor example and the potential for other issues such as this, I ran into an article about teaching children to use tools, from Teach Preschool. Ever since I read the article, I have thought more and more about the lessons that children should learn about tools and how to use them. These lessons have been more and more necessary the older the children have gotten, and since we are in a shared classroom this year, I believe that it will be imperative for the children to learn the lessons about how to use the materials.

Along with the lessons about how the tools should be used come the lessons about the goals that we have when we start a project. Even though goal-setting is a life skill that can take years to master, starting this skill early can make the difference between productive and unproductive play. Around the age of three, I expect children to be able to tell me what they are trying to accomplish with their actions, and if they are unable to I help them develop and carry out a goal. Not only is this skill important for a productive life, but one of the keys of setting goals is the ability to control impulses, many of which could hold us back from achieving our goals.

All of these points are particularly important when we discuss children and tools. Every child is different, and some may better be able to control their impulses better than others, but the key for us as teachers (especially when working with this age) is to begin to give children the tools that they need to be able to be successful in a new classroom.

Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

strengthen relationships

In A Reframing State of Mind: The Three Little Pigs

Recently my class began a unit on the Three Little Pigs. I always look forward to talking about this book with young children, because there is so much that you can do with it. I have only picked the book up twice so far, though, and haven’t even gotten through it once. The first time we started to read it, one of the children wanted to build a house. We moved all of the furniture out of the middle of the floor and set to work (you can read about what happened during that experience here). The second time we picked up the book, I stopped reading and started asking the children questions about what was happening in the story, to kind of get a feel for their thoughts and feelings about it. And I was very shocked by what I found out.

“The pigs were being mean and it made the wolf mad!”

“The wolf blew the house down because he didn’t like it when the pigs wouldn’t let him in.”

“The wolf just wanted to come into the house and the pigs weren’t nice because they wouldn’t let him in.”

Of course, being three years old, the kids didn’t have one important piece of information: wolves like to eat pigs. But I was very intrigued by the thought process here, and the connections they had made to reach this conclusion.

See, I am a firm believer that children are mean for a reason. They don’t hit just to hit. Usually their feelings have been hurt in some way; sometimes it is not because of the child that they hurt, but by an outside source such as a teacher. So in my classroom we talk a lot about how our actions affect the people around us. If you take a toy the child isn’t going to like it and is probably going to retaliate. We talk a lot about using language and telling children that they don’t like something instead of hitting them. So the language that they used to talk about how the pigs were treating the wolf helped me to see that they are making a lot of connections between behavior and action.

So what does this have to do with creativity? Creativity is about making these connections, and the children in my classroom who have been able to make these connections have come up with some creative ways to deal with each other socially rather than just having an all out free-for-all. They have begun to learn to work together toward a common goal, such as creating original ideas (like the swimming pool) because they have moved beyond thinking simply about themselves and what they want. They have come to see how their actions affect other people.

Reframing is a powerful tool in this respect. When you practice reframing and teach it as well, it can totally change the dynamics of a classroom environment. It is extremely difficult and time-consuming to implement, but the rewards are totally worth it.

Especially when you see a class of two- and three-year-olds assigning blame to the pigs in The Three Little Pigs!