Thursday, March 27, 2014

Creating Spaces for Art Materials in Classrooms

Over the past several years, art materials have become increasingly available to children in our classrooms. We have now reached the point where 5 of our 8 classrooms have dedicated mini-ateliers where a mix of different media are always out and open for children to use. Of course, like any piece of our environment, these spaces need to be revisited, reviewed, and revised as the year progresses.

After our school's break in January, I returned ready to help classrooms take a second (and third, and fourth) look at the structure of these spaces, as well as their systems for displaying children's work. In some cases, such as our Preschool One classroom, new life was breathed in merely by the addition of new and exciting materials. Restocking depleted shelves with items like cardboard tubes, popsicle sticks, string and rope, and various recycled objects opened up new possibilities for construction and collage. Although these items are commonly seen around our center, they had not been out in this classroom for some time. Adding them back into the mix gave children some wonderful materials to create props for dramatic play (a big theme for these children) and offered great opportunities for teachers to introduce the idea of making plans before building and choosing materials to match.

In other cases, more extensive (and ongoing) restructuring was set in motion in order to bring the lived reality of these spaces in line with our intention understanding of their purpose. As I worked with teachers to think about their mini-ateliers, we saw the need for a distinct, cohesive space that children recognize. All of the materials available must be close to each other (in order to invite the potential for multiple media to be explore within a single project), and the tools needed to manipulate these materials must also be near at hand in order for work to continue uninterrupted. This became clear in one classroom where materials and tools were spread across two different areas of the classroom (there was a separate area for writing). Teachers noticed sharpie caps, scissors, and paper scraps abandoned on the floor from children's journeys from one part of the classroom to another. Moving the two shelves close together in the front of the room created a central mini-atelier, where children had all of the necessary supplies within sight and reach.

This space - even if it is a single shelf - must be visually unified in this purpose. In their experiments with their mini-atelier this year, our Toddler 1 North team first placed materials on the bottom two shelves under their parent check-in table. During significant parts of the morning and afternoon these materials were inaccessible as parents checked their children in and out, wrote notes, and read documentation posted above. The children also conflated the adults' pens and check-in sheet on the top shelf with the small clipboards and other materials set beneath them, and would use the adult materials as often as those set out for their specific benefit.

In light of these differences, the teachers changed both the check-in system and the mini-atelier's location. Families now check-in using a clipboard that hangs up on the wall; large unit blocks taped together created a lower system of shelves that children could access more easily. These shelves are also set apart in their own nook close to the sink -visually a separate, special space - and materials are more available than before.
This group of teachers also found themselves asking the question - how can we make more materials open and available in a way that does not require constant policing on our part? They looked to a system they had already employed in a different area of the classroom where hanging baskets are labeled using a sample toy that is attached on the outside. For instance, a basket of trains would have a small train dangling over the edge, showing children what the basket holds. The labeling system gives children more power to ask for these additional toys when they are interested, while also giving teachers a chance to size up the atmosphere of the room before adding a new element. The teachers decided to try a similar system in their mini-atelier, creating a space for buckets of art materials to hang in sight of the children and within easy reach of the teachers. Thanks to the help of a parent who hung the rod for the buckets, messier materials, like glue and paint, are now within sight and within mind for children and adults alike, ready to be brought down as needed for the task at hand.

One piece of our mini-ateliers that many teachers are still thinking about is how to create holding spaces for children's work. We love to encourage children to take a second look, add a new layer, or seek out more details for their creations in order to deepen their thinking about them, but this can be difficult to do without a place for these creations to live in the interim. Our Toddler 2 North classroom rearranged their classroom in order to make space for a holding area for children's building projects. A long-forgotten shelf in one of our storage areas was the perfect size, and the children helped to clean it off and fix it up with a new paint job. This shelf now stands ready for three-dimensional work - from Lego creations to wooden sculptures - to be "saved" and revisited.
A Toddler 1 North Teacher shared this picture of a child at work
at their mini-atelier.Not only are the materials within arm's reach,
but the top of the shelf also acts as a convenient work space.

As a staff, we have been working with the book Designs for Living and Learning by Margie Carter and Deb Curtis in order to revisit our classroom environments together. Within this book, chapters are often broken down into the "living" piece (which are the more structural or macro changes to the environment) and the "learning" piece (which represents the materials and provocations that are set out). The ongoing process of reworking the mini-atelier spaces reminds me of the continuous give and take between these two elements -"macro" changes we might make to our environments and the intimate details of the materials we fill them with. Both are essential in helping us to build our underlying values into the physical spaces of our classrooms, and both deserve continual review and revision as our time together in that classroom unfolds.

How can we continue to build the practice of saving and revisiting children's work into our physical spaces and our daily practice with children and families? 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Paper, Light, Clay: Open Studios Thus Far

So far this year, I have offered four Open Studios (one with paper, two with light, and one with clay), inviting families into the Studio to play with and explore these materials with curious minds and eager hands alongside their children. This has been the most successful series of Open Studios I have hosted in my time as atelierista, which leads me to examine my own hopes for these precious afternoons I spend with families and what has made them so special this year.

The Open Studio for families is a great tradition that was begun by my predecessor, Viki, as a way of offering parents (and grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc.) an opportunity to share an experience in the Studio with their child. As Kendra has discussed before, our philosophy hinges on families as partners in our teaching and important members of our school's community; the Open Studios that I host every other month or so are one way in which I strive to welcome families into the Studio.  They give families a chance to learn a bit more about this space, some of the materials we explore here, and what their child in particular will do in this space, with this set up.

Last year, I wrote this post about our first Open Studio as part of our clay exploration. I was wondering how I could use these special afternoons as a way of also inviting parents into our pedagogical practice and encouraging them to consider some of the same questions we ask while working with young children. My solution to this question for this year has been to ask the families who come to the Open Studios to first read these pieces about exploring art materials alongside infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. I also try to have short versions of these available as handouts and to have poster versions up (although I admit I ran out of time to prepare these things for the latest one). In addition, I post questions to guide our thinking around the room, along with sticky notes and pens for adults and children to record their answers. Here are a few of the questions and answers from each Studio:

"How can you change paper using just your hands?"
"Wrinkling, ripping, waving, scrunching."
"Twisting, tearing, zig-zag, throw in the air."

"What did you learn about paper?"
"It makes a good wrestling mat."
"It makes big noises when you kick it and hit it."
"You can pick up REALLY big pieces." 

"(How) can you alter light?"
"'Blue on it, now black on it... green there!' Simon noticed changing light most when he was moving cellophane and drawing on the light table."
"Shadow is formed when light is blocked. There is heat, too when light is produced."

"What did you learn about light?"
"Light comes down down on it, like this." 
"K. learned that light comes in different shapes." 
"You can mix colors even without paint."

"What makes clay special?"
"You can change it many times."
"You can use it over and over again."
"You can play with it and use it for fun."
"I love the way it feels when I squash it in my hands."
"It involves all the ancient elements: earth, air, fire, metal, water."

Some of these answers came from adults, some were children's answers, and a few were a combination of the two. In every case, it seemed as though answering the questions helped to put some of our own learning and the learning we were witnessing in others into words.

In addition to these questions that I posed, I heard the parents themselves asking more questions of their children as they worked, and many of them were open-ended and inviting: What does this paper sound like? Where is that light coming from? How did you make that with the clay? Parents also asked me about the materials they encountered, questions that seemed to suggest an interest in potentially extending these experiences into their homes:  How do you get these ideas for provocations? What kind of lights are these? What type of clay is this? Where can I get some? 

I also noticed parents asking open-ended questions using their actions, rather than their words. A father turned and quietly watched what another child's work, inviting his daughter to look at the discoveries of this child.  A mother with her infant child gently brought some rope lights to her lap, running her hands over them as she held them within reach of her son. A father rolled a simple ball of clay, offering it to his daughter to see what she would do with it.

These meetings in the Studio together have also offered parents from multiple classrooms the opportunity to meet and converse with one another about subjects other than just the material. By the end of each Open Studio, many of the adults in the room have met someone new and shared a conversation with them about their children, their experiences in Cambridge and at PTCC, or their interests outside of here. I remember one of the sessions with light occurred right before Thanskgiving; as the children and parents spread and scooped sand into trays on the light table, the discussion shifted to the subject of the holiday, the traditions of the different families, and the many ways of cooking turkey. You often hear that art can bring people together in unexpected ways, and I think this is an instance of one of them.

Throughout these evenings, I was struck by the care and attention that parents were paying to their children, and the attention that adults and children alike were paying to the materials set out before them. One parent observed that the questions I asked were much more focused on the "how" ("How are you using it?" "How did you do that?" "How did it change?") of the material rather than the concrete question of "What are you making?"; I felt that the people present at the Open Studio were also embracing these "hows" rather than the "whats." I was also amazed at the attention they were paying to each other, the negotiations that happened within this shared space, and collaborations that sometimes grew out of this. I am so grateful to work in a community full of people of all ages who are invested in the work we do and are willing to learn more about it through the "hands-on" setting of these Open Studios.

Looking forward to the next Open Studio (most likely in April), I am wondering:

- What else might I offer parents to give further insight into our work as a center and my work as an atelierista?

- What should we explore together next?