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? 

1 comment:

  1. It makes so much sense to me that we revisit these spaces a few times over the course of the year. I think that children rely on the familiarity of a space, but also notice and take advantage of when the environment changes. I can picture the preschool children discovering the cardboard tubes and being really excited about the potential. Thank you for this entry Katie!