Thursday, October 23, 2014

Starting off the Studio: Ruminations and a Paper Investigation

How will we use the Studio? 
Which material will we use to begin our Studio journey?

These questions are constantly on my mind, not only at the beginning of each school year, but during all the months that follow. Each year, the use of the Studio shifts a bit as we try to navigate the ideals we hold as a Reggio-inspired center and the realities of serving 90 children, infants through preschoolers, spread throughout three separate buildings. Now that we are settling comfortably into the routines of the year, I want to take some time to reflect on the questions that have driven these shifts, to share some thoughts about what I do and why, and to tell a little about the subject of our first Studio adventure - paper.

How will we use the Studio?

Right now, children's visits to the Studio are primarily centered around getting to know a few key materials one at a time, building a repertoire of expertise that will serve them throughout the year. A few groups have also started visiting together to explore particular themes of interest, such as ramps and balls, music and movement, and building train tracks. This really points to the fluid and flexible nature of the Studio - it is an art room, a laboratory, a meeting room, a dance floor, a recording studio... and the list goes on. However, throughout all of these pieces, it is a place for focused work of one form or another. This focus may come from the side of the materials ("We're going to explore wire today! How can we change this piece of wire?") or it may come from the side of ideas ("Today is about building our animal sculptures together! What parts do we need? What materials should we use?") - but in either case, the focus is there.

This is a practice that has taken me several years to develop, and it is something I am still working on. When I first took on the job of atelierista, this element of focus was already partly in place, but there was also a sense of "free play" - of doing whatever you wanted with any of the materials. At first I went along with this, knowing that this is how things had been done, but I felt that there was something missing - something that I believed was at the heart of the Studio. I saw a lot of children using materials for the sake of having them - gluing piles of beads and glitter to paper or wrapping sticks with a mile of tape simply for the sake of taking them home to their mommies and daddies. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but, as my fellow atelierista, Anna Golden from Sabot at Stony Point, writes, "... that's not what studio thinking is all about."

So what is studio thinking about? It can be stated as a framework, a set of eight habits of mind, such as "envisioning," "developing craft," and "engaging and persisting."  For me, it is about learning about materials in order to use them to create the things you want to create and to follow through on your ideas with success. It is also about developing a practice of using materials intentionally and respectfully. It is about recognizing that every material has potential that is worth exploring. These are the ideas that I strive to embody through our use of the Studio, whether the children who are using this space are 5 months or 5 years.

Which material will we use to begin our Studio journey?

In the same blog post, Anna asks three important questions regarding materials for a Studio:

How do children use materials? 
Which materials serve children, considering Gardner's multiple intelligences?
Which ones have most potential for creative thinking?

The Studio is home to a variety of materials - paint, clay, glue, yarn, cardboard, tape, fabric, markers, wire, wood, and more. I feel that all of these can be used in multiple ways, can serve as outlets for sensory experiences as well as expression, and have a lot of potential for creative thinking and problem solving. The question is, where should we begin this year's journey in developing the "studio thinking" already mentioned?

This year, I chose paper as our starting place.

Paper is a material with a huge amount of potential. It is extremely malleable, yet it also has structural integrity - it can hold the shape into which it is twisted or folded. It comes in a variety of colors, weights, sizes, and textures. It is also very accessible - it is my go-to material for infants at the start of the year. A fellow teacher, Lise White, and I once followed an extensive investigation of young toddlers and paper. As one of the proverbial hundred languages for creative expression, paper is one with a wide and fascinating vocabulary.

Paper also offers a challenge. It is a material that we often use as a surface only - a place to draw and write. We don't often use it on its own, for its own unique properties. In offering paper to children, I was beginning the year by asking them to look at things - this material specifically - in a new way.

In order to really get at this idea of learning a material's own unique vocabulary, I initially offered paper to the children entirely on its own. No drawing utensils; no scissors; no tape; no glue. Just paper. Granted, the paper itself did not take just one form. For visual simplicity, all of the paper was either white or black, but some of it was small, and some was big; some was hanging from the ceiling, while other pieces were spread on the floor or arranged on a table; some pieces were flat and untouched, while others were already wrinkled from being crumpled; the weights of the paper ranged from thick watercolor paper to very lightweight tracing paper. In order to invite children to start thinking about the many possibilities of this material, it seemed important to offer up a variety of possibilities as to what this material could look and feel like to begin with. 

At first, many children asked, "Where are the markers? We need scissors!" Even some very young toddlers entered with the question, "Markers? Draw?" The challenge I had foreseen was clearly there - these children were used to acting on paper in a two-dimensional way. I was interested in seeing what they could do when they started to think more three-dimensionally. I gave them one question as further provocation: "How can we change this paper using just our hands and bodies?" Here are just a few answers from children across the center ...

Sam shook and waved the paper, sometimes wrapping it around his body into a big "mountain." 

Phineas, Harriet, and Alisa used a big piece as a house. "Come through the door in the front, not the back."  

Morgan ripped the paper into smaller and smaller pieces. She found that if she pulled it in one direction, it ripped easily, but if she pulled it in the other, she couldn't rip it at all.

Raphael scrunched different papers next to his ear. "This one sounds different. This one sounds soft. This one sounds loud."
Alvida and Lundy pulled down the paper from the ceiling. "Reach up," Alvida said, encouraging Lundy to help her try to pull down the pieces that remained. 

Justin ripped a piece of paper into small scraps. Arranging theses careful, he announced, "This is my control station. These are the controls." Each piece of paper became a button or a lever. 

"You can make shadows on it," Jone said of a big piece of paper lying on the floor.
E. folded the paper as she explored the different textures of its two sides.

Through this experience, the children learned a great deal about the properties of the different papers. For instance, some were easy to rip, while others were nearly impossible. The diaper table paper was flexible enough to  tie together, while the cardstock and watercolor paper could actually stand on their own if they were folded the right way.

I love that the Studio can be used as a place to not only build on children's interests, but to challenge them to build new skills and try on new perspectives. By investigating paper on its own, in this focused environment, children across our center discovered so many more uses for it than merely drawing or painting on it - they began to appreciate it as a unique material in its own right.

Do you see "Studio thinking" at work elsewhere in our center? 

What memories do you have of being introduced to art materials - of getting to know these "languages" ?


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  2. What a wonderful blog, Katie, that demonstrates the power of Studio to propel learning, creativity, exploration and self-expression. And to answer your first question, I do see "Studio thinking" at work throughout the Center. For example, in P2, when Kevin and his friends became interested in ramps, teachers noticed and created the opportunity for focused work, opening up "Studio thinking" by allowing them to explore different materials and challenging them to think differently about ramps. Having observed the end of a session, I could see clearly how much they were "envisioning," "developing" their ideas, and "engaging and persisting" in order to create ramps that they likely would never have developed without this opportunity. And another example of "Studio thinking" is the focused work that Toddler Two South teachers have been engaged in (they too have been envisioning, developing, engaging and persisting!) as they create a classroom environment that allows for deep play, interaction, exploration, and learning, while also feeling welcoming and comforting for all those who use the space.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Jamie! I love hearing how Studio thinking is being used not only by children, but also by teachers. I think this goes to show that practicing this form of thinking is a lifelong process.

  3. I think it is amazing that the children see so much in the paper that I would have never imagined. Many of these uses seem to come from their active engagement with all of their senses (also helped by the fact that the paper was presented in many different ways).

    1. I agree! They found so many possibilities in such a seemingly simple material.