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Blockheads? Us?

It's a castle!It's a castle!Earlier in the year, inspired by some posts from the TAB Yahoo list, I borrowed a set of unit blocks from a preschool colleague. I added them to the list of possibilities, attached them loosely to the 3D Construction center, and fabricated some new rules for the kids. I had several goals. One was to observe some of the motor skill development of my students. Many children, particularly those who haven’t had the benefit of formal preschool, haven’t had much experience with heavy wooden blocks. In some cases there are Lego-type toys at home, but the skills of balancing and spatial manipulation are different with stand alone blocks. I wanted to see how children worked together. Much can be learned by listening to the interplay between small groups – who’s dominant, who generates ideas, who is flexible in thinking, etc. Among my goals was my desire to encourage the kind of planning and strategizing that goes into actual building, as well. Architecture is a special art form that is nourished by “doing” just like the other fine arts represented by the mini-studios in our room.

As I looked at the cart with the preschool teacher’s well loved maple blocks stacked in piles, I had a vision of future chaos, complete with maniacal shrieks and flying blocks. We needed something much more thoughtful than the average preschool experience and, hopefully, to create a learning experience a little beyond what we expected from three year olds. Using my best “Walk this way” teacher confidence, I proceeded to outline how these blocks were different from the blocks the students had encountered in daycare or at their cousins’ house.

    Block divasBlock divas

  • These are special architectural blocks. With them you can build anything you can imagine, from castles to schools to parks to rocket ships to undersea cities. We treat them with care.
  • Since we’re artists, we like to keep track of our work. To that end, when a structure is complete (as decided by the artists) the teacher will be called over to take a picture with the digital camera so we can have a record of our creations. (Fellow TAB teachers speak of students drawing their creations but we haven’t found time to do that yet – maybe from photos later?)
  • Because we’re thoughtful, caring artists, we have a special set of procedures for our block area. Creations may only be built in the center of the rug with walkways left on all sides so that other studio users may move around us. Special care will be taken to place blocks carefully and to take them down deliberately. We don’t want to disturb other artists, after all, and startling the art teacher can be a dangerous thing.
  • Since it takes a bit longer to gently re-stack the blocks on the cart, block artists need to start their cleanup when they hear the three minute warning. Ordering and categorizing are skills that improve with practice, too, and there’s a Zen-like feeling in watching the blocks get reassembled a different way each time.

Life was good and the building trades were brisk… until the teacher needed to borrow her blocks back. How could we argue with preschoolers? Blocks are essential on many levels for the little guys, too. Still, we were crushed. Sad. Bereft. Blockless.

Having the blocks gone was important for some conversations, too. I needed to see how important they were to the students, and they let me know in many ways. Several of the most dedicated builders wistfully drew pictures of themselves and the missing blocks and, when I told them that we had found money in the budget to get another set to share, they were thrilled. This was more like a barn raising, somehow...This was more like a barn raising, somehow...The new set, dedicated to the art studios, was delivered last week and is happily ensconced at the end of the “meeting place” rug.

Photographic evidence shows some brilliant structures, as well as some satisfied contractors. I love the look of pride on the faces even more than the carefully constructed buildings. I’m intrigued with the way children choose partners with which to build or how some choose to tackle a structure single-handed. There’s something in shared building that makes even unlikely groupings work beautifully.Ta DA!Ta DA!

Beady-Eyed Wonders

The beading queen!The beading queen!You’d think we’d never had beads, buttons or pipe cleaners in the Evergreen studios before. They’ve been there all along, but the silly art teacher had been rationing them so tight that they positively squeaked. What self respecting artist can craft anything out of three beads, I ask you? So – after gathering some courage from one of the clever TAB list members (thanks, Diane!) I decided to reorganize the beads and buttons mess and create (drum roll, please…) Sparkly Things! The phrase is reminiscent of both a crow in an animated film during my daughters’ childhoods and the habit of the youngest one who, when presented with a smorgasbord of offerings at the big Albuquerque flea market, went straight to the shiniest plastic silliness she could find.

Only part of the message for the artists this week was about where the Sparkly Things could be found. We also talked about measuring a scoop of beads or buttons for each project and why that kind of conservation is even necessary. The technical term for this is "holding my mouth right."The technical term for this is "holding my mouth right."I remind them gently that nearly 500 artists use these studios and most “get” the concept of sharing. A physical demonstration of how much “stuff” tablespoon scoop holds is a good math reinforcement, and the practice in sorting and categorizing is valuable, too. (“These beads are too small for my yarn, Ms. J. Would you buy some skinnier stuff, please?”)

There’s an amazing variety of approaches to using Sparkly Things. We have traditional necklaces and bracelets, of course, strung on plastic lanyard-type of stuff or stretchy strung, but we also have twisty pipe cleaners (“Why is it called that? “ comes from children who are at least two generations from their great grandpas’ pipes) and a whole host of collage applications. Big grandma jacket buttons make marvelous steering wheels in the 3D Construction center and a few embryonic stuffed animals have actual button eyes. (“Are you SURE this is the way buttons are sewn on, Ms. J.? This is hard!”) I’m hoping that some of the Native American children try some of the beautifulI took a serious picture of this crew but liked this one better.I took a serious picture of this crew but liked this one better. panel/blanket work that is part of the Skokomish or Squaxin traditions but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ll get in contact with my colleague who works in Indian Education and see if she’ll do a fly by to jiggle loose some of those ideas.

In the meantime, bead on!These artists are so intent they've forgotten they have chairs!These artists are so intent they've forgotten they have chairs!I know exactly where to put these beads.I know exactly where to put these beads.
Creative friendsCreative friends

Kindergarten Artists

Satisfied artistSatisfied artistAmong my colleagues at Evergreen are several masters of the "laying down good habits early in the year results in increased success in everything later" mode of teaching. I have watched the magic these folks create for years in many settings. Their classroom footprint and choice of grade level vary widely but they share a few traits that I love to implement. I hear softened voices - deliberately lower so that high, pipey voices have to get quieter to hear. I see patient smiles and hear gentle requests, always followed by specific praise given to children who are sitting and listening, sharing their space gently, or simply doing what the teacher needs to see. Many of my she/heroes use music to impart instructions, too. Who can miss a direction when it arrives in the form of Old MacDonald sung softly?Woo hoo - it's my tiny, tiny snake!Woo hoo - it's my tiny, tiny snake!

My challenge: Design ways for up to 25 five year old artists to explore media (translation: splash paint, pummel clay, print on everything that moves, and collage with the enthusiasm only a short person can muster) simultaneously. Added difficulty - sometimes there will be a talented volunteer but most classes will just be kinderpeople and me. Additional challenge - add all the Spanish language art and behavior vocabulary so lessons can be understood by 50% of the children who are still monolingual in that tongue. Little ones are happy to help me when I find holes in my fluency, so that's another joy.

Late October found us beginning to look like "big kids" as we could listen a little, get our materials (mostly) gathered together at cleanup time ("Listen to my marker click, Art Teacher!") and, sometimes, even stop "arting" when it was time to go back to our classrooms. It was time. We'd been talking about almost being ready for big kid centers for quite a while and it was time to split into groups and get to it! First we practiced standing around the mini-studios with ears wide open, eyes on the teacher person, and hands in pockets. I demonstrated how "big kids" write their names on both sides of their papers. Sometimes we not only "paint softly like butterfly wings," but create the real thing.Sometimes we not only "paint softly like butterfly wings," but create the real thing.Then we see how to use watercolor brushes (a wise TAB colleague suggested telling children to paint as gently as one would stroke a butterfly wing) to hydrate the paint and lay it gently on paper. We all watched (voice still low with lots of drama - reality TV has nothing on me!) as I carefully rinsed my brush and changed colors. We seriously re-placed our hands in pockets (odd, how they escape) and moved to the drawing center for more big kid information.

We're serious crayon melters.We're serious crayon melters.The drawing center is full of all sorts of wonderfullness. THIS is where you find the markers, crayon pastels, a zillion pencils, and everyone's favorite - the melted crayon trays. Safety is crucial around the trays. Children watch as I show them the hard plastic sides of the trays (old warming trays from the thrift stores) that are safe to touch. We practice licking fingers that are too hot and blowing on them to cool them off. The extra safety precautions are well worth the intensity of bright, melted wax in the children's pictures. They all love the feel of the heated colors as they flow onto the heavy construction paper.If a little strength is good in the print center, more is even better!If a little strength is good in the print center, more is even better!

Hands firmly replaced in pockets, we move to the print center. Bright, curious eyes take in every detail and dart to take in the all important tools: paper, stamps, sponges, paint-covered sheets of acrylic, and brayers to spread our ink (thinned tempera... shhhhh.) Independence is important to all artists, and these are no exception. They watched as I squeezed open a large clip and showed them how to hang their prints to dry.

The teacher noise at the small clay center is blissfully minimal. Children are intuitive sculptors and the moist balls of gray clay call to them. They need nothing more than time, a table, and lots of clay with which to explore. There will be time later in the year to talk about joining, planning for thickness, and how to create things that will survive firing. For today, though, we'll just share the fun of clay with our friends.

Collage needs little explanation. We've practiced lots of the techniques we'll use as we've practiced following directions and gotten lots of practice with cutting and gluing. I showed them where their favoriteDeep in thought, collage artists cut and paste.Deep in thought, collage artists cut and paste. colored paper scraps are and we reminded ourselves where we can find scissors, glue sticks, markers and colors, and fancy papers. Let the flurry of cutting begin!

Back on the rug, sitting "criss-cross," we gleefully receive our studio assignments for the day and literally fly to get to work. Kinderart - the most powerful force on the planet!

This stuff is cold and gooshy, Ms. J.This stuff is cold and gooshy, Ms. J.

Ta DA - SNAKES!Ta DA - SNAKES!

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