"You cannot use up creativity. The more you use the more you have. " -Maya Angelou
Go outside and play. -Mom
Are these the eating spoons or the digging spoons? -Janine
Do you want extra chile in your burrito? (a question from the depths of the backyard mud pit, July 1983) -Ariana
Mom, we need clothespins, a ladder, and a long piece of rope. It's a secret. -Lisa
With few exceptions, children are innately creative. When we listen to them as they play we hear about complex worlds, (starring their designers, of course) intricate plot lines, and ever changing themes. When one isn't burdened by years of experience it may be a little easier to imagine all things - or maybe it's just more fun. We know that children develop and mature through the vehicles of play and invention and the lucky among us can remember long hours spent in acting out rich fantasies. Ropes were snakes with magical powers, kitchen spoons were wands for casting spells (and could do double duty for bug funerals) and shrubbery between our house and Mrs. Marshall's became enchanted (impenetrable, of course) briar. An old sheet served as a cowboy's tent, a movie screen (flashlights and shadows) or the queen's long brocade train. Dusty tree wells (my childhood was staged in southern New Mexico) could be transformed into intricate houses if the dirt was pressed into service as walls or valleys in danger of horrible floods (yep - garden hoses in the summertime.) If you'll promise not to laugh, we also made fabulous "forts" with carefully stacked dry tumbleweeds. One man's invasive weed is another man's castle or dragon cave. The only limits to our play were time and freedom to create.
Children's art play is often intertwined with their dramatic games. Humans make tools they can use and decorate their lives and our smaller artists craft brilliant examples. With a little thought and some time to apply it a piece of yellow cellophane can be a sparkly kite cover or the visor of a space helmet. In the hands of a creative child, different colors of plain construction paper change to a fancy house and clay tools are pressed into service as rays of the sun. Tissue might be used as an insert of a greeting card or be attached to an outrageously jaunty party hat.
Where do these clever short people get their ideas from? Everywhere. Sometimes they come to art and try to sit quietly in our meeting area but I can almost feel the hum of ideas that have come in, fully formed but just looking for the right materials before they can be seen by the rest of us. Sometimes an artist will stand at a studio, passing materials from hand to hand and looking vacantly into space. They're building something in their heads and making materials lists just as complete as any professional architect's. Children thumb through collections of photographs or "idea" books and sometimes wander to see what peers are doing before settling into the work of creating a piece of art.
We see the same quiet patience with the creative process in painting. Curiosity about what specific colors will do after their mixed leads to careful additions of color, brushes stroke in silence, and suddenly the artist crows at the result on the paper, "Look what I just invented!"
Warning: Soapbox Alert!
No electronic methodology was injured in the creation of these memories. Electricity, in the form of TV, MP3, video game, computer, or other mechanical tools is antithetical to the ancient concept of "Go outside and play." Research premises: dirt is good for you, and when mixed with sunshine is magical; mudpies are far better for fine muscle practice than are cell phone text pads or joy sticks; coloring books and coloring sheets have some interesting purposes, but they're unrelated to art.
Mom is always right.
One of the most interesting facets of TAB Teaching For Artistic Behavior is the flexibility of materials. Rather than whole-class lessons that guide children through steps that result in a similar product, the studios in a TAB room are designed to meet the needs of a wide range of age and ability. Given the resources in our 3-D Construction center, a seven year old makes decisions about his creation that make sense for his age and experience. If he's had access to lots of toys that encourage building and using his imagination, his approach to today's artwork will reflect that. Factor in attitudes he's seen modeled by family and friends, and he's likely to mimic creativity and will put together complex designs that suit his seven year old artist ego. Developmentally, he is exploring his world and using skills like gluing, taping, and balancing his design in a perfectly seven year old way. Builders in the block center we added this week do the same thing. Working alone or with a friend, children learn to manipulate blocks in ways that become increasingly complex.
With each design refinement, something is learned, tucked away for next time, and artistic growth is layered on top of previous learning.
What is different in the problem solving approach of a fifth grade student? Four years makes quite a bit of difference in complexity. Because ten year olds have encountered more long-term projects, they're generally more patient about the need to spend more than a single session (or more) working on a creation. Examples of specialization abound: miniature bedroom models with tiny, fringed rugs and details like notebooks and pencils on dresser tops (for elfin homework, perhaps?) A fifth grader is more likely to try to negotiate for materials that aren't yet displayed in the center ("Ms. J - is it OK if I go through the donation box?" or "Could you pull up a picture of ___ from Google images so I can add it to my plane?") or to request some hot glue to be applied to affix a tricky plastic. She's also more likely to use a variety of materials from other centers, like swatches of material from Fabric Arts for a bedspread, rice paper from Collage for a Trading Spaces-style wall covering, or aluminum foil from my corner kitchen for a solar roof.
I'm fascinated with the difference that developmental stages make of in children's artwork. The wild freedom of broad, swinging strokes of kindergärtners gives way to the more thoughtful details of a nine year old's single-minded focus on Spider Man. The variety of work that pours forth from the centers is also enriched by the way our artists learn from each other. Since it's October, kids are trying out all sorts of schema related to Halloween, Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) and a few fall themes. Part of freedom in studio choice is the joy of growing into new project ideas. Discussions are rich as children compare techniques in drawing and enlarging figures, try to predict color mixing experiments, and share clever new approaches to texture and shape. The painting center went through an amazing amount of black during a third grade focus (obsession?) on skulls last week. My favorite quote: "I'm the expert on these skulls, Ms. J, in case you wonder why they all look so cool." I just smile and pour more black tempera into the tray. I love watching professionals at work.
We are such creatures of habit. When children come into Evergreen's art classroom, no matter how they were lined up by their teacher, they inevitably sit in their favorite place on our burgundy (most days – this IS an art room, after all) rug. Chances are good that the same peers who flanked them the last time they were here are in the same places, too. Teachers and other life forms exhibit the same behavior. Next time you're at a meeting, in a class, sitting in the library, or at your favorite restaurant, look around. Yep. Familiarity is important to us.
Repeating behavior isn't simply comfortable for us, but is central to many teaching and learning premises. We value practice and reward repetition with adult bobble-headed nods and praise. It simply works well for all sorts of things: learning to walk, jumping rope, drawing stick figures, forming cursive letters, making tortillas, writing computer code, and knitting. Even a skill like driving a stick shift takes repeated motions that, once familiar, become more or less automatic. Such is our dependence on schema.
In a TAB/Choice classroom, there is plenty of opportunity to explore comfy schemes at great length. I'm reminded of three fourth grade boys who are still enjoying pencil sketches of action figures on thin paper. After adding details that give clues to their powers (it's dangerous for an old person to attempt to interpret anything that's cartoon or video game-based, but I keep foolishly wading in) they cut them out and share/trade/fly them around the room and draw worlds on more white paper for them to inhabit.
I have a confirmed crew of Ojo de dios makers who love playing with color variation and are proud of their ability to teach related skills to other kids in their class. They report construction of biggerbettercooler models at home and tell stories of dragging unsuspecting grandmothers to the store for yarn and craft sticks. I smiled at one brought from home (BFH) creation. A loving dad with tools had used pliers to stabilize some eight or nine inch alder twigs with heavy gauge wire so his third grader could craft her own ojo.
Familiar schemes are often evident in the painting center. Whole generations of children learn that a Proper Painting of a landscape begins with a blue line at the top of the page to represent sky and a green line at the bottom to represent earth. Before exposure to coercion (read: mini lessons on other possibilities) I can predict the squareboxhousewithchimneytwocurtainedwindows and obglitory sun, trapped high in the corner. Symbolism is a great way to practice using art tools, and it's developmentally appropriate to follow predictable stages on the way to other expressions.
So here we are, comfortably sitting in our same places on the rug, and the art teacher suddenly asks, “What's easiest for you in art? What's the most difficult thing you've seen a classmate do in here? Which center is most familiar for you? How about the opposite?” Then, in classic Evil Adult style, I casually tell the assembled short artists that I'm going to exercise my old wrinkly lady prerogative and insist that they “branch out” to Something New.
Sure enough, the fifth grade sketching phenom quietly admitted to me that he didn't remember how to make basic paper weaving work. We reviewed the process and he industriously worked on a simple creation so that he could do a more complex pattern like one of the hanging displays next time he returned to the studio.
After ___ (name a large number) cardboard binocular/camera creations, a third grade pair who loves to work together confessed to other members of the painting center that they didn't know where the large white painting paper was. I wasn't surprised when they asked if they could roll their paintings into spy glasses, but I did encourage them to think of some nifty PAINTED ideas of someone using said spyglasses before they rolled the paper. Sure enough, some outrageously colorful pirates and large sailing ships ensued.
Perhaps it's a good focus for spring. In addition to some necessary spring cleaning (is that pile of cardboard for the construction center multiplying in the night or what???) we'll sweep out a couple of comfortable ways of creating art and latch onto a new technique or two. Let the mini-lessons continue!!!