How it started. How it’s going.

In March of 2020, I hastily grabbed books and the turtle for what I thought would be a few weeks of remote teaching. That didn’t go like that. In June of 2020, I had a few days to pack up years of collecting, archiving, materials, tools, paints, a little hoarding, thrift store finds, treasured objects, kids art, and lots of started kid projects (this part makes me so sad, because they had to go in the trash) into boxes because our 920 F Street building was to be gutted and transformed in the next 18 months. I had to do this during covid restrictions so all the volunteers who help me massively with staying focused and organized were barred. Somehow, most of the Art Studio was somehow packed up. I didn’t see any of it for 14 months. After 18 months of teaching live virtually from home, I entered the SWS @ Springarn, (off of 26th Street, NE) “swing” space, and my temporary Atelier for the year. I gasped. I groaned. I took long epsom salt baths, and used many bandaids. 4 days later, the Atelier began to emerge.

The environment is the Third Teacher (Parents and Teachers being the other two), and while most folx recognize nature and outdoor spaces as a great teacher, the indoor spaces are often not seen this way. There’s a lot of “classroom” aesthetic that is sold and promoted that has no soul or even beauty. It doesn’t tell the story of the past, the present, and leave space for the children and adults to co-create the culture of the space as it emerges and informs the future. When I walk into your space (home, office, classroom, studio) what does it say? What values does it speak. What are the children hearing the space say as they enter?

Welcome to Ms. McLean’s Atelier for children in PreK3 through First Grade.

I am so sad that no family and friends are allowed to wander in, volunteer, or hang out due to covid restrictions. I so value the spontaneous and planned infusions of perspectives, ideas, emotions, and just plain old getting to know each other that happens when the doors are wide open and family enters. I hope that through this blog, you can at least be a fly on the wall or even be moved to leave a comment or question.

How we enter the Atelier. We usually gallup on imaginary horses, although Kindergarten and First Grade seem to ride cheetahs, dragons, unicorns, and all kinds of hybrid creatures. This is intentional. Moving your body is directly connected to activating the brain and raising serotonin to elevate well being and joy.

We stop outside the doorway. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 jumps and to the rug.

And then we read the visual schedule. Because just like the kids, I like to know what’s coming.

Project Meeting. Children arrive in small groups of 5-11 children. No matter the age we start with the Project Meeting. In these 10 minutes a provocation is presented, materials may be modeled, a book may be read, a video clip or image might be shared, we might dance to music that is connected through genre, culture, or lyrics. We often do a Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routine. There is always a conceptual thread that connects and interconnects with the home, school, classroom, and the bigger world.
Relationship, connection, and kindness is where we started. What does kindness look like and feel like at home, school, and the world? Why does it matter? How do we fix our mistakes when we are unkind? How can we practice kindness?

Create. On the schedule, this “Create” time refers to responding to the project thread/idea/provocation. It might be learning a new media, or it might be “visible speaking” or sharing your thinking through making, it might be an individual response, or it might be a collaboration. It may be starting, returning, or finishing something from the previous week. It might be experimenting or planning an idea.

Create time in relation to project work is rigorous in a beautiful expansive way. And along the way, I am listening, observing, and taking notes of aha moments, strengths, mistakes, challenges, and explorations. I am noticing dispositions and small moments of understanding and connection.

Free Time. Free time is like gold. Children are often surprised that they can feely decide to create something to take home (project work usually lives on in the Atelier, to inform curriculum and conversation)

“I want to make a camera.” Remi

Play is foundational to social emotional well being, exploring, practicing the imagination, creating stories, games, rules, and small worlds, trying something new, processing complex feelings, even traumas, negotiating, finding some alone time or making friends, and creating new worlds. After extended periods of being apart, this togetherness of a new family of friends and adults can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout Free Time I am able to observe and support interactions that are sometimes divine and other times difficult and complex. Trust is developed. The learning and growth is never to be underestimated.

Using the visual symbol makes giving the signal of flicking the lights off for clean up time a known thing. Children have been helpful, and even when they get distracted, their generosity in helping a friend or myself clean up is a common occurrence.

Reflection and Sing Goodbye.

We typically begin reflection with a quick guided routine to think about project work. Usually guided by prompts, What do you remember talking about first, What materials did we use? What was tricky about this? What was interesting or fun? What might we do next week in connection to the project? What do we need to work on as a group? How did we get along? What do we need to practice? Where did you prefer working? Sometimes we look at a collaboration together and share connections and appreciation. Sometimes we each share one thing we did during Free Time that was special. I usually reply “Yes, when you made that game up, you were an author, creating stories and characters.” Or “Yes, you were an engineer, designing a structure.”

We always sing Skinamarinky dinky dink I love you to end class. One is never too old too sing in unison a love song with funny words. To make a ritual of sweetness that can be dependably found at the end of every Atelier/Art Studio.

To that matter, we are never too old for making time to practice and find space to grow capacities of expression, compassion, imagination, transformation, and perspective taking. In this time, in this space- this is how it’s going.

Please leave comments and questions on the blog post. I’d love to be in conversation despite being separated.

Noticing the note of each bird

The year started, well…big.

First there was an earthquake (in DC!?) and then there was a hurricane.

Then it rained. Not just rain, but RAIN, for a week. I believe that this all happened within the first 2 1/2 weeks of school.

The rain flooded the landing to the playground so much, workers were brought in.


The rain and the puddle did not deter fun. In between the lightening and thunder, the kids went out.

Room 11 (Ms. Ricks and Ms. Fineran even requested boots for this exploration.)


Water, the essence of survival. The joy it brings to every sense.


The qualities of water are soothing and invigorating, and exploration is endless. As an adult, great films , literature  and works of art rely on the many metaphors and qualities of water. One of my favorite films is titled Water.

While squeals of  delight mix with my  my often heard voice in the Common Area,  “What do you need to do when you make a big spill on the floor? Why do we need to clean up spills? Keep the water in the water table…”, the concentration, discoveries made , and social interactions are rich. The warm water is soothing. The funnels, pulleys, measuring cups, tubes, water wheels and marbles lead to the unexpected. This is the beginning of theory development. These moments connect to understanding concepts.

In addition to water, the Nature Play Space outside is a rich environment and never ceases to amaze me. Children create soundscapes;


Create rich make believe (birds with eggs game)


There are so many versions of King of the Hill games. When was the last time you spontaneously made up a game with friends, complete with rules and fantasy? This is complex stuff for any age disguised in play.

Testing physical limits while being connected to trees and stones is important. Children are drawn to this area, more so than the manufactured play equipment. And while the equipment is good stuff, the Nature Play Space allows children to move what they climb on into new configurations, expand, change and create.

I initiated this natural area after being inspired by so many creative outdoor spaces ( great blog from Australia about nature Play Let the Children Play and this 20 Ways to Creat Play Environments for the Soul ) so I wrote a grant and made it happen. Since natural materials decompose, we are often in search of fresh “tree cookies” and loose parts to keep this area vibrant. Feel free to contact me to add to the space.

Inside the school  additions and traditions in the studio and common area keep things evolving.

Small additions to the playhouse has brought big excitement this year ( I love a good hardware store and thrift store!)

A very special hand operated machine

The beauty of this pulley, is that you need a friend to collaborate with you.

A small tray with handles and a fiber woven tea set provoked an elaborate playtime. While this might seem banal, there was an intense amount of negotiating and agreed upon management of materials, as well as debated role playing. Freetime is an intentional part of learning and offers guidance to teachers, not only on social climate-but on what is interesting the children and what is difficult for them. You usually will find me scrawling on a clipboard while observing the children. Often I watch quietly, while other times I join in to offer support or a challenge to provoke  new thinking.


A new opened ended provocation allows children to “sew lines.” Doing this sewing works best with two, and I am thrilled by the way the children direct each other and decide where to place the needle to make a desired shape, Almost like looking at clouds, the children exclaim, It’s a rocket ship or It’s a car!  Everyday it gets more and more filled with color and line.


I finally bought the missing small piece of hardware that has expanded the piano play. A double jack! It is beautiful to watch the many interactions here.


While the next two experiences are not new in the studio, they are new to all our entering children. The snow globe collection and the whirly plate machine. I challenge any computer to elicit this kind of wonder, awe, and thought…

And the simple pleasure of painting during free time, choosing from multitudes of colors and varieties of brushes created these complex and organized representations. Sylvie’s palette is cool and breezy and notice the details like the bird flying above the two smiling figures.


Alex painted a Matisse like painting, filled with movement and brightness:

This year, the Kindergarten students spent their first few weeks in the art studio working at a furious speed to make ceramic pendants. Every year, Kindergarten children make a gift for all the new students in PreK and K. We created a ritual of gathering, all together, a circle within a circle to greet new faces (including all the staff), sing songs and  give kindness. We have this tradition in response to September 11th, and it is called Kindness Day (just click on Kindness Day to the left for the full explanation.)

It was the first year the Kindergarten created not only a ceramic necklace for a new child, but an identical one for themselves too.  This new idea was inspired by a conversation between Mr. Jere , Ms. Scofield and myself about upholding traditions while at the same time adding new layers of thought/intention.

What is kindness?

“Being polite” -Luke

“Making a card.” -Caroline

“Sharing” -Zaire

“When the Kindergarteners gave us a bracelet last year! I wear mine all the time. Alex is his name who gave it to me!” -Ava

“When you say, ‘Do you want to play with me?'” -Brooke

“Being nice and helping them to do stuff.” -Joseph

Ms. Cross led us in song, I asked each Kindergarten friend to say “Hi, my name is ________, what’s your name?” and then present the gift, Mr. Burst introduced all the staff, and we all closed by singing You are the Sunshine of My Life.

Look closely at the images. The earnestness of the intros and gift giving. The joy of community. Tenderness and pride. It is refreshing and hopeful.


I love this small moment captured between Emma in Kindergarten, and new PreK Tessa:

Adinath and Gabriel make their new friends Archer and Emmett laugh by pretending their necklace is some type of transmitter /phone:

New Kindergarten student Anja helps another  Kindergarten student Sophia:

The beginning of the year is about developing new relationships that nurture the spirit to grow and expand (kids AND adults.) It is about creating a safe and creative space that offers boundaries and room for risk-taking. It is about getting to know each child as an individual and as part of a group. It is about caring. That is what I felt I needed to share, more than the emerging projects.

The Prek children just started a project observing Swallow Tail caterpillars and representing their observations in their new sketchbooks. The Kindergarten children have begun a project about costumes, and have begun planning in their sketchbooks. I can’t wait to post these emerging projects in the next blog.

I will end this blog with a favorite bit of prose which truly explains what the start of a new school year is like. It is why this work is always filled with wonder, research, joy, challenge and surprise. It is a metaphor of The Hundred Languages of Children. Welcome to a new school year at SWS. I hope you will feel comfortable sharing your comments and thoughts. My intention is to blog every two weeks, so check back soon!

Each new year is a surprise to us.

We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird,

And when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream,

Reminding us of a previous state  of existence…

The voice of nature is always encouraging.

-Henry David Thoreau

In small places


What is imagination? I asked a group of 4 year olds.

“When you wake from a dream and then you have to go back to bed.”

“It’s when you dream and you’re awake.”

“It’s when you pretend.”

“It’s what you think up.”

In the past two weeks I have been struck by the importance and beauty of imagination. The Kindergarten students continue to work slow and steady on their dream houses. paintdreamFinally they are becoming autonomous,  persisting as the challenges of creating a 3d dream house from a 2d sketch become real. They work until they have completed what they are able for the day individually, and then move on to free time. One student was painting on her dream house, another was making a whirly plate and chatting, when I realized that I had not heard a peep nor seen the four other children. I walked into the common area, and it was quiet. I opened the shutter to the playhouse and found 3 children lying on pillows with their feet up, while one sat in a chair with a cell phone. I had happened upon a small private world.playhouse2

“Hi.” I said

“We all have broken legs.”

“We’re in the hospital.”

“Grace is the Doctor.”

“No, no, she’s not the Doctor, she’s the nurse.”

I interjected, “Well Grace can be a Doctor too.” Thinking I was sending a message about gender.

“No! No! She’s the nurse. Nurses are the ones that are there!” I smiled, knowing, that their observation was correct. Several of the children in this play narrative had hospital experiences recently.

I am currently reading Secret Spaces of Childhood (Thanks to Anna Golden, the Atelierista at Sabbot School) and want to share some of the author’s thoughts:

“Why do babies play peek-a-boo ? Or children hang by their knees and capture insects in small cupped hands? Reframing the universe teases their brains to claim their true dimensions. Schools exhort pupils to seek, but children know the importance of hiding out, of finding ‘just for me’ places where they can’t be seen. Without a corner to build a world apart, they can’t build…the ‘small crop of self.’ Without freedom to play , they can’t be King of the Castle or shout ‘I win!’ because no one found them. Without time to incubate , they can’t find their niche.”

And without  access to and experiences with a multitude of languages (media, music, movement) their “self,” their “story,” their “srength”, their “gift”, might never emerge. What a loss to society.

Self-portraits are commonly sketched throughout the year at SWS. I decided to do something different with the Pre-K’s first representation. First we talked about imagination, pretend, and dreams. I then asked them, “If you could be anything, anywhere…real or imaginary, what would it be?” Then, I asked them to use a mirror and sketch their face, but then transform themselves into what they imagined.

Their ideas were diverse, but offered insight into what it means to be 4. So many were the fastest, the tallest,  and possessed magical and powerful qualities (including being pretty.) From here they will create their own models of this transformed self.





Some magical moments and spaces within the  imagination happen spontaneously, as in the playhouse. Some planned, as in the dream house project or the transformed self-portraits. And some start out as an experiment, or provocation.

Last Friday, I set out baskets of tulle, lace, and netting echoing the colors of a Washington, DC Autumn.  Plastic deer fencing was attached to the loom. The shadow screen was filled with the image of bare fall trees, projected through the loom. I invited Julia and Ruby to give it a go, as they are staff children, and up at school before the others arrive.slyweave Soon Ms. Sly joined in. Then Julia’s sister, Emma. As children began entering into school, many joined the movement, colors, shadows and light. Soon, there was a cacophany of hands and materials.  I watched in amazement as  this unplanned collaboration changed space and time for a small moment, on a very rainy day.



Artists are very adept at changing time and space for the viewer. They also are thoughtful and imaginative in changing material, form, meaning  and symbols. For these very reasons, each Kindergarten class spent an hour to an hour and a half in small groups, with a chaperone, sketching and having conversation about the work of Brian Jungen redat the National Museum of the American Indian. He is an artist who uses consumer goods to create tribal imagery. His material and symbols question who has the right to name  culture, and how is culture fabricated and reproduced. The children read the symbols and art through their own lenses.

In the sculptures made of stacked golf bags clearly reminiscent of totem poles, the children found many faces. However they said the totem poles were made from backpacks.jungentotem

In the enormous all red hanging textile entitled “Peoples Flag”, Bridget poetically stated, “It’s called Peoples Flag because it is everything people need. The clothes symbolize that people need to wear clothes, the heart symbolizes that we all need love, and the teddy bear symbolizes play, because all people need play.”

I just read a fascinating article in the NY Times, Can the right kinds of play  teach self control? supporting the work and environment at SWS. I think Bridget is very wise.

The visit to the exhibit at the NMAI continues to challenge and promote new ways to use materials in the studio and beyond.bflyholesjungenholes The idea of objects  telling stories is another road to observe and travel.

So many stories, but I will end with images from a special visit with musicians and dancers (Ms. Shannon, Ms. Agie. and Ms. Laura) who involved the children in an Irish tale through sound, movement, music, shadow, and song.

All these rich and varied moments are both fleeting and prolonged. Many are observed, while others remain private. All are important, as windows into what is, and what may be.

“Where, after all, do human universal rights begin? In small places, close to home-so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” Elanor Rooservelt, address to the United Nations, 1958