Of “stuff”

claymiles(That’s Miles, above)

While work and life are intertwined, being snowed in away from the school place gave me an opportunity to work on some of my own “stuff.”

I will presenting at an International Conference on Young Children and Creativity in New Jersey March 3-5. The list of speakers include Howard Gardner. My presentation is entitled “The Studio Experience in Early Childhood as Social Activism.”  It will be stories and images of transformation within the context of my work and experiences at SWS. Thanks to the snow-in, it is completed! Still time to register and attend.

I am part of a juried exhibition at Adkins Arboretum, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While I have never been there, it looks like a fabulous 400 acres of beauty. My piece is “Raindrops on Asphalt and Feathers on Sparrows.”  RaindropsDetailThe theme of the show is related to Wildlife of the Mid-Atlantic. Clearly the curator Carla Massoni of the Massoni Gallery, stretches the theme as much as me, because my art is a nine piece mixed media assemblage that would not grace the cover of any botanical or wildlife journal. Raindrops2The opening is September 27th from 5-7pm if you want to take a trip. Thanks to being snowed in I was unable to drive the piece up to Ridgely, MD, and had to bubble wrap and ship it to the gallery.

While being snowed in, my daughter was dancing frevo in the streets of Olinda, Brazil for Carnival. Her luggage was lost, but if you click the link, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Feel sorry for my husband and I who managed to ship a 42 lb box of her belongings  to Uruguay where she will be studying for six months.

The sun came out and it was time to return to SWS. On February 16th all the children and teachers risked their lives but made it into school. Despite missing Valentines Day, yours truly donned a new dress and transformed into the annual Love Fairy. lovefairy1Love dust was sprinkled, chocolates were handed out, cards were sorted, and alot of cupcakes were consumed.

Best of all, the studio table was covered with canvas and beautiful red clay is being handled by all. I love clay, and am smacking myself for waiting so long to haul out the real stuff (not playdough, the stuff of Mother Earth.) Next week the Kindergarten classes will be visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at National Geographic. I especially wanted them to have some first hand experience with clay.

Right now I am reveling in the kinesthetic and expressive qualities of clay. While the idea is to give the kids lots of experience with the material (not “make” anything to save,) I am teaching a few ceramic techniques/lingo:

claymoveThe slab (also known as the pancake) is such a physical process, the whole body is engaged, just look at Ella and her hair flying in a forward motion.

clayballsThe sphere (also known as the ball) is tricky, but you can turn those spheres into so many things.

The coil (aka making snakes) is a vital element when creating just about anything.claycoil

The pinch pot (poking, pinching and pulling exercise) great for hats, mountains, bodies, and as Malen imagined, a meteor that flattened her little world.

The experimentation and creation is giving everyone (including me) great satisfaction as well as many many more ideas. Here’s some of the stories from this interaction.

clayO1 clayO2


“It’s a guy that stuff falls out of the sky. It catches it with the tail and bounces off theshell. And it goes back and forth and it can do more than one thing at the same time. When there’s too much bouncing, this part catches some, and there’s a bridge too. It bounces and catches. It keeps switching like a pattern.” (Owen’s (Pre-K) construction was a story in the making. He developed a technique of pinching and adding clay. He told the story as he worked. He included qualities such as it’s ability to multi-task, as well as the idea of patterns that he noticed as told the narrative. From above, it is a compelling design.)


Henry M.  (Pre-K) was sitting directly across from Racecar the Turtle and was aptly inspired.


Chiara (Pre-K) struggled for a long time trying to balance her person. I reminded her that the solution was the same as building with blocks or when she created her wooden figure. After many tries, she was thrilled to find success after creating a base slab.

“I am making a story. There’s a crib and a baby. The baby has a bottle, and a cat, and the cat has a clay  bowl” Grace, Kindergartenclaystory

Grace also told a story, but she had the idea before she created, whereas Owen’s story grew out of sculpting as he worked. It is a constant question for me as a facilitator, create from the plan or plan from the creation?

claykaiKai’s alien. (Kindergarten) He asked me many times to take a picture since it was going to be recycled.

For some children, it was a mesmerizing experience, like Brigid, (K) who at times gazed off as she felt the clay. For others it was a physical joyful experience, like Philip (K) or like Max (Pre-K) who created a boat that he moved as a toy in play. claypinch



Perhaps as human beings, we are hard wired to connect with this vital organic material. This “stuff” that bridges all types of learners and is so easy to transform again and again and again. (below, Annika, K)


High things


In Reggio and at SWS the role of teacher is as researcher. I have found, that when researching children, the researcher is equally the subject of the research.

The Pre-K children sketched a self-portrait, and then sketched themselves transformed  into something/anything else. This research was fascinating. Looking at what themes repeated or the individual wants and needs of each child lent me information to revisit and reflect upon.

The next step, I decided, was to give the children the task of recreating their sketch in 3d, using various materials. This is  challenging. Ideas such as balance, form, enlargement, space, organization, shape  as well as following a plan, come into play. More importantly, the ability to problem solve and engage & persist in this new process was my lens for this part of the observation.search

I put out a variety of materials on the floor in the art studio. Children were asked to take their sketch book and experiment/build like in the block area. When they found all the parts that they thought would work, they were to bring them to the table, where I would hot glue the pieces together. I told them, that sometimes a part might be missing or need changing, but that was no problem, they would just find a new way to make it work.

In every small group I noticed that some children tried to “match” the materials to the exact size and shape right on top of their drawing. This collage method invariably would not stand, plus, it was frustrating for them. In each group there were children who made materials choices in a way that clearly showed their understanding of the task. These children offered models of success, so that I was able to defer advice by asking them to look at these child created examples.

Children were told that they  would work on the hair, clothes, fur and all manner of details at a later time.

Here are four observations/stories  that offer some insight into 4 year old children, problem solving, and fostering an environment where children engage & persist when faced with a difficult task. It is also the story of how adults, namely myself, help or hinder these habits of mind.

The first story is Bianca. She transformed herself into a princess. “I would turn into a princess. Being a princess is cool. They do things cool. Like do high things, like jump high and stand high.”

While boys often transform themselves into  superhuman or superpowers, girls this age often find their power models are princesses. Bianca sees her transformation as a princess, but not for the dress. To her, a princess is someone who does high things. From a 4 year old perspective, all adults have this characteristic. We are tall and possess  the power. I make a note to myself  to be aware when I am standing and talking to children, and limit this interaction only when absolutely  necessary.

Bianca found her pieces and came to the table. I asked her to arrange them how she wanted them glued. In doing this she noticed she was missing arms. I noted that this is also a common missing part when children sketch people. She returned to the table and instructed me. When we stood her figure up, it stood for a moment and then fell. The legs were small and unable to balance the figure.

Bianca balance Bianca balancedown

“Go back and find a material to add, so that she can balance. I think her legs are too skinny to hold the rest of her body.” Yikes! The second part of the sentence I should have asked her about, instead of telling her. She went back and found 2 caps to glue onto the feet, but they were two different sizes.bianca shoes1

“Uh oh, it’s not working. What’s wrong?” She looked at it for a while and said, “they don’t match.” She found another two that looked similar but also were of different height. She tested it and looked at me. “Look closely”, I advised.Bianca shoes2

She took my advice and looked closely, and found materials of like size. I glued them on, and she tested the figure, it balanced.bianca shoes 3

It was a long process, but she did not get distressed. She even chose materials that illustrated the power of interest to her, height. I caught myself giving her one answer, but was able to switch gears so that her power to problem solve came from her and not me.

The second story is about Sofia.

She transformed herself into a radio. “I wish I was a radio cause I like the songs on them.”


She began by choosing a thin circular plastic piece to represent the radio, a round wooden piece to represent her face, and a plastic globe shaped piece to represent a radio button. She brought it to the table and I glued the face and button on. When I asked her to stand it up, it fell down.

She returned with two plastic pen caps and asked me to glue them next to each other on the back. It rolled upside down. She went back and brought back two more plastic pen caps and instructed me to glue them on the other side. While it stood, it rolled, so that the wooden head was on the side. She went back. She was taking a long time, so I said, “You can choose a different material if you want, I can even remove things.”  (Honestly, I was thinking, this is not going to work, and it was taking all self control to not solve it for her.)

She returned with a fifth pen cap and instructed me where to glue it. To my delight, her approach was successful. radiofrontradiodoneShe not only engaged and persisted, but she utilized the habit of mind called “envision” which is the ability to picture mentally what cannot  be directly observed and imagine next steps to solve a problem. I wondered if my interjection of choosing a different material was a negative remark, or one offering other possibilities. Luckily, her focus allowed her to override my comment.

A third story is about Henry. He transformed himself into a ball “…so someone can throw me up into space and I’ll go there and go higher in space and then come down to earth, and bounce back up…” Once again, the theme of height comes into play. I become hyper aware of all the times in a day when I observe adults towering over kids while speaking to them.

I told Henry that his figure  did not have to balance, but, it must not lay flat either. He set about finding materials, and after much experimenting and searching, came to me with two film canisters and beads. “Hmmm, tell me how to glue this,” I said. This time, I was trained to just be quiet, listen and look. He told me what to do, and I glued it. I was a little baffled how it ballcould be a ball. When I picked it up, I was thrilled to realize, that the material sideways makes a circle.ballside

He asked me how he could add some materials sticking out so it looks like it is bouncing. I told him I could maybe drill some holes next week if he needed to.

The 4th story is Owen’s. He wanted to transform himself into a blueberry “cause I love blueberries because of the juice!” Small and loved, and full of flavor. I think the transformation is fitting. I was curious how this simple drawing could translate into materials. He was decisive and clear, and brought me over some beads. “I think they will roll away, can you find a solution?” Once again he was decisive and clear, creating blueberries on pedestals.blueberrypic Even the material representing his face, has a small base.

Every child had an amazing story in this process.   I was able to gather important observations to move me forward to support and  expand upon their strengths as well as challenges. Most illuminating were the questions that revolved around my (or other adults) coaching and facilitating their growth.

How often is language used (inadvertently) in a helpful manner, but in fact,  the help  takes power and problem solving away from a child?

How can expectations for childrens work be set high while maintaining a climate where mistakes become a helpful and not stressful process of discovery?

When allowing for mistakes and the intentional development of problem solving & engaging, persisting, expressing and exploring, time must be given to ensure meaningful understanding and success. How can the community come to value the development of an idea that may only produce one or two products, as opposed to many many products, and adjust their expectations of what their child produces?

Maybe some of our answers can be inspired through Bianca.

So, let’s take our cue from Bianca’s princess and do high things. Imagine high. Invent high. Believe high. Create high.

I love my job.

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