Teaching Peace with Elyse! Building on What They've Learned: Familiar Materials

When I was new to working with young children and open-ended materials, I wondered if the children would stay engaged if I kept many of the same materials accessible to them. This included both the recyclables brought in by the children and those art supplies I purchased.

I was concerned they’d only stay interested if I continually changed the supplies that would become basics: cardboard tubes and boxes, beads, pipe cleaners, colored masking tapes, sticky eyes and gems. After all, I mused, this simple art-making was competing with the constant stimuli of electronics as well as commercial toys in all their many forms.

I was quite relieved to discover that the children found ongoing value and delight in familiar materials. 28 years later, this continues to be true. They can work for hours on their creations. I hear from many parents that they now have their own supply of colored masking tape. The children regularly go through their family’s recycled materials and continue creating at home.

Most children develop new skills—some by continually exploring different materials, others by using the same materials and building on what they've learned. The 3-year-olds that make endless binoculars from cardboard tubes and colored tape begin their art-making as 4-year-olds with the same two tubes connected by masking tape. The difference being that often these binoculars then became part of larger sculptures.

They further explore the familiar, cutting the tubes as their fine motor skills develop. These slices of cardboard tubes became wheels which they connect to narrow, flat cardboard with the same colored masking tape they learned to master as 3-year-olds. Add their fertile imaginations and, voila, a skateboard is made!

Connect one tube to a cardboard hoop; add musical stickers and an instrument is created.

Besides the recyclables, there are those materials I regularly order from Discount School Supply® and keep available for the children: sports beads, jumbo alphabet beads, animal beads, pipe cleaners, sticky eyes, gems and, of course, colored masking tape. This tape has accompanied my long career in the expressive arts.

The same materials are used differently as the children grow. The youngest children use the jumbo alphabet beads with pipe cleaners or elastic string, making bracelets or necklaces for themselves, their family and their friends.

Whereas the younger children use the beads mainly for jewelry-making, the older children include them in their sculptures and other art projects.

One visiting alumnus glued the flat jumbo alphabet beads to fabric in order to make a purse for her mother’s surprise birthday gift.

On the gift’s other side, she spelled words that described her mom's traits.

The children taught me to see the benefit of having the same materials available for them. I soon learned through observation that the art and exploration of the children grew as they did. They continued to expand their learning, building with confidence on what they had learned.

If I forget how engaging simple materials can be, I remind myself with Caine’s Arcade, a detailed cardboard arcade built by a 9-year-old boy.

It’s very inspiring. If your children are new to using recycled materials, you might want to share this with them.

Since the YouTube posting of this 9-year-old boy’s cardboard creation, an additional video has been posted

With simple loose parts, the gift of their imaginations and the encouragement of their teachers and parents, amazing results can be accomplished while having great fun along the way.