As teachers, our appreciation of children’s creative explorations provides encouragement. If we focus on noticing their efforts or how they feel and relate to their art rather than the product itself, we stimulate the process and joy of learning.
Children are engaged in planned activities for a good portion of the day. Structure is important, or child-sized chaos can reign. Yet, somewhere in that gray area between a well-planned activity and open ended art-making, an idea may emerge that stimulates both the children and the teacher. This happened recently when there was a need to channel the springtime energy that had been buzzing through the expressive arts room.
Several children were in an area often used for free play with puppets. On this glorious spring day, the puppets sat along the perimeter of a rug, watching the children roll around. I was curious as to how I might contain and redirect their energy. I wondered if there was something I could suggest that would provide a similar sense of fun yet be more artful.
"These puppets want to have some fun too. Do you think we can work together to build them a puppet theater to play in?" I asked. I paused and observed the children. They continued rolling about gleefully on the red rug but more slowly and with some attention to my voice.
With that simple prompt the three-year-olds jumped up. With no verbal planning, they immediately began to move things around: the black bench, the pillows and the giant pizza cover that they were decorating with markers and tape. The cover had previously been used as a door for the wooden cozy box. By opening it wide, it formed a third wall, creating an enclosed space between the cozy box and the neighboring black bench. There was just enough room in the contained space for the children and the puppets. It could also be used as an entrance and exit from the puppet theater.
Chairs were moved in and out: seats for the puppeteers and audience. Observing their peaceful collaboration was joyful as these strong preschoolers had many diverse ideas. The skills of emotional intelligence taught to them were being applied.
I sat on an audience chair and watched with delight as a flurry of creativity was unleashed. The only suggestion I made was to have only two puppeteers at a time inside the small theater.
I was amazed at the range of puppet theater I witnessed. One show was solely sound and song. Ysa drummed the pizza cover with large craft sticks and vocalized, while John tooted through a cardboard paper towel roll.
"When are they going to talk?" said the three-year-old in the audience chair beside me.
"They may have a different idea. When it’s your turn, you can use puppets." I wasn’t surprised that she did exactly that, with great finesse. First she explored ducking down so that only her puppet showed above the cardboard lid.
I was enchanted when another child left the puppet theater and approached a collage hung on the wall by an older child. It was made of images cut from magazines and taped together. She pointed at what she imagined to be a storm coming, looked at the audience and said, "See, there’s the storm." She then returned to the play in progress and incorporated the storm into the storyline.
Creating an environment that invites children to explore the materials and their own unfolding creativity is essential. We teachers set the standards of behavior and create a non-critical atmosphere.
Once the children feel the physical and emotional safety we create, having materials available in a small art center in the classroom may be all that is needed to encourage their exploration. Have available: scissors, colored masking tape, markers, oil pastels, magazines for cutting images and recycled materials. When a new idea emerges, the children will have easy access to the materials.
For those children who require more structure or help getting started:
If you sense interest in an emerging idea but the children need help in initiating the project, you might choose various materials and ask the children questions:
- "What could we use this for?"
- As in the case of the third wall of the puppet theater, you might ask how they could attach it.
- Then ask, "Who would like that job?"
With more inhibited children, you can start the ball rolling by making several suggestions for each of the materials shown. Knowing that there is no one right answer, but, rather, many answers can create a sense of freedom. Sometimes they just need a little help getting started and then their creativity flows. By observing the children, we can determine if and how we can help facilitate.
The longer I teach the more joy I discover in being with the children. Having witnessed their capacities over many years, I have learned to have great faith in their ability to find creative solutions in both their art-making and conflictory situations.
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