After helping me remove some sticky glue from the table, a child sat on the floor smoothing his cleaning cloth. The four-year-old then attempted to connect colored masking tape to it.
While I do use the phrase "no collecting without connecting" as motivation to make art rather than collect materials, his keeping the cloth and attempting to connect colored masking tape to it snagged my curiosity.
I observed the child in his repeated efforts. With each attempt the tape pulled away from the wet wipe.
My impulse was to intervene and suggest he find another material to use with the tape. Instead, I asked if he would tell me about what he was doing. He immediately responded with, “I’m trying to discover what will stick to this baby wipe.”
Had I made a suggestion without understanding his intention, I might have curtailed his joy of discovery. I would not have learned how persistent and patient he was; how capable of managing frustration.
Another 4-year-old seemed to be joining random materials haphazardly. I asked him a similar question, "Can you tell me about it?" He paused, then picked up a cardboard tube and touched it to another protruding from his art.
“This is what it does,” was the answer I received as he moved the paper roll away from his art then back again. He chose to show rather than tell me about it. From this I could see how intentional his material choices were.
He had also connected two sheets of stickers to each other. While it seemed to be a gray area of my classroom philosophy no collecting without connecting, I let it pass. There was a third sheet of stickers in-between the other two that I asked him to return to the red container, as it wasn’t connected. He seemed about to say something, but didn’t as I hurried them back their classroom.
Once inside, he immediately chose a piece of paper, cut it into a strip and slid it between the two sheets of stickers, saying, "There. Now it has a bookmark.
I hadn't realized the sheets of stickers formed a book. Observing his behavior, I learned something.
I let him know that I was glad he found another solution, as he proudly placed his work in his art cubby.
If we are patient and alert, much can be revealed about children through their art making process. I know from experience how busy teachers are; how often we have to ‘put out fires’ and keep things moving on schedule. I have found that in making understanding the child and his art a priority, it has helped me to navigate those challenging times.
Guide for Teacher Observations:
What can we learn about children from their art? What does their interaction with the materials tell us? Are they self-starters with open-ended materials? How long are they able to focus?
What feelings arise during the art making and what is their response to these feelings? Are they solution-oriented? How are challenging emotions managed? What happens when the art isn't as planned or imagined?
What is the art expressing? Do you sense the child is attempting to tell us something through his art-making in one of the hundred languages of children?
We can utilize our observations, our experience, our intuition and knowledge of the children in understanding them through their art-making. We can learn more through direct questions such as, "Can you tell me about this?" or wondering aloud about the work. Our best guesses are only that until they are confirmed by the child.
In addition to further understanding our children through their art, knowing what motivates them can play an important part in customizing our teaching.
Beyond our understanding of the child is the act of art-making itself. I'd like to quote Kevin Jones, headmaster of St. John's College School in Cambridge, England, as written in an article for Tate Britain.
“When the world of childhood threatens to overwhelm, the arts help children to discover and organize their feelings safely, to express them and have some mastery over them. (With art) they give shape and form to their big feelings, rather than being inundated by them.”*