Art Experiences

Archive for the ‘projects’ Category

This being our last week of school, there are lots of items being sent home. Papers, projects, anything that has been tacked up around the classroom, anything in a locker or cubby will be going into a big paper shopping bag to be sent home on that fateful last day of school.

I don’t want to add to that pile so for the last week of art class, I will be giving the children experiences. Truth be told I sprinkle these experiential classes throughout the year because I think it is important that children expand their definition of art. I had an interesting discussion with a class about this one day. I put some blocks on a table and asked one child to build something with them. He moved a few blocks around and called it done. I asked the class, “Is this a sculpture?” No, it was just some toy blocks on a table. I asked them, “Is this art?” No, art is when you paint a picture and take it home.

Then I talked for a minute about how a sculpture is anything three dimensional, anything that is not flat. We talked about “regular” sculptures – statues of horses, sculptures of heads in museums, a metal piece of art in the mall. I stretched their thoughts even further proposing that many things around us could be sculptures – trees, buildings, blocks on a table.

I don’t expect that the kids will have an “aha moment”, but if they are exposed to this creative thought process all year long, new brain connections will be made and innovative ways of thinking will emerge. It may happen tomorrow or when they are twelve. You never know. But I do know that early childhood experiences have a real impact on how children develop ideas about our world.

Anytime children play with interesting materials, pouring or stacking or squishing, they are learning how the world works, how things feel, how to make substances do what you want them to, how to balance objects. They are engaging their imaginative, intuitive, big picture, spatially oriented, anything-is-possible right brain functions to experiment and explore and create.

So, what are some of these experiences? And are they “art”? This last question has been a topic of much societal discussion for centuries and continues to this day. I feel that anytime you create from your intuition, your passion, even if you can’t take it home, it is art. Creating a great project at work, an exciting event or a wonderful dinner is art.  You will know when it is art because you will be engaged and absorbed. Time will feel like it is standing still but is really flying by.

Below are a few of the experiences I provide my classes. Most of the time I give each child their own individual tray to work on. This makes the experience theirs and eliminates conflicts. Older children will benefit from group experiences such as building a sculpture together.

  • sand on trays with cups and spoons
  • dirt with a small cup of water and popsicle sticks
  • a lump of clay with large beads, shells, forks and anything that makes an impression
  • packing peanuts with a handful of toothpicks
  • tape the letters of the alphabet down to the table and give out Q-tips
  • sand, flat rocks and a stick
  • a bin with a few inches of water, a plastic cup and a funnel
  • pieces of aluminum foil
  • pieces of plastic coated wire (I like Twisteez brand)
  • a tray of recyclables, scissors and a roll of tape

Try a few of these things at home with your children or when you need some down time in your classroom. You will be amazed at how long they want to work on this. Ask them a few open ended questions about what they are making and write down the answers. You can practically see the gears spinning in their heads!

I am pretty gung-ho about recycling, conserving resources and generally saving the planet. I am also a passionate artist and educator. Sometimes I find these ideals in conflict with each other. I utilize natural elements such as sticks, rocks and sand in creating art projects. I find ways to make art out of recyclables and items that people give away or throw away such as fabric scraps and packing peanuts. However, in order to embrace all that art has to offer, I need to buy things. Often things that are not environmentally conscientious, like paint, foam sheets and wood. And I need to throw things away, sometimes lots of things – paper that has paint on it, various tough to clean containers, unusable or broken supplies. I feel a bit guilty about generating more trash at my job than at my house.

However, it is all in the name of learning. Especially when you are creating with young children, there is a lot of waste. They are not adept at conserving and we should not limit their resources. We need to provide our children a large variety and quantity of materials to give them the freedom they need to experiment and therefore learn.

We have emphasized Earth Day issues with our preschoolers all week, and many of us do this all year long. Today being Earth Day, we put together a fun set of activities to celebrate.

Nature Bugs – the children had a handful of clay to use as the basis for their bug. On the table were items from nature such as rocks, sticks, acorns, a variety of colored beans, various types of seed pods and spent flowers. There were no googly eyes, pipe cleaners or plastic beads. The kids had a blast! Did their creations look like bugs? Many did not, but the point is that they created using only natural materials that were also very interesting to work with.

I Love Earth tee shirts – I have some reservations about painting a t-shirt in celebration of Earth Day because first, consumerism is not much of a way to celebrate anything, and second, by purchasing t-shirts we are consuming cotton, the second-most pesticide sprayed crop in the world (the first being corn).  However, it turned out that creating our t-shirts was a great way to promote awareness. I placed foam letters that spelled “I <heart> Earth” on the shirt and had the kids place wood shapes of flowers and butterflies around it. Then together we sprayed on fabric paint diluted with water. The children took the stencils off and loved the resulting white shapes! They were really proud of their creations and enjoyed wearing them all day.

Shoe Garden – Parents brought in shoes that were worn out or too small and the children put soil in them, planted seeds and watered them. A great lesson in recycling and reusing items in new ways. The shoes looked very inviting placed in a circle around a large tree on the playground and hopefully soon they will start sprouting.

The personal lesson I took away from today is that the best we can do is much more than doing nothing at all. I help teach a new generation important lessons about our environment all year long. I give children opportunities to create with natural materials. I am not going to be fanatical about recycling every glue container. I am not going to limit my students to one piece of paper each in the name of conservation. When I step back and look at the big picture, I feel great about the efforts I am making to raise awareness and connect with our Earth. What are you doing?

Four mornings a week, I teach art to small children ages 2-5. I actually teach exploration, self-confidence, creative thinking, problem solving, cooperation, patience, persistence, pride in your work, adventure, positivity and so much more. The idea being that children this age do not have the cognitive ability to understand, say, a lesson on perspective in art, however they do have the ability to learn that trying new things, although it can be a bit scary, can also turn out to be a lot of fun (and a lot of learning, but they don’t know that part!). When you are little, your job is to figure out how to navigate your world. You don’t have much experience so many things are new to you. How do you find things out? You try them! Our jobs as teachers and parents are to provide small children with as many opportunities as possible to absorb the world around them.

Science has shown us that children’s brains grow most rapidly from birth to age 5. Millions of synapses and connections are being made daily. The more children experience, the more connections they gain. As we age, the connections we don’t use slowly fall away. This begins at the shockingly young age of 6! (Yikes, do I have any brain connections left?!) The conclusion being that when you are very young is when you learn the most.

One of the important things I want to teach youngsters is to try something new. The only way to figure something out is to try it. Some children are inherently adventurous and will touch or try most anything. However, more and more, I have children who are afraid. Afraid of touching something that looks sticky, messy or “gross”. Afraid of trying something that they think might be too hard for them to do. Giving up after a single poke of clay or a few seconds of trying to build a sculpture. Some children are just more cautious than others, some learn quickly from their parents or caregivers not to make a mess and some learn early that failure is a huge disappointment (the subject of a future post).

I am here to say, “Push past your fears children! It’s OK!”

If they learn to push past their fears now, they will not only learn more presently, but carry this confidence into other areas of their lives as they mature. They will try new foods, try playing new sports, try learning a new language or subject, try new social strategies, try playing an instrument, try new technologies, try new careers. In short, be an interesting and successful person.

When I was a child, my backyard had an area that was just for playing in the dirt. I spent many happy hours there making mudpies, building stick towns and creating adventures for my plastic toys. Sometimes with other kids, sometimes alone. Nobody cared if I got dirty, least of all me. In retrospect I see that all this play was actually a lot of learning. In fact, play is a child’s work.

Every Friday at my school, I set up an activity for the children to do outside on the playground. It is optional; if a child wants to try it, great, if they just want to go down the slide a million times instead, that’s fine too. Yesterday I set out a dozen trays of mud. Yes, dirt plus water. I also placed plastic spoons and cups on each tray so children could try it out without much touching at first, and so they would have some props to use the mud with.

Many children loved this new sensory experience. They reveled in the cool, thick feeling on their hands, they drew in the mud with their fingers, they filled the cups to make chocolate ice cream and put sticks in the mud to make trees. Some children came over, saw the mud and said, “yuck, that’s gross!” My cheery response was, “the grosser, the better!” Some of those same children returned a few minutes later to poke around in the mud for a bit.

I have seen enormous transformations in children. By the last half of the school year, children who wouldn’t try are trying. Children who wouldn’t touch are touching. Children are experimenting and experiencing all their wonderful world has to offer. We adults can learn a lot from small children.


Hi! I'm Susan Stein and of my many passions in life,
two of my biggest are art and children. In the process of teaching children art, I also teach them problem solving, brainstorming, inventive thinking, originality, working with others, hand eye coordination, and so much more. It doesn't matter if you're good at drawing or not, everyone will benefit from experiencing art.

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