Art Experiences

Posts Tagged ‘children

Heart In Sand

Since most of us are more relaxed in the summer and our brains are more receptive to new ideas, it is the perfect time to do activities that promote creativity. I have found these sand projects interesting, adaptable for all ages and very open ended – the best way to expand creative thinking skills.

If you are going to a beach this summer, you have the golden opportunity to create some unique art. Even if you are not fortunate enough to be at a beach, you can revel in some sand at home. Sand is such a wonderful art medium because of the infinite possibilities it holds as well as the unique tactile experiences it brings. Water is the key to working with sand so have a spray bottle and a bucket of water close by.

Sand Castles / Sand Sculptures – This is a fairly obvious idea, however if you have a few extra materials and knowledge, your kids (and you) may be captivated for days! Sand molds better when damp so keep your sand wet. The best ratio is half sand and half water. You can mix sand into water in a large bucket and use this mixture to create your sculpture. If you are at the beach, use sand that is from the shoreline or dig a hole down to the water table. Bring plenty of plastic cups and buckets of various sizes, shovels to dig and plastic knives to sculpt into the sand. The way to get height and stability is by stacking thick pancake like shapes on top of each other. Resist the urge to pound the sand, instead jiggle it into place gently. Pounding expels water; your sand will dry out and lose stability. For even more fun and gasps, connect towers together with small arches or form groups of towers. If you want to carve into the sculptures, carve from the top down and take off only small bits of sand. Kids especially love embellishing sculptures with sticks, shells, rocks, seaweed and other beach items. If you are not at a beach, you can find these types of items at your local craft store.

Sand Casting – This is an easy project that turns out really beautiful. You will need wet sand, items to “cast” such as shells, sticks, pieces of tile, pretty much anything three dimensional and fairly small. You’ll also need plaster of paris, clean water and a large bowl and large spoon you are willing to part with. You don’t have to dispose of these but you shouldn’t use them to eat out of. You can do the casting straight in the sand or in a disposable aluminum cake tin. Dig an area about 2 inches deep in the wet sand or pour a layer of wet sand into the tin with about 2 inches left on top. Now the fun part comes. Press your items into the wet sand, almost all the way down, leaving some of the item showing above the sand. Since casting works from the other side, if you need to, press your items into the sand upside down. For example if a piece of tile is colored on one side and plain on the other, press it into the sand colored side first. Keep your sand wet as you work, misting it if necessary. Arrange and rearrange your elements until you are happy. You can create a picture of something, a pattern or a random fun design. When you are ready to cast, mix up the plaster of paris with your large spoon and container. I used 2 cups of plaster mixed with 1 cup of water to cover one 8″ x 8″ aluminum cake tin. Plaster starts to harden quickly so pour it on top of your artwork as soon as it starts to thicken. Once it’s poured, leave it alone for a few hours. Never put plaster down a drain or sewer or in the ocean. If you have extra, let it harden and throw it in the trash. To unmold, carefully turn over the tin or pull the plaster from the sand. Use your hands and a paintbrush to brush most of the sand off the plaster. Nice!

Beach in a Bottle – Use those empty sports drink bottles to collect memories of your trip or create a beach scene at home. Sports drinks have wider tops but any type of plastic bottle or a clear plastic box with a lid will work. Remove the label if needed. Start with the sand, either use beach sand or colored sand you can buy at craft stores. Place a layer in the bottle. Now place a layer of something else on top, for example shells. Keep repeating layers of a single beach item until you fill the bottle about one third of the way. At this point you can solidify the contents by pouring glue into the bottle and letting it sit for a day, or leaving the items loose to float around. When ready, pour clean tap water into the the bottle, about halfway to the top, add food coloring if you like – remember the ocean can be any color! For even more fun, pour mineral oil or cooking oil into the bottle through a funnel. Keep at least one-fourth of the bottle unfilled. The oil and water will separate, creating interesting effects. If you like, add small plastic fish and sea creatures and maybe some glitter. Squeeze a little bit of glue on the bottle cap and close it tightly. You can wrap duct tape around the top if you want extra protection. These bottles keep small children fascinated for hours in the car or in a restaurant. Older children will love having their keepsake on a special shelf to shake up anytime.

If you are travelling this summer, take along a small sketchbook and be sure to give one to each of your kids. You will be surprised what your brain and hand can do when you are out of your regular element. Keep an eye out for interesting items that can be used for creating during the rest of the year. Often you can find things in small stores that you won’t find in the big craft chains. Most of all, delight in the moment and forget your worries, just for a little while.

As much as we all love our freedom, we often want to be told what to do, because life sure seems easier that way. We want to know the steps, we want to know what to do next. We often follow a preset roadmap of life even if we are not completely comfortable with it because that’s what others have done and it looks like it’s worked out okay for them. It is hard to truly be in touch with what you want. There are many inspiring experts out there (and here and here) to show you how to live your passion and I highly recommend spending time with their work. What I want to address here is how to solve some of our everyday problems by dealing with the duality of creative freedom and the need to follow instructions.

As an artist and generally creative person, you can pretty much guess that I am not very good at following instructions. This is an over-generalization. In some cases, I am great at following instructions and want to do so. In the real world of life we’ve got to do laundry, stop at red lights and fill out forms (not necessarily in that order!) because we want the end results – the clean clothes, undented car and cell phone rebate. Being creative doesn’t mean being rebellious.

One thing I really enjoy is do it yourself home projects like assembling cabinets, putting in a new mailbox and installing a shower head. I like the sense of accomplishment at the end, but I also like following the step by step instructions that tell me exactly what to do next. I don’t have to figure it out, it’s all figured out for me. The enjoyment is in the methodology, a start to a finish.

On the other hand, in some circumstances I love unpredictability. When I am painting, I have no idea what the end result will be or even how I will get there. I feel free and positive about this, I do not want a set of instructions on how to paint a landscape. The painting will evolve as I work on it and it may not even turn out to be whatever I initially intended it to. The enjoyment is in the journey, creating a surprise ending.

When I read a great book or watch an exciting movie, I don’t want to know in advance how it ends. I want to follow the twists and turns and guess and then be dazzled by the ending!

Teaching art has a similar buzz for me. I plan out what the lesson will be and often it goes as planned. But just as often a child will ask a question I did not plan for and I need to come up with an answer on the spot. Sometimes I try out a new lesson or project and the children take it in a different direction than I planned. I need to quickly reevaluate and change direction to go with their interests and needs.

I did not have this seemingly inherent flexibility when I started teaching young children. I remember my first year teaching preschool,  I would be flustered when a carefully constructed lesson took a detour. “No, children. Do it this way, follow the steps.” And being the three year olds that they are, they kept doing it their way anyway. Were these children bad or rebellious? No, their way IS the right way. Parents often get frustrated with this behavior as they try to make their children do things the “right” way, in other words, the parent’s way. Teaching became a lot more relaxing when I jumped on the children’s bandwagon and channeled  their natural inclinations. Parenting is also less stressful when we realize there is more than one way to do almost anything, and our own way isn’t always the right way for our child or anyone else.

The past few weeks I’ve been working on reorganizing a room in my home to become a study. It has been a junk room for decades – a place to put things we didn’t know where to put. Finally I got up the courage and resolve to tackle this large task. This is not the type of project I generally enjoy (thus the decades factor) and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. It could be that it’s a bit boring or overwhelming. It is a large task and must be broken down into steps. However, the steps are not outlined for me. There is no instruction booklet to tell me to place this document in this file and stack these containers here. No “Step One, Step Two.”

So how am I supposed to do this without an instruction manual? Maybe this is part of the reason I have put it off for so long. I had no idea where to start. No idea what Step One is. I checked out some organizing websites and books. It’s cute to paint some stencils on the wall or put your pencils in matching boxes, but these resources did not give me what I needed – Step One. As I thought about this project, it occurred to me that I might try to apply the same lessons I had learned teaching art. Have a plan but go with whatever happens. Get in touch with your gut feelings. This comes naturally to children; you know exactly what that toddler is feeling right now. We adults have spent so many years tempering our feelings and believing what others tell us we should feel that we have almost lost touch with our feelings altogether. But that is the topic of a future post.

I emptied the contents of the room into my living area. After throwing away the obvious, I was still left with a lot of stuff. I tackled the art related things first. I felt confident with that. I went with my gut feelings – I tried not to think about an item too much. (Am I going to need this in the future?) I just made a snap choice about it. I purged, gave away and grouped together various supplies. Time consuming, but not too stressful. Then I tackled the furniture. Again, I tried hard to gauge how I felt at my desk over by the far wall and judge if it feels better next to the window. It took a while and some rearranging, but I finally decided the best place for my desk, bookshelves and other furnishings. I was left with papers. Decades of papers in boxes, bags and piles. Not art papers, but the papers of living – bills, receipts, forms, notes, statements, checks, you name it.

I was paralyzed and overwhelmed. I sat in the middle of all my papers, looked around and cried. Well, at least I was in touch with my feelings! Papers are not my thing. I don’t know what to do with them, where to start. I lacked the experience and confidence to make any choices. I knew getting rid of it all wasn’t the right thing to do, but what was? The more I tried to figure it out, the more frustrated I became. I kept thinking, “What is so hard about filing papers? Millions of people do this every day.” Well, this self-defeating way of thinking made me feel even more inept.

Time to call in the expert. I am a big believer in doing what I know and letting other people help me with what they know. I’m lucky enough to have a friendly accountant who “gets” me and can show me the other side of my issues. She came to my house and we sat in the middle of the papers. Again I felt the choking feeling in my throat. I took a pad and a pen and wrote down what she told me to do, step by step. Start on this pile because it is a recent one. Step one, make a file folder for the next piece of paper you pick up. It’s a bank statement, so put the name of the bank and account number on the tiny slip of paper and slide it into the plastic top of the folder. Put that in your file cabinet. Find the date of the bank statement and place it inside the folder in chronological order. Step two, rinse and repeat. Just do that over and over again until you are done. We went over various paper scenarios I might run into and outlined the steps to take in each case. Wow. This is so much more manageable now that I have instructions.

So what’s the takeaway? In some situations, going with your real feelings is the way to get things done and done right. It’s the only way to feel satisfied that you are doing the right thing. When it feels right, it is right. Other times we need to express the feeling and then put it aside in favor of instructions. Following the steps is the only way to get these tasks done and done right. You are indeed a very lucky person if you have the confidence to use both these strategies on this wonderful road of life.

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!

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.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2 other followers