A Report from Tinkergarten

This is my 8th year teaching for the University of Florida Online Master of Arts in Art Education program. Through the years, I have had the opportunity to work with art educators across the country doing amazing things. I showcased a few in this space with posts dedicated to their capstone projects (See “Time to Brag” and “Creamery Hill Racers,” for example). I intended to make that a regular column, but time got the better of me. Maybe this winter…

As any educator knows, one of the greatest gifts our students can give us is coming back with reports of how a course one taught, a reading one assigned, or a comment one made changed the way they think or behave. And so it was with great pleasure that I found this post on our program’s Facebook page one day this summer.

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Another item on my perennial list of the “things I’ve wanted to do in this space” was to invite students and alumni to share their ideas and experiences. With that in mind I asked Natalie to write something about Tinkergarten. According to their website, “Tinkergarten provides high-quality early childhood learning in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors. Families connect with trained leaders in their local community for play-based kids classes that help develop core life skills, all while having fun!” The following are Natalie’s thoughts on the program, drawing on her knowledge and experience as an art educator.

“Natural Education” by Natalie Davis
Sydney darted across the park with her backpack yelling “Miss Betsy! Miss Betsy!”  She was so excited to show her teacher her red galoshes.  It was mud day and my three-year-old little girl was extremely excited to get dirty and start her play-based outdoor classroom, Tinkergarten.

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What is Tinkergarten?
It is not your typical classroom.  In fact, it is the complete opposite of a brick and mortar school.  There are no walls and there are no desks. Children are not required to walk in single file lines.  Use of digital technology is prohibited.  Rather, a Tinkergarten class takes place in a park or other green space in the local community.  The concept is simple: playing in nature and learning go hand-in-hand.  Sticks become drawing tools, mud becomes paint and flowers become collage items. The outdoor play-based activities are not only fun but also cognitively stimulating because they encourage children to explore. The learning environment is as authentic as the surroundings.

Why Tinkergarten?
As an art educator and mamma, I was drawn to Tinkergarten’s philosophy of play-based learning.  I welcomed the opportunity for Sydney to learn through innovative approaches to curriculum I was familiar with from art education like Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Forest Kindergarten, and Montessori (Tinkergarten, 2017). Like Dewey (1925), Froebel (1887), Lowenfeld (1949) I know it’s important for young children to be in and explore the natural world, and use their biological desire of playing to inspire and enrich their thinking. As an art educator, I followed this philosophy in my own teaching career and witnessed success first hand. I wanted that kind of learning for my daughter.

How does play turn into learning?
The word play sometimes can be misconstrued as useless recreation.  This is definitely not the case during a Tinkergarten class.  The class has a trained facilitator referred to as the Leader. The leader sets up playful invitations and activities designed to enable the children to take an active role in learning.  The children’s natural curiosity guides the learning experience. I strongly agree that these types of activities are “the best way to help nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life” (Tinkergarten, 2017, para 4).

The Leader’s role is not to ensure completion of the activity as might be assumed.  Instead they are there to help guide children into deeper understanding by capitalizing on situations that excite interest in each individual child.  They use these opportunities for educational enrichment.

For example, my daughter came across a worm and a bug while digging in the mud.  Her discovery led to conversation.  The leader prompted my daughter and the class to talk about the worm and bug.  They discussed their purpose, textures, and colors.  Digging in the mud was turned into making a “worm hotel habitat” out of a mason jar.  In another area of the park, a child found a rock while digging in the mud.  The little boy held up the rock and announced his discovery to the class.  As more children gathered around to see his treasure, he dropped the rock into a large bucket of water.  The Leader seized the opportunity for enrichment and suggested to the group to make a special “soup”.   The Leader’s suggestion led to an outpouring of imaginative responses from the children.  They began discussing the “special soup ingredients” and ran off helping one another to gather them.  They collected  foliage, rocks, and flowers to name a few.  In this moment, the children were working on social skills, motor skills, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.

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Final Thoughts
A few years ago, in a course in graduate school, I read an article that intrigued me on the subject of technology in the classroom.  The article described a trend among Silicon Valley CEO’s who enroll their own children in nature-inspired Waldorf Schools (Richtel, 2011).  I was fascinated to learn that technology leaders saw value in using nature and limiting technology in their children’s education. I added it to the list of reasons I might pursue such experiences for my daughter.

References

Tinkergarten, 2017, Retrieved from https://www.tinkergarten.com/leaders/betsy.modrzejewski

Dewey, J. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago & London: Open Court.

Froebel, F. (1887). The Education of Man. (Translated by Hailmann, W.N.) New York, London, D. Appleton Century.

Lowenfeld, V., & Brittain, W. L. (1970). Creative and mental growth (5th ed.). [New York]: Macmillan.

Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 22). A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute. [Essay on New York Times]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

Drawing Work

(This is a follow-up to my last post about drawing with Cora.)

Cora’s friend sent her a drawing of her baby chickens last week. It was sweet and simple. I suggested she send a drawing of our girls in return.

She dictated a message and I wrote it for her. She proceeded to make marks on the paper with glitter glue talking her way through. In the end, she had a collection of blobs haphazardly scattered around the page. 

After some discussion, I convinced her to give it another try. Afterall, she was trying to communicate an important message to her friend.

“Amelia…If you see a hawk put your hens away in the henhouse.”

We talked about where the chickens would be standing and where the hawk would be flying and she made lines for earth and sky. That seemed to be all she needed.  Something to break through the blank slate. She added a sun, grass, and a few hens. Finally, we talked her way through the hawk – head, beak, body, wings, feet, and her favorite part – super long, sharp talons. 

 I told her, again, how proud I was of her work. I knew she could do it. And I can’t wait for her to do it again.

Drawing Lesson: Home

My last post was about the picturebook Home by Carson Ellis.  At the end I set a plan to engage Cora further with the theme of home through art making. On a sunny day last week I got her to go outside with me for an observation drawing session.

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I have long been a fan of a little book called Observation Drawing with Children. I’m sure I’ve written about it here before. The authors describe observation drawing as a responsive process by which “the viewer become[s] aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects,” (Smith, et al, 1998, p. 6). As such it is easy to understand learning to draw as part of learning to look more closely at and see the world around us. When I had a daily practice of drawing from observation I felt more connected to things around me, more mindful of my surroundings.

Cora hasn’t even shown much interest in making original drawings (realistic or imagined). You can imagine how sad this makes me as an art educator… She has made some incredible drawings over the years but it’s not really her thing. “You like to draw. I like to sing,” she tells me. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was a somewhat reluctant participant in my plans.

We started by looking at the cover of Home and picking the house that most resembled ours (a log cabin).  Then we talked about the shapes and lines that make up our house. Smith, etal write extensively and provide examples of dialogues with children to help readers plan for their own observation drawing sessions with kids. There is something about the back and forth between looking, naming, and drawing that helps make everything more concrete.

Cora had no trouble talking about our house. We named the major shapes we saw. We talked about what rooms are behind each window. But when it came to putting these ideas down on paper, she stalled. She’s afraid of “doing it wrong” and, I think, disappointing me now matter how many times I tell her I’m going to love whatever she does and remind her of the great drawings she has made in the past. I have to remind myself not to push her if she’s not ready for this.

In the end, We worked together on the drawing. I made lots of the big shapes (the fame of the house and windows, for example) and she drew the details (panes of glass and siding).

We’ll try this again soon. Like anything, I believe practice breeds confidence. My hope is that at some point she’ll take off on her own and find a love for drawing all that she sees – at home and abroad.

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Our yellow door is a defining feature of our home.

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Testing greens to find the best match.

 

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 6

It’s been a long while since I wrote one of these columns. It isn’t that we aren’t reading! We read like crazy this winter, but I was TOTALLY insane at work and didn’t have time to blog about any of it. That said, I dedicate this post to my department chair, Craig Roland, who recommended Home, by Carson Willis during one of the million and one meetings we had with students last month.


One of the greatest parts of my job is the opportunity to learn alongside my students. Sometimes they teach me things, sometimes I learn from my colleagues as they are teaching. Craig draws on a wide range of resources when speaking with students which I  appreciate. Home is a perfect example.

I don’t remember the exact context of Craig’s suggestion and it doesn’t much matter. The book is a good illustration of a work of art that explores a big idea. Big, or enduring ideas “comprise concepts that have drawn the attention of humans through the ages” (Stewart and Walker, 2005, p. 17).  We encourage students to build art education curriculum around big ideas throughout the Art Education program at the University of Florida and I plan to use this book in the future to help students better grasp the concept and consider ways to utilize it with students. Parents of young children and other educators might also find it inspiring.

Big ideas are often approached through the discussion of questions like:
What is a home?
How would it feel to live in that home?
What makes your home different from other homes?

The cover of Home alone could launch many questions, leading teachers and students in various directions as they connect the theme with their own experiences, books they’ve read, and cultures they are studying.

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This is one of those picturebooks that could be given to an adult to read and reflect on just as easily as a child. The illustrations are engaging – visually and conceptually. Cora and I spent a long time looking at each one, talking about the content and the style. The one about The Little Old Lady who lived in a shoe was one of her favorites. This is just an excerpt….

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We did take exception to this page:

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The so-called clean home didn’t look clean to us so much as it looked boring or unoccupied. Everything seems to have a purpose and a place in the messy house, even the jump rope in the front yard, the bathtub in the garden, and the cinderblock holding up the front porch. But overall, the artist captured a wide range of homes (including her own studio filled with references to the book itself) and had us looking and imagining who lived in them and what it would like to join them.

After we finished reading, I interviewed Cora about our home and wrote her responses in a notebook we’ve been keeping this year to document her thinking and learning. Here’s excerpts from the interview:

Me: Cora, where is your home?
Cora: (thinking)
Me: Is it on the moon?
Cora: No. On Earth, you sil’. [Sil’ is her shorthand for saying silly.]
Me: Is your house in the city or the country?
Cora: The city. I think. Do you think that’s the truth?
Me: Yes. But what makes you think so?
Cora: Because it’s noisy. And there are lots of cars on High Street.
Me: What kind of house do we live in?
Cora: We live in a regular house. A house.
Me: What’s a regular house?
Cora: Just a regular house.
Me: So not a castle or something like that?
Cora: Yeah.
Me: What’s different about your house and Maya’s house?
Cora: We have a dog and she has cats. My house is darker because it has more curtains.
Me: What else makes our house darker? Look outside? What do you see? What would you see if you were at Maya’s?
Cora: Other houses closer together… Street lights.
Me: What else do you want to tell me about our house? What makes it special?
Cora: My house is very old because it used to be grandma’s. That what I like about it. She lives next door now and I like that too.

Next step, mapping our house and making some drawings of it.

Stewart, M. G. & Walker, S.R. (2005). Rethinking curriculum in art. Worcester, MA: Davis.

 

Wintertime Nature Study

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It’s hard to be indoors this time of year. We spend so much time in the yard and garden from early spring to late fall I really feel trapped by the cold. This year I’ve made a commitment to getting out for a bit with Cora each day regardless of the weather. I’m meeting mixed results. The chickens help as she misses them as much as the swings. But overall we’re pretty disconnected from the natural world at this time of year.

We are growing all we can on the windowsills. The chia Gnome is sprouting his beard and potatoes are growing roots in glasses of water. For Christmas, we potted paperwhites for Cora to pass around as gifts. It’s been fun to these people’s homes and see the flowers growing taller and budding.

Cora has been eagerly waiting for our flowers. The other day I bumped into the tallest of the bunch and knocked off the largest bud. I was so pissed at myself but quickly realized the teachable moment this would give us to look inside the bud – if you’ve ever grown paperwhites you know the buds push out of their leaf cocoons to such a great extent that you can see the shape of them bulging. It was fun to cut that pod open and take out the guts. Cora chopped the stem, stuck it with a toothpick, and opened the flowers by hand.

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I’m teaching a course on the history of art education this term. We always start with Frederich Froebel’s vision of kindergarten. I think he would have approved of this hands- and minds-on discovery time. What are you doing to stay connected to the natural world this winter?

RE:Thinking Drawings

Quick follow-up to last week’s post about the thinking drawings of young children.

Cora and I flew home from visiting family this morning. It was raining as we took off and climbed through the clouds and we talked about what that might look like – a plane flying over a cloud filled sky with rain falling down below. I told her I thought it would be a great thing to draw. Her response, “But mommy, I don’t know how to draw a plane.”

I reached into the seat back in front of us and pulled out the safety card. Together, we looked at the photo of a plane on the cover and the diagrams inside. The conversation dissolved into a discussion of the pictographs used to tell passengers what to do in an emergency. I love to deconstruct international symbol systems so I as happy to follow the tangent.

After a few hours of screen time – I graded papers while she played with nearly every app loaded on our iPad – it was landing time. She asked for some paper and markers and started scribbling. After a quick self-portrait, she asked for help drawing a plane. I suggested she start with a large oval – like a hot dog and she was off.

She drew one end rounded and other ended up pointed to which she said, “Oops,” and looked up at me. I told her I thought it looked great that way since the nose of a plane is usually rounded and the tail pointed. Satisfied, she added a few tail fins, then wings, windows, and finally a logo on the wing. And just like that, she made one of her greatest thinking drawing yet. Right in front of me. I was mesmerized.

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At one point she pulled the safety card out again to check some details, but quickly put it back down and drew the parts as she imagined them in her mind’s eye: from her time looking out airport windows in the past, from her Playmobil toy plane, and from our earlier discussion and study of the illustrations.

If you’re as amazed by this process as I am, and you are interested in helping children improve their observational drawing skills by talking about the world they see around them, I recommend Observation Drawing with Children by Nancy Smith and the Drawing Study Group (1997, Teachers College Press). I think I’ve mentioned it before. I’m sure I’ll mention it again.

Thinking Drawings

My niece and nephew were here last month and their representational drawing skills blew my mind. I have always been a sucker for the observational drawings of children. These are serious works of art, and thinking. Citing Rudolph Arnheim, Winner (1993) noted that children’s drawings “are not just clumsy attempts to draw what they see, but are rather attempts to show the relevant structural features of what they are trying to draw” (p. 32).

This was clearly evident to me in Sebastian and Samantha’s drawings.

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Sebastian (5 1/2 years old): After the flight to my house during which he got to go into the cockpit of the plane. I love the x-ray view and jet engine attached to the lower wing.

sam_backyard copySamantha(7 years old) made this drawing after playing in the backyard with the dog and chickens. My favorite parts are the pulley she included on the left side of the playset and the two-person swing which she drew from a birdseye view, inserted into a human perspective drawing. She was thinking through the structure of the swing – the opposing sets of handlebars with a seat in between – and found a way to document it.

Sebastian made a number of drawings like this over the course of thsi visit. He has been increasing his interest in drawing over the past year. His ability to represent what he sees on paper has advanced at a rapid speed that has been interesting and amazing for me to watch, as his doting aunt and as an art educator.

It’s also been hard at times. For, as I’ve written before, Cora (age 5) has not displayed consistent interest in drawing. Coloring yes. Drawing not as much, though she has been gaining momentum lately. (See “First I Yelled, Then I Kvelled.”)

She made these drawings this week. I guess there was some hand-turkey and stuff happening in her classroom and she took the idea and rolled with it to make a book full of portraits of our chickens. She started with the traditional outline of her hand* but worked carefully to depict Runt’s black and white striping, red comb and waddle and R2D2’s scalloped feathers. I was impressed with how she appropriated the hand-bird format to suit her own needs for representation.
  

I’m looking forward to continuing to observe and document all the kids’ drawing development. We’ve started a family picture pen pal club – sending drawings back and forth. Will let you know how it goes.

Are your kids making “thinking drawings?” Of what? I’d love to see them!

* I wrote about Cora’s first hand-turkey three years ago. Check out: “When It’s Your Kid’s Hand Turkey, Things Get Complicated.”

Winner, E. (1993). “Exceptional Artistic Development: The Role of Visual Thinking.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 27(4), p. 31-44.