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

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Process Art’s Pesky Problem

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Mousetrap paper holder. Or, as I see it, surreal assemblage.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot in this space about the value of process art (see for example Doing Food Coloring and Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber). My interest started when I was an undergraduate and developed an intense appreciation for the Abstract Expressionists. Learning about their work and the questions they engaged with in their studios – exploring the inherent nature of the materials they worked with – became an obsession. I developed my own color field experiments and filled huge sheets of paper with marks based on systems I devised. It was visually engaging in an allover sort of way, but I knew it wasn’t nearly as interesting for others to look at as it was for me, with my embodied knowledge of the actions I took to make it.

In the years since, I have continued to develop my relationship with questions like: What is art for? and Why art? I have carried these into explorations of art criticism, visual culture, environmental and installation art, relational aesthetics, and creative placemaking.

This interest also manifests in my advocacy for process art in the playful learning of young children. Really, I believe children of all ages looking for new ways to connect with creative activity ought to focus on process (see for example, Permission to Play: Birthday Parties and Grandma Joyce’s Beautiful Stuff!).

And so it was with a heavy heart that I set about cleaning Cora’s desk yesterday. Stacked on top were the traces of two weeks of summer camps and a few final school projects.

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(Note: I took this photo AFTER I had cleaned the desk and decided to blog about it. I stacked the artwork back up in an approximation of how it had been. But absent are the dolls, rocks and sticks, books, and other random crap that had been there too.)

As Dan has observed, all horizontal surfaces in our house quickly become repositories for junk and this desk is no different. In the three years since it has been in this location, I can count on one hand the times that it has been clear and Cora has sat at it to do anything. I have a plan for it in my head related to a pen pal project we’ve been working on (fodder for a future post), so I told her it was time to clean up.

Of course Cora wanted to save EVERYTHING.

The art camp she attended last week at a neighborhood studio (Paper Moon Art Studio – Columbus, OH) was a great process art experience for Cora. She got to work with a range of media from paper mache to assemblage (complete with hot glue, see the top image on this post), and sand painting to watercolor. She was only there three mornings, but she made a ton of stuff. We had trouble carrying it all home! I was so happy to see this evidence of experimentation but what to do with all that stuff? I live in constant battle against clutter – mostly this involves shoving piles into drawers and cabinets when guests are due – but point being, I don’t like to have a lot of stuff sitting around on horizontal surfaces.

I also struggle, personally, with the hidden curriculum we are teaching kids when we give them access to unlimited supplies and let them make things that will ultimately, at least in my house, wind up in the trash. I has this same feeling while attending TASK parties run by Oliver Herring (see A Task, But Not a Chore). I love the energy that Herring creates and the collaborative experimentation I see at these events, But at the end of the day, there are piles and piles of materials left in a jumble on the floor. A few ideas for combating this issue come immediately to my mind.

Art educators will see the immediate irony in this. Many of us have felt the pain of watching students put their artwork in the trash bin on their way out the door at the end of a term. All that time and effort? Don’t they care at all about what they made here? And, by extension, don’t they value me and our time together? Some educators even use this as a litmus test for a successful lesson — Do the kids express desire to hold onto what they made? to share pictures of it in Instagram? to hang it up at home, or give it to someone as a gift?

So now I’m left holding this evidence of creative activity, all of which Cora insists on calling Art (capital A intended) in an effort to use what I value against me. And I’m wondering,

How can we simultaneously teach people that some things they make are precious and others are not? That some creative experiences are about the process of making, and some about the product that results?

 

 

 

 

 

Passing the time playing pass the drawing

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When Cora first started music classes, her wise teacher who was always able to teach to the parents while simultaneously teaching our kids, recommended we “sing through our days.” I came to know the value of this, especially after 3 years and 9 collections of music. We had learned nearly 200 songs, and it was easy to find one for just about any occasion. I quickly learned that singing was an antidote to many childhood woes – boredom, stubbornness, sleepy, hungry, sad, mad. A good living example of “fake it ’til you make it.”

This past weekend I stumbled on an example of drawing through the day, an idea I’d like to develop in future posts. Sitting through her third band concert in three weeks, Cora was having trouble sitting still for all four Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra groups. I pulled out some paper and suggested we play “pass the drawing,” our family’s version of exquisite corpse.

In case this is an unfamiliar concept, in this simple drawing game someone draws something then passes it to the next person to add something and so on. You can set rules like, only lines and shapes and no recognizable objects or not and let folks determine what adding something means for themselves.

Dan and I have played this with the kids for over ten years together–waiting for food at a restaurant, on a long car ride, at a party. We hadn’t played with Cora in awhile and it was great to see her thinking and expressing her ideas in pictures. I haven’t written much about her representational development lately, but it seems time (follow-up to come).

We made three drawing in total, I don’t know where the final one is hiding. She assigned us each one to keep and hers must be hiding someplace secret. I’ll ask her if she can find it tomorrow.

Community Holiday Crafting

I’ve spent the past few years embracing holiday crafting with my family. I’ve written a lot about our traditions on this blog (see “Permission to Play: Holiday Crafting Edition, “Our Craftiest Christmas to Date,” “Handmade Holidays: The Next Generation,”Holiday Crafting with Teens,” and “Holiday Crafting with PreSchooler (and Glitter!)

This year, my attention’s been turned outward. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I’ve found myself crafting with the community more than my kin.

I attended a stitch ‘n bitch session at Wholly Craft, a handmade gift shop hosted by a local organization that supports women’s reproductive choice – Women Have Options. Ohio legislators recently passed measures to outlaw abortions past 20 weeks of conception. Women, and supportive men, throughout our state are enraged and looking for ways to move on and prepare for the challenges ahead. I attended “Felt and Feminism” to connect with women actively working to protect women and our reproductive options and make some fem-inspired XMas ornaments.

This past Sunday, I hosted a Chanukah Menorah making session as a follow-up to my last post, “Tis the Season for Solidarity.” I rented time at Paper Moon Art Studio, gathered supplies, and got some general design ideas to share. I invited a few creative friends to help me get things set up, play around with the material to imagine ways they might be used, and think through the best ways to get people started on the project. I was impressed with all the ways folks found to put the materials together that I hadn’t imagined. The event was attended by Jews and Jewish allies and at the end of the night, 16 new menorahs walked out into the world.

Finally, a friend and I hosted an Winter Solstice Eve party for some kids from school and their parents. We set the party up just after school and had snacks and crafts. Mostly the kids wound up running wild while the adults sipped spiked cider and chatted in the kitchen. But a few joined the adults poking cloves into oranges to make pomanders and cut paper snowflakes.

With all the crappy things happening in the news, I needed this time with friends (old and new) making things to give me hope that we will carry on, and we will make the world beautiful as we do so.

Happy Holidays!

Permission to Play: Birthday Parties

Two of the most popular posts on this blog are: SuperMom: DIY Barbie Shoes and A (Few) Photo(s) a (To)Day: We Make Things. Both posts reflect to the DIY ethic we strive to embrace as a family. It’s a foundation of me and Dan’s relationship which dates back ten years to the first kid’s birthday party we planned for George’s 7th birthday.  I was still in grad school, had no kids of my own, and had never hosted a birthday party for a child before. I wanted it to be awesome. I had a subscription to a short-lived Martha Stewart publication – Martha Stewart Kids – which illustrated many of the things Lara Lackey found wrong with Martha’s ideas for kids in her 2002 NAEA presentation “Martha Stewart and Art Education: Is She a Bad Thing?” Step-by-step instructions, overly aestheticized displays of materials which an art educator or parent knows wouldn’t last five minutes around a group of kids, and examples that only an adult could replicate. But the article that’s relevant to this post wasn’t for kids per se, it was for parents. Parents who wanted to throw the best birthday parties on the block.

The section on building a backyard miniature golf course caught my attention. I showed it to Dan and George and they liked it too. Little did I know what I was getting us into.

Dan and I had been dating about ten months and this was the first big project we did together. It tested our skills (mostly Dan’s abilities to build things) and our creativity. We spent a lot of time figuring out a theme for each hole, using as many materials as we could find around the house as inspiration as possible. It was a creative challenge and we learned a lot about one another building through the process.

Dan motorized the windmill and we used baking dishes to create sand and water traps.

This weekend we marked our tenth year of planning birthday parties together with a Harry Potter-themed party for Cora’s sixth birthday. Our schedules are a lot busier than they once were so I did a lot of the initial planning and gathering of supplies. But as we hung out together the night before the party pulling together the potion making station, I was reminded of how much joy and satisfaction we’ve found over the years putting ourselves in the minds of the kids we’d be hosting and imagining how they would play with the prompts we set out for them.

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While the point of the planning was the party, the process was equally important for me and Dan. We laughed as we made up names for the ingredients and shared high fives over one another’s ideas for potion combinations and other activities we’d be setting up. Making birthday parties has provided us an annual opportunity to spend time together, playing around with ideas and materials to create something.

Realistically we probably only have a few more years left of planning parties for children. When the time comes, we’ll have to find some other excuse to pick a theme and plan some fun and games for our own friends.

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Photo of the Day: First I yelled, then I kvelled

 Cora found a stain on the coffee table today and turned it into a lion. With red Sharpie.

Naturally I was livid. What on earth was she thinking drawing on the furniture? With a marker she knows she isn’t allowed to use? But once I got a good look at what she did I could’t help but be proud. She found a mark and turned it into something entirely new. Truly A+ work.

Holiday Crafting with PreSchoolers (and Glitter!)

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It’s no fun crafting alone! On this occasion we were hanging with Cora’s aunties in Seattle via FaceTime.

(My last post was all about holiday crafting with the teenagers in my life. This one is dedicated to my littlest studio mate.)

Crafty Cora and I haven’t made anything together in awhile. So, in the process of gathering holiday crafting ideas to work through with the big kids, I pinned a few for her too. But, the one featured here is something I made up while I was volunteering in her classroom this week. At the easel, her teachers set up the usual cups of tempera but had some festive glitter mixed in. I made the stars out of cardboard I found in the class recycling bin. Challenging myself to make things out of what the kids discard has become a pretty regular activity for me. I was also inspired by an observation Cora made during our first, and very early snowfall a few weeks ago. She was genuinely stunned by the way the snow glittered in the sunlight. Her appreciation for those natural sparkles inspired me to take a new look at glitter, an art supply I, like so many other professional art educators, rarely make use of.

Glitter is despised by art teachers working to disprove the notion that art is the icing on the proverbial education cake rather than a key ingredient in the cake itself. How could something so glittery and seemingly frivolous, not to mention messy, ever be taken seriously? The Onion ran a story a few years back that seemed to prove the point – “Cases of Glitter Lung on the Rise Among Elementary-School Art Teachers” (2005). Students and faculty in my department at the University of Florida maintain a Pinterest board called “Heard Craig Loves Glitter” in honor of our chair’s feelings for he stuff. The board has 239 pins.

So, it was with a hint of irony that I picked up a bottle of glitter on my holiday craft supply buying mission a few weeks ago. It was one of those moments where you imagine cameras are focused on you and someone, somewhere is watching you and laughing, like in The Truman Show or some still to be created Nielson ratings-crushing reality show about art educators. I picked out a bottle with not one, but two types of silver glitter and looked forward to pulling them out and making everything sparkle.

Yesterday, while visiting with my sister and her wife on FaceTime, I invited Cora to paint the stars I made at school and dust them with glitter. To keep the glitter from covering every inch of the just cleaned kitchen counters and floor, I found an old, large, shallow box. After Cora painted each star, we put them in the box and she was free to shake away. We’ll reuse what didn’t stick to add some bling to our next project. At the end, we still found a bit of sparkle scattered around the house, but I’m trying to look on the bright side.

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Happy Holidays (Craig)!