Worlds Collide: Art Education at OEFFA


“What are we going to do with this?!”   “Look at all this yarn.”

“This is fun.”        “This is taking so long.”       “Can I take some yarn with me?”

A few weeks ago, I was invited to lead a 60-minute art activity for 30 kids ages 6-12 during the 37th annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. I was really excited to be asked. Since I started my adventures in urban agriculture a few years ago (see Outside the Lines Goes Over the Fence) I’ve been interested in checking out this multi-day meeting of growers and consumers interested in organic and sustainable practices in farming. I’m not sure I would have made it there without the specific invitation (and offer of free admission for the day) just given how hectic life can be. But now that I’ve been, I plan to make it a point to get back.

Figuring out what to do in one hour with a big group of kids covering a wide age range (a few teens even came and hung out unexpectedly) is not the sort of thing I’m used to doing. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around these kinds of make-and-take sessions. On the one hand they seem antithetical to the meaningful and authentic art education experiences I hope to promote through my teaching. But, on the other hand, they are so common it seems we ought to find ways to make them the best they can be.

My former student and friend Hilary Frambes recommended me for the gig after she had to drop out at the last minute. (I don’t think I’ve a chance to say thanks yet, Hilary!) I was invited to plan any type of art project I’d like to lead the kids in – but with some type of environmental bent. I had to decide quickly whether I was interested and what I would do. The program for the conference was being finalized the next day.

I did a little searching around Pinterest and found a few weaving ideas I thought might work in the name of creating harvesting vessels. I offered to collect containers, yarn, and ribbons through my neighborhood Freecycle group and did so over the course of the next few weeks.


Other than that, I didn’t think too much more about the workshop until a few days before the event. (This wasn’t procrastination, this was part of my ongoing attempts to schedule my work so I don’t expect myself to tackle my entire to-do list in a single day.) At any rate, I let it go a little too far and didn’t get to really test my ideas until the night before the big day. At that point, I realized that it was harder and took longer than I imagined. I started to worry about how the kids, with their little hands, would handle it and whether they’d get too frustrated to make it work.

In my early days of teaching I would have panicked. But this time I went to sleep, assuming I’d be able to think more clearly in the morning. I woke up thinking about some fairy wands I’d made with the kids at home – wrapping yarn (and feathers and such) around the ends of sticks from the yard.When I got to the conference site, the thermometer on the car read 6 degrees. I walked away form the building and across the street into the woods. I gathered about twenty 18-30 inch sticks and hurried inside to find the room where I’d been working, dropped off my supplies, and found my way to my first (adult) workshop session.

After lunch I got my supplies set up as seen above. I devoted one large table to yarn the other to the supports we’d be wrapping. As the kids filed in we gathered around the table with the yarn. They immediately started pawing the colors, then paused to ask if that was okay. “Of course,” I told them. And in that moment I clearly understood my goal in our limited time together was not to teach them anything major or manage their behavior any more than was necessary to keep everyone positive and productive as we played with yarn and sticks.

I introduced myself and asked them what they knew about weaving. I showed them a few ideas for working with the materials I brought and invited them to play* with them with me.  And that’s what we did. Some kids got frustrated. Some kids seemed to work as fast as they could and then just sat and watched the others. But noone complained, they all tried something new, and in the end they made some pretty cool looking objects.


Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 14


This subject of this issue of Picturebooks on the Potty – Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine – is one part book, one part educational toy, and one part girl power battle cry. The book tells the story of a girl named Goldie who builds a machine to spin her toys modeled after the ballerina in her music box. The goal: Get more girls to see science, technology, engineering, and math as arenas for creative play, exploration, and potential careers.

To be honest, The Spinning Machine wouldn’t have made this column as a stand alone picturebook. The story just isn’t that captivating. (You can find some of my recommendations for picturebooks about kids who build stuff here and here.) What Goldie Blox does that these other books don’t, however, is provide materials for readers to build alongside Goldie. This is good news for parents as well as kids. No pressure to gather supplies and mine Pinterest for DIY project ideas. Our kids, boys included, can start tinkering immediately.

But girls are the primary audience for Goldie Blox. Combining their love of storytelling with all kids’ tendency to come up with new ways to play with their toys, the makers hope to reach millions of girls who are would-be engineers but, “just might not know it yet.” After only one reading, Crafty Cora has spent hours playing independently with the peg board, washers, axels, spools, blox, and snap-on figurines that came with the book. She has set the parts up in various configurations and made up scenarios for each scene.


Cora wasn’t the only girl around here excited about Goldie Blox. Her older sister, grandmother, aunt, and I have all spent time messing around with the kit. In this way it’s been a cross-generational activity, one which each participant approaches a bit differently, thus demonstrating that there’s more than one way to spin a sloth.

As far as I’m concerned, Goldie Blox has already earned her keep. Still, I’m eager to see what else she might inspire.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 10


DSC_1190So many of my students are doing exciting work these days that could be categorized as STEAM-based; education inspired by intersections of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. They are interested in maker culture, functional folks art traditions, and D.I.Y. aesthetics. I’m naturally drawn to their ideas as so many fall outside the traditional bounds of our field. In the very the near future I hope to share more thoughts and resources on this topic. Today I have a few new picturebooks to share that capture the spirit of the maker movement and STEAM-based education.

The Most Magnificent Thing (Spires, 2014) is a story about tinkering, a popular concept amongst the Maker/STEAM set. It refers to acts of thinking with your hands in order to come up with new (to you) ideas, understandings, and, sometimes, magnificent things. In this book a girl and her dog set out to make just such a thing but they hit some bumps along the way. While unhappy with her initial attempts, the girl keeps trying until she finally comes up with a good enough version of her vision. It is, as we say in our house about imperfect projects, full of charm. It shows the mark of her hands and evidence of efforts she went through to create it. This is a great book to inspire imaginative play with found materials and to encourage perseverance in the face of “mistakes.”

Art educators who work with students around 9 years old and older often struggle to get them to try work through challenges they face in the studio. By this age kids have started to develop a sense of who is “good and art” and who isn’t. Two books by author/illustrator Peter Reynolds have been widely used over the past decade to encourage all students to see themselves as capable artists – Ish (2004) and The Dot (2003). Both books present definitions of what counts as art that defy traditional, representational definitions. They speak to the intention of invention and experimentation of artists; to a love of observation and media exploration.

Reynold’s latest title Going Places (2014) takes this concept one step further and challenges readers to consider new ways of approaching projects that seem to have finite conclusions. It is an invitation to question the rules and think differently. In the end, the main characters work together to come up with an idea better than either could have come up with on their own. The book reads like a PSA for The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization which promotes creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration as key skills for living and working in society today. (While I thought this was merely a coincidence, it turns out there is a real connection between the two.) All too often picturebooks written with a particular message in mind are dull and boring but Reynolds has proven, once again, that it is possible to capture our hearts and minds all at once.

SuperMom: DIY Barbie Shoes

My kid thinks I can do anything. I’m glad for that. I’m hoping it will translate into her own internalized sense of confidence. Whenever she’s having trouble with something, particularly when I’m driving and really can’t help, I encourage her to keep trying. “You can do anything. You just need to keep trying. Keep practicing.” These words are not my own. My parents raised me to believe I could do anything I put my mind to. I’m fairly certain they never imagined I’d draw on those words at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning when asked to make high-heeled shoes for a Barbie doll. But, how could I say no? Even while I thought the task was hopeless, I had to try, least she stop trying. 45 minutes later, we had these. Watch out Manolo Blahnik.

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Supply List:

Recycled cereal box cardboard

(Gold) duct tape

Pony beads

Hot glue

Needle and thread (when/if hot glue fails)

#EvidenceOfPlay, #KidsWereHere

A few months ago, my friend Melissa posted a photo of some toys laying on the landing of her stairs to her tumblr site with the caption, “evidence of play.” These words have crossed my mind many times since then. It seemed like the perfect descriptor for the signs we find of our children’s spontaneous activity in the land of make believe.

As Cora gets older, there are more and more times when she plays alone, for which I am very grateful. Working from home, I have learned to be very flexible and take advantage of opportunities to work as they arise throughout the day. I love the days when Cora heads to another room and gets deep into something so I can do the same. However, any parent of young children knows the simultaneous joy and fear of a quiet child. What’s she doing in there? I wonder (always in the voice of Tom Waits), and then go back to grading papers, hoping nothing gets broken before I check on her.

These sessions usually end with me cleaning up a mess. Cora is going through a major dumping phase where she tips over every bin of craft materials, blocks, or dolls clothes in her path. This was the result of a recent playdate.


But there are also moments when I find evidence of more thoughtful play. I love to pause and consider what was going on when they were created. Like Melissa sometimes, these still lives send me running for my camera. And apparently we’re not alone.

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In April 2013, a group of 30 professional photographers started kids were here, a monthly virtual installation of images they made of the traces of their children’s playful activity. Early comments to the site showed that others wanted in on the game and the hashtag #kidswerehere took hold on twitter, Instagram, and flickr. Bloggers can add a KWH badge to their blog to show their participaton (check out mine in the sidebar). There is only one rule, “no kids, only evidence that they were there.”

I love this project. I love the democracy of it. I love the conceptual nature of it; “evidence of play” and “kids were here” suggest both presence and absence. I love how this practice puts Reggio practices into the hands of parents, documenting kids’ playful learning at home and around the world.  As one of the featured photographers wrote:

“When I first began this project, I thought it would be fun to document the every day messes my children make.  As the weeks have passed, this project has really become so much more than that.

It’s not really about messes at all, but about the stories they tell.  It’s about traces of childhood I see throughout my home on a daily basis. It’s about the love we share together.  It’s about living and being…creating, making, learning and trying.   This project leaves me a beautiful story each month of the reminders that Kids are here now…and the time, well, its all too fleeting, isn’t it?   We all need to embrace these moments and just live them too; because they really are the best moments of life.”

-Ginger Unzueta, June 2013

[Note: Shout out to Tina Thompson for putting kids were here on my radar.]

Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber

Dan and I are in the process of renovating a rental house. It’s pretty much down to studs at this point. We brought Cora to work with us yesterday, with paints and brushes in tow. At first it just seemed like a good way for her to keep herself busy (and out of trouble) while we did what we had to do. But when we reversed our regular edict to “only draw on paper” and invited her to paint the walls of the kitchen, I wound up distracted in unexpected ways, getting meta about what she was doing.

Cora didn’t just paint in one small area, she relished the chance to tag every surface she could reach. This first had me thinking of her process in relation to graffiti artists “bombing” a site, like the Australian artists whose work went viral last month. But then a friend compared it to Jackson Pollock. Indeed, like the late great Jack the Dripper Cora was following her natural inclinations, approaching the canvas in an all-over style, moving her arm in big circles and dancing her lines around the room. Like Pollock, she seemed to be tapping into something primitive.
DSC_0033Cora took breaks from her painting from time to time, as if stepping away to gain new perspective, then returned with renewed energy and new colors on her palette. Most remarkably, she didn’t paint a single stroke on her body and begged to wash her hands when she was finished. Anyone who has followed her painting practice knows this is highly unusual. She was immersed in the process; experiencing flow.

While at first I was just happy she was keeping busy and out of the way, in the end, I was proud of her work and of me and Dan for providing her this opportunity for authentic creative play. We’re heading back this morning with more materials in hand. I can’t see what she does next.

Wonder Room, Redux

Lots of museums have creative play spaces primarily intended for families with young children. While the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room was designed with children 3 years of age and older (and their families) in mind, it serves as a place for visitors of all ages to engage in creative play amidst original works of art.

Scenes from the original Wonder Room:

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In its first iteration, the Wonder Room included the chance to create giant faces with magnetized household items, make constructions with sticks and rubber bands or plastic dinnerware, build a fort, and more. Our family and friends had a lot of good experiences exploring and experimenting in this room together over the past few years. But, I was happy to hear it was closing for an overhaul this Fall. We were ready for something new.

So it was with bells on that Rosa, Cora, and I went to the members only opening of the new Wonder Room this past Sunday. We had a great time exploring the new space and hanging out with some of the artists whose work is included. But, we’ll need to return a few times before we determine how it will best suit our needs. While the old space was a bit of an all-over design, the new room was designed around the idea of an enchanted forest. Anyone who has ever read The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, or The Lord of the Rings know that enchanted forests aren’t always happy places. The components work well in conveying this idea and presenting lots of great art from the museum’s collection, but I must admit that some aspects caught Cora off-guard and will take her time to get used to. The space feels, overall, darker than it was. In addition, many of the activities seem better suited for older visitors, like Rosa, than in the previous incarnation.

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For instance, Heidi Kambitsch, a local artist known for her Openheart Creatures, created capes and masks and wings and claws for dress-up. They are inspired and engaging, and a little creepy. Rosa loved wearing them but it took Cora some time to warm to the idea of dressing up as a hairy wild beast rather than a pretty princess. Kambitsch’s work is positioned beside Alex Andre’s Metamorphosis Project which invites viewers to position themselves on either side of a revolving wheel alternately made of mirror and glass. As the wheel spins, the viewers see flashing images of themselves – check out the videos on the link, it’s hard to explain. All I can say is, interacting with Andre’s work while wearing Kambtisch’s costumes is a trip. Whether its good or bad is all based on your perspective.

On a different note, the environmentalist in me will have to think more about some of the activities that use consumable materials. One of the things I LOVED about the first Wonder Room was the way it presented opportunities to engage in process art without producing waste. As I wrote in my review of Oliver Herring’s TASK, I have trouble fully engaging activities that create lots of trash; part of my mind gets lost in the landfill. Time will tell if visitors can create nests and niches that seem (to me) worthy of the materials they are made with. In the meantime, we’ll be heading back to the museum again soon to play with sticks and stones and cardboard squares. Hope to see some of you there!