Preview: Toddler Time @ the CMA

Blueberry colored glasses

Blueberry colored glasses

So, I’m starting to get organized for our Toddler Time experiments at the Columbus Museum of Art next month. I am drafting a note to the participating parents; to clarify dates, times and locations, to set some basic expectations and guidelines, and to offer some ideas from the literature in early childhood regarding social, physical, and cognitive development within creative exploration. I’m also starting to put together some “lesson” plans. I will be documenting that planning here to share it with those parents as a form of preparation for our time together and as a space for questions, comments, and criticism. I’m also hoping I might get some feedback and recommendations from other folks who work with young children – in museums and other settings.

Today, Cora and I pulled out a lightbox I had stored in the basement and a set of old colored plastic notebook dividers I had saved from one of the big kids’ end-of-the-school year clean-ups. If I were making a list of top ten tips for parents who want to encourage creativity at home, saving old things and finding new uses for them would be close to the top. This also fuels my interests in sustainability education, and I’m always really pleased when I find a good use for something I’ve been holding onto for a while, like these folders. (I frequently recommend Beautiful Stuff! (Topal & Gandini, 1999) for more ideas about how to incorporate found objects into early childhood creative education.) Similarly, you don’t need a fancy box to do this kind of activity. DIY lightbox instructions are available all over the web.

I started to cut basic shapes out of the plastic and Cora immediately took them and put them on the lightbox. She enjoyed placing them on the box and seeing them illuminate, overlapping them to make new colors, and starting to sort them based on their shapes and colors. She didn’t need any instruction. I plan to use this as one of the activities for the free play stations kids can explore during the first part of our time together.


As she worked, I thought about Josef Albers’s (1963) Interaction of Color and the color aid paper experiments I conducted in my freshman design course in college. I also thought about Paul Klee’s geometric landscapes and Louise Nevelson’s assemblages. Oddly enough, the CMA is currently hosting a big show of Mark Rothko’s work to which one might also draw parallels with this activity. So far there aren’t any plans for designated time in the galleries each week as part of our playgroup, but perhaps I ought to reconsider that given this connection. It would be fun to look at Rothko with young children. Unless they’re like Olivia the Pig who couldn’t accept Pollock’s drip paintings, they ought to be more open to his work than many adults I know.

The one thing I am a little worried about is that this activity will be very popular and my little lightbox won’t be big enough for everyone who wants to use it. We’ll just have to be prepared to talk about sharing and taking turns. Something tells me we’ll be doing a lot of that.

Art Education in the Antique Shop


One afternoon back in the fall, Cora and I headed to a vintage consignment shop focused on checking out a mid-century modern sofa I had seen online.  However, when we got to the store and learned the sofa had been sold the previous afternoon we made the most of it.  We played a baby grand piano and tried on fur hats.  We roared at life-size ceramic lions and sprawled across velvet lounge chairs.  We ogled case-after-case, and shelf-upon-shelf of collectibles figurines, toys, and telephones, jewelry, teapots…

The experience was actually my impetus for starting this blog.  I had just taught about art education in informal learning environments (ILE) (Paris, 2002) for a course on museum education I was covering as an adjunct at Ohio State.  Walking around the Grandview Mercentile, following Cora around and watching her through the lens of my camera, I felt like I had found the ultimate ILE for art education.  Reflecting on our field trip that evening, I realized, there were overlaps between my double-life as an art educator and mother that I wanted to explore and share with others.

Cora took in the shop with her eyes, hands, and whole body at times.  Within reason, I allowed her to independently approach objects, following her curiosities.  After a few moments of uninhibited investigation, I talked with her about whatever she was looking at – often beginning with a reminder that it was breakable and she needed to be gentle – and asked her a few questions.  We talked about the objects’ formal qualities and we compared them with things we’d seen in books or elsewhere in the world.

As in a comprehensive art museum, the objects on display presented a seemingly endless opportunity for material culture studies – links for exploring how the objects in our world contribute to the development of our personal and cultural patterns of behavior, sense of self and community, and help preserve our heritage and our memories.  Each time we turned a corner, a new space revealed itself – a Victorian parlor, an office made for Mad Men, a French garden cafe…   These spaces showcased various aesthetic styles, advances in manufacturing and design, and palettes of colors, textures, lines, shapes, forms.  Unlike in most museums, we were allowed to get up close to the objects, to touch them, and (more or less) to play with them. All that, and it was free.

What’s your favorite informal learning environment for art education?