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!

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Parenting Perk of the Day: Making Halloween Costumes with/for Your Kids

As I wrote this time last year, Halloween is a serious affair at Rosa’s elementary school. This is her final year there and she wants to go out with a bang. It’s amazing to see how far her thinking on the subject of creative costuming has become. This year’s idea was pretty meta.

For the past two years, Rosa and Cora have worn related costumes. Three years ago, Rosa wanted to be something BIG, so she and her mom cooked up a giant jack-o-lantern for her to wear. Since I hadn’t had any brilliant ideas yet, and the costume looked nice and warm, I used some of the extra orange felt from Rosa’s costume and a piece of foam I had lying around to make something similar for Cora. In homage to Rosa’s obsession with mustaches, I gave Cora’s gourd a furry upper lip.

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Last year, I was inspired by this tutorial for the most gorgeous DIY wings I’ve ever seen. Again, looking at fabric hanging around in my stash, I decided to make two sets of wings, one for me and one for Cora. I also made some masks and we were transformed into owls. I attached the wings to sweatshirts to make them easy to get on and off and to keep us warm (notice the trend here?). A week before Halloween, Rosa hadn’t decided what to be. She tried on my wings and begged to wear them. How could I say no? I was honored they would be part of her school’s annual costume parade.

DSC_0178Rosa wanted to continue the tradition of dressing up with Cora. Like most little girls I know, Cora has an interest in dressing up like a princess. Fortunately, this hasn’t developed into a full-blown obsession. I don’t think I could handle that. (See: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) Watching her sister play dress-up with her friends transported Rosa back in time. She and her girlfriends mastered the art when they were in preschool and kindergarten. They couldn’t last 5 minutes together without disrobing and cloaking themselves in new identities. My favorite was when they would just trade for one anothers’ street clothes. This year, Rosa declared, she and Cora would be princesses for Halloween. “It would be so funny because noone dresses up like a princess in 6th grade.”

So, we headed to the thrift store, where she found and fell in love with a gorgeous Betsey Johnson dress with the tags still on. Price = $89.95. Rosa was floored. “How could they charge so much? It’s the thrift store!” So, we talked about non-profit organizations and their need to make money and the fact that while this seemed expensive for Volunteers of America, really the dress was a bargain. If she were 5 years older and headed to the prom, I would have snatched that thing up in a heartbeat. But, it was Halloween, so I suggested we examine the dress, think about what made her like it so much and a) look for something similar but less expensive, or b) try to recreate it ourselves.

Of course this didn’t go over well because what Rosa wanted to hear at that moment was that she could have the dress. And if I were made of money, I would have said yes. Like I said it was a beautiful dress the purchase of which would surely have won me some stepmom of the year award. But I’m not made of money and I recognized this as a teaching moment.

I reminded her of the fashion camp she attended this summer and asked, “What would Jen Gillette do?” Jen was Rosa’s instructor for Fashion Blasters – a tall blonde who greeted the kids on the first day with her hair teased out and up like a runway model, wearing an outfit she’d made of found materials held up by super high platform shoes she’d bedazzled from top to bottom. She’s gone to study theater design and production at Tulane, but her spirit lives on in Columbus through the folks she inspired during her time as a Creative Consultant at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Including me.

We put our heads down and went back to the racks. I found a hot pink cotton tube dress the top of which was a lot like the Betsey Johnson design. Rosa found some curtains that were made of a similar material as its skirt. At home we talked about how to put them together. I’ve always been hesitant to sew clothes – I’m not precise enough to make things fit –  so I was proud of myself for figuring out the sewing aspect. But I was sad that Rosa didn’t feel confident enough to help me. I powered through on my own. And then I realized, While Rosa wasn’t doing the sewing, this experience gave her an opportunity to spiral back to creative thinking and problem solving skills she learned this summer. And, as I reminded her to do so, I was practicing those skills too – setting a challenge and figuring out a way to address it.

Are your Halloween preparations presenting any creative challenges to you and your kids? I’d love to hear about them. You’ll see ours in a week. Sorry, no peaking.

A Task, But Not a Chore

Sometimes I feel like I have been living under a rock the past few years. Under a couple of kids is more like it, but the fact is that this weekend I encountered two cultural phenomenon that made the rounds over the past few years without crossing my field of vision, even as shadows: “Caine’s Arcade” and Oliver Herring’s TASK. Once again, I’m grateful to the super cool folks at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity for bringing me up to speed.

“Caine’s Arcade” is a short film about 9-year old Caine and the arcade he built primarily out of boxes he found at his dad’s auto parts shop. The film has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube alone. Yesterday, in conjunction with the Imagination Foundation (read about it, it’s really cool), the CMA hosted a cardboard challenge to celebrate that group’s Global Day of Play. Dan, Rosa, Cora, and I rolled through asking people about their projects, but we saved our energy for TASK which had been highly recommended during the previous day’s discussion of Play=Art.

Herring has been hosting TASK events and parties around the world for over ten years. (Turns out I can’t completely blame the kids for missing this one.) This is how it works: Herring writes a few directions on scraps of paper and puts them in a bin. Participants retrieve tasks, complete them, and they write new tasks to add to the pool. It’s kind of like DaDa meets participatory performance art. This sampling demonstrates the wide ranging nature of the tasks we encountered:

“Make a string web.”
“Host a talent show.”
“Write 5 tasks.”
“Everyone play dead.”
“Lead a conga line.”
“Ask a child about what they are making.”
“Imitate someone for 5 minutes.”
“Make sushi and give it to a dad.”
“You are a fish.”
“Cut the web.”

Most definitions for the word task include some level of discomfort, a chore one is assigned to complete. I’m sure Herring understood this when he chose that word as the name for his project. For while TASK can be a fun-filled venture that invites moments of play, Herring doesn’t believe play must always be pleasurable. Conversely, he suggests play can be an opportunity to break free of routine, to push one’s boundaries. I like this idea. It resonates with my growing sense that disruption can be a powerful catalyst for play and creativity.

It’s been nearly a year since Dan and I brought George to the CMA to participate in Dispatchwork. That had been such a great experience for our family I really wanted to try another round; this time with Rosa as our focal point. But while we started out collaborating on a task, she wanted to do the next one on her own. And the one after that. And the one after that. Dan and Cora also got involved in their own projects as I fell into a participant-observer role and chatted with some of the other educator-researchers in the room.

Our family has been working hard on home projects lately and this was a welcome break from our regular routine. Dan was reluctant to give up time for his works in progress, but ultimately said he was glad he went, that he took the time out. Rosa has had a few good experiences at the CMA recently, and was less difficult to convince. This came as a bit of a surprise since she is a teenager who values her weekends as time to do, pretty much, nothing. When I asked her how TASK was different from art class at school she told me, “Here you have something to do, but you decide how to do it. At school you have to follow the teacher’s instructions.” For us all, this activity was a task, but not a chore.

(Final note: I’m interested in learning how educators have integrated both of these activities into their work. I think the dynamic of TASK must be much different with a finite and more homogeneous group. I’m still processing. Have you got anything to share? I struggle with activities that expend excess amounts of material with ephemeral results. But that’s a big part of process art which I fully support. For now, I think the Makedo reusable cardboard challenge kit is going to be my new “go to” birthday gift.)

Art and Play: The Center of Creativity

photo 1Anyone who works as a contractor from home knows it is often a blessing, sometimes a curse. I enjoy working on my own, but at times I long for others with whom I can casually bat around ideas on a professional level, without one of the kids asking something of me. Facebook is a nice substitute, but sometimes I long for flesh and blood and voices excitedly exchanging ideas back and forth, cutting one another off as we make connections in real time.

Last night I got that thanks to my colleagues at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Cindy Foley and her team put together a rich and spirited conversation on play, art, and learning with guest panelists Flossie Chau (Harvard’s Project Zero), Jessica Hamlin (Art21), Oliver Herring (artist). They filled a room full of early childhood and classroom teachers, university faculty, parents, non-profit arts leaders, museum staff and board members, and policy makers. I could hardly think of a better way to begin the weekend. Until a few of us went for cocktails and dinner afterwards…

Some of the questions we began to explore during our Conversation with ART21: Play=Art included:
What does it mean for art to play a role in teaching for 21st century skills?
How do we know when play is happening? What do we see? hear? feel?
How does play begin?
What is the relationship between play/process/object?
What is one thing you could do tomorrow to promote play in education?

So much of what I heard resonated with what I have been working through with students in my courses and in my experiences as a parent of a toddler and teen-aged children. Here are a few key phrases I took away from the conversation.

“Play is a state of mind.”

“Play requires some catalyst to get it going.” There must be some parameters. “It can’t be infinite or my head would explode.”

“Play is purposeful.”

“Play can be really loud or really quiet.” “Play can be individual or collective activity.”

“Play feels: addicting, releasing, competitive, energized, uncertain, promising, fully engaged…”

“Go back in your mind to when you were a kid. What did you do with materials when there were no expectations?”

“Play is real, school is not.”

I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, finding new ways to define the role and importance of play in education, and seeing how play manifests itself in classrooms, museums, and home learning spaces.

Permission to Play: Paint by Squirt Gun

I had a stroke of genius today. Luckily, Google was there to tell me just how many other parents of toddlers already had the same idea, and wrote about it on their blogs.

With Crafty Cora’s birthday party next week, I’ve been brainstorming activities to entertain her and her wee friends. I’m going with a kind of carnival theme. I figure that way they games don’t have to have too much in common. I’m thinking of making a little passport that parents can put stickers in as their kids finish each “event.” There will be a tricycle course, balloon jump, balance beam, bean bag toss, and other things I haven’t thought of yet. I was considering something where kids shoot squirt guns to knock things down, but I know their aim isn’t that good yet. And then I had the idea!

Cora and I often bring food coloring into the bath tub. We have a set of translucent tupperware that are red, yellow, and blue which we use to play with mixing and changing the colors. Every time we do it I think about all the conversations I have had with students over the years about teaching the elements of art and how I have advocated going beyond such formal art lessons. Somehow, however, this activity never gets old and I know Cora is learning not only about the interactions of color (Albers, 1963), but also about scientific principles like cause and effect. This is playful learning.

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Could we put the colored water in squirt guns?

On a quick run to the friendly neighborhood Target, we found some little squirters (on sale for the end of the summer!) and filled them up as soon as we got home. Cora was engaged from the first shot. We hung an old cloth over her easel and set to work. After about half an hour we had completely filled our canvas with a beautiful tie dye. I think I had just about as much fun as she did exploring the different kinds of marks we could make by moving our arms in different ways as we shot or moving our bodies closer or farther from our work. I can’t wait to see how the kids (and adults) at the party explore this process.

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Postscript: I would be remise not to report just briefly on what my Google search for “squirt gun painting” revealed. Most posts advised against painting with food coloring because it stains. I think washable tempera is pretty damned hard to remove too. So, pick your poison, I guess.

Some parents, including one very angry Montessori mother, questioned the use of water guns and made me wonder why I didn’t question that more. Of course, her kid was involved in an activity, at school, where kids were shooting at other kids. Little Tykes meets paintball. I can remember the first time I saw Cora playing with “shooters” at her friend Maya’s house. Watching her shoot at me with foam bullets jarred me for a moment, but I think I was more concerned when I first saw her put on a princess dress and talk in a lilting voice about going to a ball.

Finally, I came across a Kickstarter campaign run by NYC-based artist Brian Ermanski, to fund a series of squirt gun paintings. Further Googling revealed Ermanski has earned a reputation as a sort of “bad boy of the art world” and his squirt gun series, of which I can find no documentation online other than this youtube video with just 21 views (3 of which were mine), seems like it was just another art world stunt.

A Photo a Day: Our Couch is a Highway

DSC_0049As I’ve written about before, Cora is presently in love with the movie Cars. And from the first time she watched it, about two months ago, the collection of Hotwheels and Matchbox cars she’s inherited from her Dad and brother has been her greatest plaything. She oragnizes them by color and occupation. Race cars to the left, construction trucks to the right, please. She drives them on the edge of the bathtub and parks them between the keys of the piano. Together we have drawn cities for them to drive through and made buildings out of cardboard boxes for them to live in. (More on those later, perhaps.)

This is the second fixation Cora has had with a movie. Toy Story was first and it had me worrying a bit. What could watching the same movie again and again be doing to her little brain, I wondered. Then, I remembered that our music teacher touted repetition as an important part of toddlers’ cognitive development as it related to music. Could film work the same way? Like reading the same book over and over again, which I am also known to do upon request.

Articles like this one from a child psychologist on an Australian parenting forum, also helped me recognize that these fixations, rather than obsessions, are innocent and may even be beneficial to some degree. If every moment of every day were filled with cars, if she wouldn’t ever watch anything else, if she couldn’t play any other games or with any other toys – then we’d have a problem.

And so, we’re off to listen to the Cars soundtrack while playing with cars, in the car.

A Photo A Day: It Started Out Innocently Enough

DSC_0016I’m not really sure I need to write anything about this one. But here goes.

Since we still have a construction site in our house (our new kitchen should be finished any week now – more on that later) we have a dedicated space for making great big messes.  Combine that with temperatures in the 90s that were perfect for a hose down or two, and I was perfectly happy to let Cora paint as freely as she wanted. Child, and her mother, couldn’t be happier.