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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Worlds Collide: Art Education at OEFFA

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“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Promoting Creativity – A Welcomed Invitation

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on Making Creativity Visible at the Columbus Museum of Art. It’s part of a grant project spearheaded by the museum’s Center for Creativity which I will report on at a later time. As a warm-up to the discussion, the educators and docents in the room were asked to think of ways we model, promote, and assess creativity in our work. While I’d like to think through these prompts again with my university students in mind, in the moment I thought of my own children and our home studio experiences.

In the section on promoting creativity, I wrote: “I let things get messy.” And just below that, I wrote, “I clean things up.” I firmly believe that being creative requires space and time to put lots of materials out on the table but it also requires clear space to think and see one’s options and imagine new possibilities. This all reminded me of something that happened at home this past weekend.

As regular readers know, I’ve been working with the concept of “invitations” for creative activity around the house. This weekend, the invitations I’ve been sending came back to me, wrapped up with a big red ribbon.

This was the scene of the action.

Cora's easel positioned in a new location, with supplies she hasn't used in awhile, and a fresh sheet of drawing paper.

Cora’s easel, which for the past month had been moving around the living room mostly just collecting dust, caught her attention the moment she rounded the corner into the kitchen. In addition to moving it into a new space, I had rolled out a fresh sheet of paper and set out some triangular crayons she’d been neglecting in favor of markers.

“Thanks for settting this up for me mom!” she cheered, and my eyes immediately welled up.

Cora picked up some crayons and started drawing, big bold strokes of color. She was drawing with her whole body, in motion, and singing songs from the Sesame Street alphabet album which we listened to that morning. She was exuding positive energy and intensely making fields of color.

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For the past while Cora’s been making up a stories when she draws. Talking through her process, but still not drawing much recognizable imagery. So I asked her to tell me about what she was doing.

“This is a spiral drawing,” she declared and then she paused . . . . . “Do you know why I am doing this, Mom?”

“No. Why?”

“Because… I have to.”

I’m not really sure what Cora meant by this statement but I am sure it relates to issues of discipline, persistence, and drive to make things mentioned by the panelists at the museum. I’m sure I’m going to keep thinking about it. And I hope reading my documentation of this creative happening in my kitchen prompts some of you to set up a clean slate for your students and children to embark on a new creative adventure. If not today, then perhaps in the new year.

Need inspiration: Check out Tinkerlab and Playful Learning.

Scenes from an Artful Day

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“Mom! Let’s see what happens if we do this…” This one gave me chills. Curiosity is the mother of invention.

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We picked a bouquet of different flowers noting their names, variations of color, shape, and size. Hitting all those good ole’ elements and principles of art without even trying. Cora says she earned, and wants, a “badge” so we’re talking about making one and then starting our own version of girl scouts. Then she pulled all the petals and practiced tossing them in anticipation of her aunt’s wedding next month where she’ll be a flower girl.

Lots and lots of independent play with lots and lots of narration. Better than any reality TV show I've ever heard of.

Lots and lots of independent play with lots and lots of narration. I bet you never knew HotWheels could be princesses learning to go potty…

Some days just click. Today was one of those. We moved effortlessly through errands, chores, and playful learning. I wish they could all be like this.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 6

I’m not going to write about my own picturebook experiences tonight. Instead, I’m going to let a soon-to-be alumna of the University of Florida’s Masters in Art Education program do the work for me.

Kaitlin Gallagher Pozzo is lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota metropolitan area where she teaches art and Italian to homeschooled toddlers and preschoolers and is a Curiosity Center volunteer at the Minnesota Children’s Museum.  For her capstone project, she examined various picturebooks about art, created and tested related lesson plans with her  3-year old daughter and a few of her homeschool tutees. The boys moved away before the study was over so some of their interactions took place on Skype which added another space for research and experimentation.

Kaitlin developed a website to house her research findings and to serve as a resource for homeschoolers and early childhood educators. The site is full of great photos of her daughter at work/play, book recommendations and related lesson plans for projects that go beyond crayons and coloring pages. The books are specifically about art, though Kaitlin also shares my understanding and passion for picturebooks that are art objects and recognition that, all too often, the two don’t overlap. In other words, picturebooks about art and artists are surprisingly not always artful.

Please check out Kaitlin’s work and recommend it to your friends, fellow educators, and parents of young children. She plans to expand it after graduation and would love to hear from readers with feedback and recommendations for new books to explore.

 

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.