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.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 9.17.29 PM

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.

image1

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.

IMG_0849

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

Advertisements

Still Drawing Outside the Lines, But Getting Clearer

IMG_20150614_0001

“That’s daddy, me, and mommy” (from left)

I’ve been following Cora’s mark-making development for almost five years now, nearly three on this blog. Like any academic art educator parent, I muse over pretty much any mark she makes with some intention; from her first experiments with blackberry juice at her highchair and water drenched paintbrushes on the driveway to magic marker tatoos and family portraits. But despite my affection for alternative forms of artmaking, those that stray outside the lines, I’m still a sucker for representational drawing. (Read this post from last year from more this.) I’m not talking about realism, but drawings that demonstrate careful observation and reflection of objects and experiences in our world.

So it was with great amazement that I watched, and listened, to Cora complete this (5″ x 8″) drawing the other morning.

IMG_20150613_0001“This is what I want for a snack, Mommy,” she declared as she sat on the floor busily drawing. “A carrot!”

“Of course you can have a carrot,” I told her. “But first, can you tell me about the one you are drawing?”

Cora narrated her drawing for me in great detail. The horizontal line was the ground and the little oval under it towards the center of the page was the carrot. She was actively drawing its leaves and then moved on to the squiggly line to its right which is a shark trying to steal the carrot. I’m not sure about the other squiggles (maybe just the shark’s movement), but the dots are definitely raindrops.

I was happy to be there to capture the moment and document it here. I was happy to know that our work at Over the Fence Urban Farm has helped her learn that carrots come from the ground, not the grocery store. I wish more people could appreciate the process of drawing and not be so fixated on the product. This ought to be the case for folks drawing at any age or stage of life. Drawing is a way of thinking, not just a form of making.

This summer, I promised myself I would write a one-page information sheet this summer for the parents who volunteer in Cora’s cooperative pre-school about documentation and children’s learning, an idea that comes from the Reggio Emila approach to early childhood education. Sometimes I take for granted my professional knowledge of learning and development and assume other parents have this knowledge and training as well. But they don’t, and while I LOVE our school, I think it could do more to develop our parents as reflexive volunteers in the classroom, and teacher researchers in their own homes. This will be my contribution.Teaching parents about documentation, which the teacher’s assistant does a fair amount of, will help them better understand and appreciate Ms. N’s work, and enable them to help her when they are in the room.

Cora’s carrot drawing drawing was just the inspiration I needed to get off my duff and get started. Without my documentation of her narration, the drawing would just look like a series of squiggles and dots. It’s a perfect example of how we can all make learning, and creativity, visible with just a few lines of annotation.

Here’s one more from dinner last night. (Never go to a restaurant with kids and without paper and something to draw with, if only a ballpoint pen, which just happens to be one of my favorite media for drawing.)

IMG_1363

“This is a sting turtle. Their bodies are completely red because they are made of hot lava.”

Wow.

Documentation Toward Parental Appreciation

A father friend of mine posted this photo recently. His caption had me laughing out loud.

“I have no idea what the fuck these are but I’m supposed to be proud of them.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 7.49.15 AMThe statement, combined with the piles of play dough he was presented still has me laughing. But it got me thinking too.

In our house, we often reference a line from the animated film The Incredibles, “If everyone’s special, then no one is.” The point, in this context, is that not every thing our children make or do is fabulous and sometimes it feels like we ought to let them know, lest they go out into the world expecting accolades at every turn, even in response to sub-par effort.

I’m not saying my friend’s kid’s creations are sub-par; just that I find the candor of his comment refreshing. We should be able to question (with supportive intentions) the creative work our children set before us, without feeling like we are stifling their creativity. Most contemporary art requires some sort of explanation to foster our appreciation. Possessing information about what we’re looking at helps us understand what we see. It helps us grasp the meaning of the work. And for young children like my friend’s, experimenting with media, this is important work.

Such explanation is the goal of documentation, writing down what children say about their work as they are going about it, as defined by the Reggio Emilia philosophy for early childhood education. With this commentary, we are equipped to make informed judgments about what we are looking at. We understand what there is to be proud of.

 

Most Simply Stated: What Educators Need

Every Saturday I race to flip through the sections of the previous Sunday’s New York Times I didn’t get through before the next edition hits our doorsteps. This week, in an article from September 4th on (de Blasio’s) new public pre-K programs in NYC, I found one of the single best sentences I’ve ever read about education. It seems the new program is supporting professional development for early childhood educators to familiarize them with play-based approaches to learning. It all sounds “very Reggio” as we often say, shorthand for education inspired by the Italian Reggio Emilia model. At this point the training has been rather minimal – just three days – and in the end the author argues the teachers need more than a love of children and certifications.

They need worldliness and quick intellectual reflexes.

And with that, she had me. The most perfect, pithy description I have ever come across for what it takes to be an effective and engaging educator.

NYC 2014: Day Two Photo Dump

Gallery

This gallery contains 23 photos.