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!

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 1

If you are still looking for holiday gifts, one of these books might be just what you need. All are filled with fantastic illustrations and imaginative writing, all set in wintery weather, all were recently released, and all are Cora-approved.

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Please Bring Balloons (Ward, 2013) is a magical adventure that begins and ends with a polar bear on a carousel. I’m a sucker for upcycled materials, and Ward reuses various papers to add both visual and conceptual depth to her illustrations. This story invites one to suspend reality for a moment, something we can all use from time to time.

Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise (Balckaby & Segovia, 2013) is a great winter solstice story. The illustrations are rich and lusciously painted, the characters friendly and amusing. I like the way this book presents winter traditions typically associated with Christmas like twinkly lights and baking without doing so. In that way it seems to pay homage to the pagan roots of those traditions, responses to our human need for warmth and light in the coldest, darkest part of the year.

The Bear’s Song (Chaud, 2013) is also wonderful to look at and tells a sweet story. The imagery is dense and will keep readers of all ages engaged for awhile. The story will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water and found solace with a loved one and a sweet treat.

Parenting Perk of the Day: Vicarious Flow

Cora has been so busy lately it’s been hard to keep up. Even harder to find time and mental space to sit down and write about anything that’s been going on. She’s at this truly amazing stage where everything is interesting to her and once she sets her mind on something, she will pursue it with her full attention until she has exhausted her interest in it, or I cut her off because it’s time to drive her brother and sister to school, mow the lawn, go to bed… She has become a process artist.

In art education, we often talk about process versus product. In short, what we learn and experience while creating things isn’t always evident in the final product. This is especially true for performance artists and young children. The work of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, to site some well-known examples, cannot be understood through a single image or description of their performances. They mean and are experienced differently by each viewer of, or participant in, their projects. Similarly, a piece of construction paper covered in glue and cottonballs made by a toddler means much more as evidence of a process the child engaged in than a work of art of itself.

DSC_0119Shortly after Cora’s first day at school, I was raiding the basement for new materials to experiment with. I pulled a set of brightly colored rolls of tape out and she immediately ran to another corner of the room and pulled out an empty wrapping paper tube. She told me she wanted to put the tape on the tube. She sat for at least 40 minutes taking small strips of tape I cut for her and covering the tube with them. Turns out she got the idea from some kids at school who had done something similar. So, while I had to admit this wasn’t her original idea, I was still impressed that she was able to tell me what she wanted to do and then to execute it with such focus. In retrospect, I think it was really important for her to act out something she’d only watched others do. To experience it for herself.

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Like so many toddlers, Cora’s creative work is mostly about process. Marilyn Kohl (1994) writes in an authentic and informed manner on this subject in her introduction to Preschool art: It’s the process not the product which is full of ideas for initiating process art with young children. Many of these ideas could be scaled up for older audiences. 

Cora’s not concerned with the look of a drawing when she is finished with it so much as the processes she engages in making them. For instance, the other morning, she dumped out a bin of crayons and oil pastels then picked them up one at a time, made a mark on her paper, then lined them up. It was like the rules Jenny Bartlett sets for herself while painting. I have long been a fan of process art so I find this really amazing to watch. It also, reminded me of Helen Molesworth’s exhibition for the Wexner Center Work Ethic (2003) which highlighted artists who tested the definitions of what it means to work as an artist. Cora rarely makes a drawing of anything. Rather, her drawings provide a record of something she was doing.

When a toddler is involved in process art she is experiencing the state of flow creative practitioners strive to maintain. It brings us peace and pleasure to be so absorbed in an activity that we are focused only on the moment at hand, on the process we are engaged in. Watching Cora in flow brings me to a parallel space, engaged by her engagement. Next up, finding more opportunities for me to find such moments for myself.

Making Music Together, Apart

Well, we are back in music class after the summer recess. And Cora is back to running circles around the group as most of the other kids sing and dance with their parents and our teacher Leigh. As long-time readers already know, and you can too if you read this post from last year, I think the world of Leigh and have learned so much from being a student in, and of, her work in with young children. You’ll also know that Leigh has encouraged me to embrace Cora’s ways of working through the music, even when those contrast with what the rest of the class is doing. And, as I’ve written before, that isn’t always easy for me to do.

Today I reached the end of my rope. Cora was joyfully running around, between, and through the group as we sang and danced. I was singing and following Leigh’s direction, trying not to let Cora’s behavior stop me from participating, but simultaneously feeling like she was disrupting others and that we were in no way making music together. What was the point. For the first time since our first class a year ago, I actively tried to control her body by reaching my arms out to draw her in as she zoomed past me and begging her to sing with me.

Then, this afternoon while we were on the swings, something amazing happened, as it seems to do just when I need it to. I started singing a song Cora likes from the new collection, “There’s a Little Wheel Turning in my Heart” (here’s another version) and Cora asked me to stop singing that song and asked me to sing something else. As I started the new song, she sang about the little wheel. She was not distracted by the words or melody I was signing. I went through three very different songs, but the she just kept turning that little wheel…

I’m not exactly sure what that demonstrates. Maybe Leigh can help me figure that out. But I do know we’ll be back in class next week. And I’ll try to remember that even when it seems otherwise, my child is learning. Often much more than I can imagine.

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.

Daniel Tiger: New Kid On Our Block

For some children, being a generous giver and a gracious receiver are natural. But other children may need more time and more help from us … When we show children we care about their feelings and that we enjoy giving and receiving, we help them understand how much we receive when we give and how much we give when we receive.
– Fred Rogers

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Since I mostly use the television as a babysitter, I am only partially aware of what Cora is being exposed to when she’s watching. This is definitely at the top of parenting guilt list, but it’s just the way things go around here sometimes as I try to be a full-time mom and part-time professor. This week, we discovered the PBS series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on Netflix.

From what I picked up in passing and from my perch at the kitchen table, I liked the way Daniel addressed real life topics that were age-appropriate and that the music wasn’t too terrible. I even recognized the theme song as a throw-back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I can remember watching as a child and even made reference to in my dissertation. Curious, I turned to The New York Times (my trusted source for great television reviews) and found a nice background story that outlined the connection between the two programs. As it turns out, Daniel Tiger is an intentional reincarnation, cooked up by the same people that brought us Mister Rogers.

I love the fact that the main objective of these shows is social-emotional development as opposed to mastery of the ABCs and 123s. Parents can read more about this on the program website, including timeless quotations from Fred Rogers like the one at the top of this post. Talking about feelings isn’t easy for anyone, let alone an almost 3-year old. While Cora hasn’t seen Mister Roger’s yet, Daniel seems to be reaching her in some powerful ways. In the past week I’ve caught her singing a song about stopping to look both ways before you cross the street and playing school with her dolls, both direct outgrowths of what she’s seen on the show. These are pertinent topics for her to consider at this time – she’s been spending lots of time riding her tricycle around our neighborhood this summer and is anxiously awaiting a bit of preschool in the fall.

All this was great, but I was sold when I heard Daniel singing “Making something’s one way to say, I love you.” Regular readers know I am a big fan of anything handmade  and that I’m working to instill that love in my kids (see, for example, Crafty Cora and My Step-Monster’s Kitchen). But it wasn’t just the song. As Daniel made a card to send to his father to show him that he loved him, Cora got out some paper and crayons and announced she was making a drawing for her dad. While I helped her write a few letters and open a drawer or two, she was nearly on her own for this one. I was amazed to listen to her talk about what she wanted to do and to use skills we’d practiced in the past but hadn’t utilized in awhile. Nothing short of amazing. As was the love she was expressing for her dad. I only wish he’d been home to see and hear it.