Wintertime Nature Study

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It’s hard to be indoors this time of year. We spend so much time in the yard and garden from early spring to late fall I really feel trapped by the cold. This year I’ve made a commitment to getting out for a bit with Cora each day regardless of the weather. I’m meeting mixed results. The chickens help as she misses them as much as the swings. But overall we’re pretty disconnected from the natural world at this time of year.

We are growing all we can on the windowsills. The chia Gnome is sprouting his beard and potatoes are growing roots in glasses of water. For Christmas, we potted paperwhites for Cora to pass around as gifts. It’s been fun to these people’s homes and see the flowers growing taller and budding.

Cora has been eagerly waiting for our flowers. The other day I bumped into the tallest of the bunch and knocked off the largest bud. I was so pissed at myself but quickly realized the teachable moment this would give us to look inside the bud – if you’ve ever grown paperwhites you know the buds push out of their leaf cocoons to such a great extent that you can see the shape of them bulging. It was fun to cut that pod open and take out the guts. Cora chopped the stem, stuck it with a toothpick, and opened the flowers by hand.

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I’m teaching a course on the history of art education this term. We always start with Frederich Froebel’s vision of kindergarten. I think he would have approved of this hands- and minds-on discovery time. What are you doing to stay connected to the natural world this winter?

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You CAN bring your kid to Fallingwater

I firmly believe in experiential learning in context. I think the cuts to field trips we’ve seen in recent years in response to reduced funding for programming beyond school walls and preparation for standardized tests is one of the most under-discussed problems with public schools today. I’m working on an article on the value of field trips, for educators as well as their students,  and exploring the subject with my students.  IMG_2477This weekend, as a means of breaking up a long journey across Pennsylvania (seriously, if you’ve driven it you know what I mean), Cora and I went on what might be considered the penultimate art field trip when we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. We joined the Saturday morning children’s tour (ages 5-8) and set out from the visitor’s center promptly at 9:30am. There was only one other boy and his father in our group, so it was intimate and Cora got to converse a fair amount with our docent, Susan.

As we walked down the path, Susan asked the children to start looking in the bushes and rocks for natural homes animals might live in. We stood under the boughs of a giant rhododendron, near its trunk and at the edge of its canopy, imaging where we would stay driest in a rain storm. We looked for covered crevices in the ravine walls of Bear Run and Susan told us that Frank Lloyd Wright studied animals and their shelters to see what he could do with rock.

She asked each of the children about where they live. “Do you live in the city, suburbs, or country? When you get home, I want you to compare your house to the one we’re about to see.” In retrospect, this suggestion reminds me of something I read about Fallingwater before we visited, that it will change how you see the world. I’ve seen a lot of Wright’s work in my lifetime but this was, hands down, the most thought-provoking and awe-some. I’m left wondering, what happens when you see that at five?

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We paused on the bridge leading up to the house as we took our first view of it from the ground level. Susan introduced the kids to the term cantilever as she pointed out the numerous unsupported terraces hanging out over the waterfall. Then we followed her onto a landing where she guided the children in a block building exercise to help them see and experience this building concept. Using three blocks, she asked them to build bridges over the water. Then she asked them to remove a support from one side and watch what happened. Together, they added weight to the supporting side to help keep the cantilevered end supported. (I see opportunities to revisit this in the future with our own wooden blocks and Legos.)
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“Use your imagination. This blue piece of cloth is the creek….

Susan showed the children some photos of and told them stories about the Kaufmanns, the Pittsburgh family who commissioned the house. One of the photos depicted the rustic cabin they had on the land prior to Fallingwater. It would be an understatement to say the contrast was like night and day.

Finally, we got to go inside! No photos were allowed. On the one side it felt like torture not to be able to take photos of something so amazing, but on the other, the tour  moved through the spaces quickly it really was better to spend the time looking directly than through a lens. That is a rare thing these days.
As we paused to look around the main living room, Susan told the kids,”A lot about this house makes you wonder if you are inside or outside. As we walk around, see if you can spot the outside coming inside.” Cora embraced this challenge. She found large stones embedded in the floors and walls and immediately understood when Susan demonstrated how the windows could be used to control the volume of the waterfall based on how wide they were opened. I have to admit, it gave me a lot of pleasure to watch her actively soaking it all in.
At the end of the tour, Cora was upset to learn we wouldn’t be staying overnight at Fallingwater. I was too. Maybe someday, in another life…

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 1

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As I dropped yet another unread novel into the return bin at the library this morning, it occurred to me that this column is three years old. I started it after writing for what seemed like the billionth time on some social media profile that the last book I read was a picturebook not some New York Times bestseller for grown-ups or Oprah reading club suggestion.

Time flies when you’re raising a little one. But some things don’t change that quickly. I’m still sharing the bulk of my leisure reading time with Cora. However, what we’re reading is starting to change.

For her 4th birthday, my aunt sent Cora a bunch of books including two chapter books,  both by E.B. White. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was a kid. The Trumpet of the Swan was new to me. Both are great stories that demonstrate White’s love and respect for animals of all kinds. Cora listened to them intently, back-to-back. A few months later, after a journey into The Secret Garden, we’re rereading them again, simultaneously. Per Cora’s request, we read a chapter in one, then a chapter from the other. She’s picking up on similarities in the story lines and reminding me of things that will happen a few chapters down the road. It’s amazing to see how she’s soaking it all up.

Amazing and a little sad. While one of the things I advocate for in this column is that readers of all ages ought to be picturebook readers, part of me knows that as Cora gets older we’ll read fewer of these stories and spend more time with long books with few pictures. (Side note: Having the books in the house for Cora and watching how the older kids gravitate towards them is a reminder that people will read what you make available and it’s up to me to be sure all our diets continue to include a healthy serving of Caldecott contenders.)

For now, Cora still looks forward to the pages in the chapter books with illustrations.

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I can remember than feeling. And not just from when I was practicing reading and a page with a picture meant fewer words I had to struggle through. The pictures helped me see the rest of the description more vividly. Some would say they were a crutch, that White’s writing doesn’t need images. I guess I think of them more like training wheels, bolstering young readers as they embark on new reading challenges, in this case, reading stories of more than 200 pages.

But they really are more than that. Garth Williams’ illustrations are well worth our attention; imaginative pen and ink drawings, my personal medium of choice for years. Click here to see some of the original drawings complete with page markings and proof numbers. (I love to see those traces of process.)

As we embark on the third volume of this column, be prepared to see a shift in some of the content. I still plan to write primarily about picturebooks, but there’s likely to be some graphic novels and illustrated chapter books in the mix as well. Regardless, I hope to keep thinking about the role books with pictures play in creative and intellectual development.

Fall Flower Invitation

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We have a ton of marigolds on the farm. For the past month I’ve been dreaming of plucking them and stringing them like the garland I’ve seen in so many depictions of Indian celebrations. I wanted to get some done for Crafty Cora’s Autumnal Equinox birthday party. That didn’t happen. But today, with our first frost due in just a few days, I collected a basketful and dumped them on the table with a few needles and thread. Cora was on it like a moth to a flame. Maya, who never ceases to amaze me with her fine motor skills, was close behind.DSC_0954DSC_0959

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For more on creative invitations (language I borrowed from Tinkerlab, see my initial post on the subject: An “Invitation” to Keep Quiet While Mommy’s On the Phone for Work. 

Digital Process Art

A student recently raised a question that went something like this:

What does the process art of young children look like in the digital age?

Here’s one answer.

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Recently Cora figured out that a free drawing app that has been on our iPad includes a bunch of coloring pages. She has taken to coloring in the spaces, all in one color. It occurred to me today that she is doing this for the pleasure of seeing the spaces fill up. The image is of little consequence. As soon as she finishes a page, she often colors over her work in a new color. There is no concern for saving her work, she doesn’t usually even ask anyone to look at it.

This is the essence of process art in the lives of young children: open-ended sensory exploration.

NYC 2014: Day Two Photo Dump

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This gallery contains 23 photos.

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.