Giveaway : Becoming Brilliant

Today, I’m giving away two copies of the audiobook Becoming Brilliant, by by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.  The authors - long time researchers of all things learning and young children - also wrote Einstein Never Used Flash Cards - a book I am constantly recommending to new parents and teachers.

This is a great listen for anyone who loves to listen to their books on the go, and wants to get a deeper understanding of how we are preparing children for the world and workforce of the future.  

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek introduce their idea of the “6 Cs” in this book: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.   When I listened to the explanation of these ideas, I thought about the young children that we work with in Early Childhood settings.  The authors highlight the learning that happens in every moment of every day for young children: from walks to car rides to putting on their shoes, every day is filled with learning moments that help children connect with the real world on a deeper level.

If you are interested in learning more about the science behind early learning and our expectations for how children will get there, enter to win a copy of the audiobook!  Add your name and email address below by Sunday, March 26th.  The winners will be notified by email on Monday, March 27th.

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Giveaway : Documenting Children's Meaning

I'm giving away a copy of a wonderful book for Early Childhood Educators who are interested in documentation and family engagement!

 
 

Documenting Children's Meaning: Engaging in Design and Creativity with Children and Families  is a book about documentation as a tool for teaching, and for engaging families.  It is a collection of observations and documentation from a drop in program, told by the documenters through stories of materials, space, and people.  

The children and families and educators who interact in this book are all engaged learners: learning about themselves, each other, and the potential of materials and space.  The educators in this space don’t approach their work from a “parents just don’t understand” perspective - which is pervasive and more common than we, as early educators, like to admit.  The Together for Families program sees children and caregivers as partners, not as people to be educated about the “right way” to support children.  All of the people in this experimental space are learners.

This book is about the power of documentation to communicate stories and deepen learning; but more so than that, it is a testimonial about the importance of how families are involved in educational spaces.  We don’t know better than the parents of children about their own child.  We have ideas and theories about spaces and materials, but we need to carefully watch and document the people as they interact with those things.  

This book is an incredible inspiration for the programming at Play Lab, where we will be welcoming children 0-6 years old and their families for explorations of materials and space, and documenting the stories and threads we find over the days, weeks, and months.  This book is an illustration of the discovery of ideas and stories over time, and how families and educators can celebrate this learning and development together.

I have one copy of this fantastic book to giveaway to a lucky reader!  Complete the form below by Sunday, March 12 to enter to win, and the winner will be announced on March 15.  If you win, you'll have the book in your hands by the end of the month!

Thanks to Davis Art, the publisher, for the giveaway!

 

 

Giveaway Entry Form

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What's Going On?

Over the past few years, I have been bringing open-ended materials around my community to create play installations.  The project is called Play Lab.

 
 

I have been trying to find my role in Early Childhood Education:  I consider myself a teacher and an advocate and a writer.  I want to share what I know (and the things I am still learning about) with other teachers.  The online workshops are one way I can connect with other teachers, but the big missing piece is that I am not a classroom teacher: I don't get up in the morning and go to teach children.  

What I know about teaching and childhood is valuable, though, and it has been hard to describe, in words, wonderful things to do with children instead of illustrate those ideas through documentation. 

So this week, Play Lab moved out of my garage and into the world!  Play Lab has a home, in downtown Bellingham, about 600 square feet that will serve as a space for children to explore materials and ideas, and also for educators to learn about play-centered and child-led curriculum.  I plan to be a careful observer and documenter and questioner, using what happens in work with children and teachers to inform the ideas that I pass on to all of you!  The online workshops will not only continue, but they will become richer with the learning happening at Play Lab.  

Play Lab will have drop-in open labs for exploration; registration programs for infants, toddlers, and 3/4s; open planning sessions for teaching teams; book clubs; and workshops for educators.  I hope to work with area schools to help teachers add elements of true, child-centered play to their curriculum.  I see Play Lab as a cyclical place: the ideas we choose to explore with children stem from educator curiosities, approaching all aspects of programming as action research.

 

 
 

Early Childhood is multi-faceted: we think about everything from the physical to the emotional to the cognitive, every day.  Play Lab is a vehicle to learn more about childhood, and about teaching young children.  

Bakers and Astronauts has been an important part of my work since it started in 2008, and I don't plan to let it go.  I plan to let things progress naturally, with a special focus on Play Lab, and the online workshops here on Bakers and Astronauts.  There will be blog posts, there will be new workshops, there will be Instagram stories!  There will be ways for you to engage with Play Lab from afar, or come visit to see for yourself.

If you want to keep up with both Play Lab and Bakers and Astronauts, the best way is through the Early Childhood Playlist: a weekly email that tells you what I'm up to, along with the week's best Early Childhood content from around the web.  Sign up here.

Whether you've been following along since 2008 or you joined somewhere along the road, thanks for reading my words.  There is more to come!

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Kid Music For All!

 
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I've been putting together mix tapes for different Early Childhood occasions: naptime, playtime, and (coming soon) dance time.  

I believe that we can all listen to the same music.  Kids are not born wired to listen to Old McDonald Had a Farm, and I have not met an adult who listens to any version of that song on their own.  Children and adults can listen to music together and enjoy it - neither party needs to suffer!

That said, there is great music out there that is technically for kids, but adults can actually enjoy.  Read on for a few suggestions.


I grew up in a household where Original Cast Recordings from Broadway shows were always playing in the car and in the house.  So, I think I have a soft spot for the sound that John Lithgow tackles on his first album.  Its funny, its upbeat, and it is for kids.  And, underwear songs are great.

In college, I worked at Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in Manhattan.  This CD was displayed on the counter, played on the stereo, and made its way into my student teaching placements.  Dan Zanes and a cast of wonderful musicians play "kid songs" without making you want to rip your hair out, and he peppers his albums with interesting songs and sounds, from hip-hop to original compositions.

Lullatone is a prolific group, recording albums with interesting instruments and sounds in Japan.  Their work is all instrumental, which I prefer as background music.  The music is playful and bright; it makes you feel like you're in a movie.  Try taking a walk while listening to it on headphones - its cinematic.

Woody Guthrie recorded this album in 1958.  All of his songwriting is storytelling, but he has an extra special ability to write from a child's point of view.  I've sang some of these songs with preschoolers, and danced around to even more of them!  

I have to include Free To Be...You and Me in this list because it was my absolute favorite as a kid.  So I am partial, but the skits are absolutely timeless.  And I sang the title song in my bedroom.  A lot.

What are some of your favorite adult-friendly kid albums?

 

5 Reasons : Children as Photographers

 
 

 

Do you have a camera for children's photography?

Whether you share your camera, smartphone, or tablet; or have a dedicated camera for kids to use, photography is an incredible addition to the Early Childhood classroom.  

I sketched out a few reasons why real cameras are a great classroom tool.

The camera lets us look at the world through fresh eyes.

The world through the naked eye and the world through the viewfinder of a camera feel different - using a camera is a unique experience.  When children use a real camera, they get to try on a different perspective; and as educators, we have the opportunity to see the world through children's eyes when we experience their photographs.

Photography is one way to include student voices in documentation and stories of learning.

You may be collecting photographs of children at play and examples of their work and their words.  When we offer children a camera, we offer them a tool for sharing their perspective.  We can include that perspective when telling stories of learning to parents, families, and colleagues!  Including children's photography in digital and print documentation, and children's portfolios, adds another viewpoint on learning.

Photography is super engaging!

You know those timeless, tried-and-true materials that seem to engage everyone, week after week (and year after year)?  Blocks, paint, play dough, water - these are some universal and engaging materials that many Early Childhood Educators use in their classrooms.  Real cameras are highly engaging for children: they are not pretending to take photographs, they really are!  And, when we reflect on those photographs with children, their engagement continues.  Children love to see the world through that little screen, and also the images of familiar faces and things in printed photos in the classroom, or a reflective slideshow.  

A photograph can be realistic or imaginative. (Kids get to choose!)

I have observed dozens of children in my classrooms over the years with cameras, and they can take a realistic or an imaginative approach to photography.  A child may take ten photos of a favorite object in the classroom, or see what it feels like to move the camera while pressing the shutter.  There is no wrong way to take photos - the tool is there to experiment with.  As adults, we get pretty rigid in our thinking, but children see the playfulness of photography.  When we give children the space to make these choices, they are free to explore, which is exciting and engaging.

Photography is more accessible than ever.

Gone are the cameras that my parents had to deal with: they gave me a 35mm point and shoot camera when I was a kid, I promptly used up all the film with pictures of my stuffed animals, and then they had to pay to get the film developed, and get more film.  Digital photography is very cheap, and chances are, you already have everything you need!  You can use an old point and shoot camera; you can use any computer or screen to put together digital slideshows for reflection; you can share children's photography with parents and families through email, a class website, or shared photo albums.  


You can learn more about photography with the Little Perspectives online workshop!  Learn about big ideas around children's photography; see photography in action in classrooms; and get ideas for including photography in your curriculum, all online, on your schedule.

 

New Mix Tape : Playtime #1

 
 

Another playlist for your listening pleasure!  Head over to the Mix Tapes to listen, download, or follow on Spotify.

Sometimes, background music can be distracting.  People seem to be on one side or the other of the background music argument - love it or hate it - but I don't think we need to be so divided.  Music can compliment what we are doing!  When I settle in to read a book at night, I like something instrumental, something ambient, without lyrics.  When its playtime, the right music sets a tone for getting into that mindset of deep play, and can be a soundtrack for exploring.  

Adults and kids can enjoy music together - I don't assume that the only music children like is "kid music".  Learning about music can certainly include singing songs that we associate with preschool, like The Wheels on the Bus, but that shouldn't be the whole picture.  How can we learn about the diversity of wonderful music in the world if we are restricted to a genre that, to be honest, is not popular outside of preschool classrooms?

The Bakers and Astronauts Mix Tapes are an easy way for you to dip your toe into music that can make kids and adults happy.  Try the new Playtime #1 Mix Tape on for size!  

 

Why Reflective Writing?

 
 

You’re a busy person: you plan activities and prompts; you clean up and organize; you make sure everyone washes their hands after using the toilet, and before eating.  You chat with parents, you put bandaids on scrapes.  All this, and I still argue that you should find the time to reflect on your teaching practice and the events of each day.

Reflection helps you to articulate what is really happening in your teaching practice.  It is an introspective act: you examine the choices that you make, try to dig a little deeper to see where those choices came from.  Reflection is the act of getting to know yourself better as an educator, and as a person.  "Reflective Practice" sounds much more complex than it needs to be, so today, let’s simplify, and see how you might find the time for reflective thinking and writing in your teaching practice.

Set an Alarm.

Set an alert on your calendar or phone to remind you to stop for some writing.  

Perhaps you can reflect for 10 minutes during lunch on Wednesday, or for 15 minutes on Saturday morning. The first step is making a bit of time, and holding yourself accountable for that.  There is no wrong way to reflect - it is personal.  Anytime, anywhere, any length of time is fine: all you need is yourself and place to gather your thoughts.

Talk to yourself.

Use your smartphone to reflect!  You can use a voice memo app, or something that helps you organize more. I use Evernote.

We can have some clarifying moments when we articulate ideas out loud - it does not always need to come through writing.  An extra benefit is that you can do your audio reflections while driving home, or while cleaning up at the end of the day.  Keep the recordings to listen to again, or make some notes when you are done with the audio reflection to collect your key ideas.

Embed reflection into staff meetings.

A weekly or a monthly staff meeting can be an opportunity to introduce reflection to staff, and make time for their reflective thinking.

Try starting your staff meetings with a 5 minute reflective writing session, either open for teachers to choose their own explorations, or following a question or prompt.  This can turn into a group discussion, or just an example of how reflection might fit into what already seems to be a busy schedule.


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Reflective Writing Online Workshop!

5 Myths : Open-Ended Materials

As a workshop facilitator, I have the pleasure of talking to early childhood educators about open ended materials.  I get to sit on the floor with teachers and caregivers, playing with materials, and engage in dialogue around their experiences, and the experiences they want to frame for children.

There are a few assumptions that people make about using open-ended materials with children, and they seem to come up over and over again in dialogue and conversation.  

Let's debunk a few of those myths - because open-ended materials are a timeless addition to any learning environment, with children of all ages.

Myth #1 : They need to be presented on a table.

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Using open-ended materials has become synonymous with trays and small items: creating playscapes and prompts for children to encounter and engage with.  When you lean into this kind of thinking, you immediately end up in a corner: imagining materials as teacher chosen, and only presented in offerings.  You can offer materials on tables, of course, but it is not the only way.

Open-ended materials can be an exploration together at the carpet; moving items on the playground; an assortment of items in the sensory table; and more:  you should open your mind to new, never-tried-before opportunities when you plan.
 

Myth #2 : Children are most engaged when they are quiet.

Video by AnjiPlay

This goes for materials and beyond: "quiet" is not a synonym for "engaged".  There is an image in most of our minds of the child at the table (probably about four or five years old), carefully moving materials.  That child is engaged, but so is the child who is dumping all of the materials into a bowl in the dramatic play area, then putting that bowl into a purse, then carrying that purse around the room for an hour.  Is his work less meaningful than the child at the table?  

Open-ended choices in the outdoor area are a great example.  Remember that children are children, not small adults, and their behavior and choices will be different than the choices you will make.  This is not to say they are not capable, competent, and curious!  Noise is an exploration in itself, and is an excellent partner for open-ended materials and process-based play.

 

Myth #3 : Materials = Loose Parts = Small Items.

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

A muddy definition of loose parts has led to a common assumption about open-ended materials: that they are small items.  

When I think of open-ended materials, I think of absolutely anything that can be used for more than one purpose:  rocks, marker caps, sticks, sand, water, bolts, fabric scraps - these are items that can be mixed and matched to the heart’s content, and will rarely serve the same purpose twice.  The the whole idea of using open-ended materials is to be more flexible, and more open, with the materials that the world has to offer.  These don’t necessarily need to be small: they just need to be anything that can be used for limitless purposes.

 

Myth #4 : Materials are a Reggio thing.

Yes, open-ended materials can be found in the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia.  But more importantly, they can be found in many other places, and they do not need a label or an attribution: in general, it is the way children played before the commercialization of play.  Children often find materials for play themselves when given the time and the space to explore.

Open-ended materials do not make a program more or less like the schools of Reggio Emilia, which are set in a time and a place that cannot be copied word for word.  Open-ended materials go far beyond glass beads and bottle caps in Reggio Emilia.  Materials are one language among many: other languages include paint, clay, music, construction, any way to communicate about and with the world.  

 

Myth #5 : Materials Play is not for infants and young toddlers.

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

When you are planning prompts and play opportunities for very young children, you do not need to dismiss open-ended materials: you simply need to understand how to curate the most appropriate materials.  This is true for any age group, really.  

Very young children can engage with everyday objects - and they often do, regardless of whether they are offered the materials or not.  You can take this as inspiration, offering children more open-ended opportunities to explore everyday objects on their terms.  The exploration is a young child's work and play, and it looks different for children of different ages.  Keep children's safety in mind when you plan, and offer an experience that will be engaging - not one where you need to hover and fret.

 


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Materials and Prompts Online Workshop!

 

 

Teacher Self Resolutions

In 2016, I thought a lot about the Teacher Self: that aspect of classroom teaching that we doesn't get much attention.  We are people, in our classrooms, with thoughts and ideas and preferences and emotions.  While we should not bring our bad mood to plague children and colleagues, a sense of acknowledgement around what works for us as individuals, and what doesn't feel quite right, is important.

I am inviting you to share your Teacher Self Resolutions, anonymously.  This doesn't mean making plans for what you want to change about yourself: it simply means hashing out ideas about where you want to bring your awareness in the coming year.  What is happening, unconsciously and automatically, that is impacting your teaching practice?  Perhaps you know what your barriers are, but you haven't yet let yourself articulate them.  Go ahead and bring it all into the light here.

These answers are anonymous, but I may call on the ideas that you submit to inform future thinking and writing here on Bakers and Astronauts.  Please share: we all have a lot to think about, and writing is a way to get those thoughts (good, bad, and ugly) out of our minds and into the world.  Use the form below to share.

 

Cheers to a reflective 2017!

A Drawing Story

I put together this video of O, age 3.5, telling me a spontaneous story while drawing a few years ago.  

I have storytelling on the brain - I taught a workshop in Hong Kong about playful literacy recently, and I am putting together an e-course on storytelling that will launch in January!  The course will look at research on children's development as it relates to literacy and storytelling; show wonderful examples of storytelling in action in classrooms, and offer actionable prompts and provocations for your setting.  Throughout the course, you'll use reflective techniques to deepen your conceptual understanding to truly link content to your personal theory and practice.  The E-Course will be self-paced, with content available to you for one year after you enroll - meaning you engage as often as you would like to, when you would like to.  

I'm so excited to offer this storytelling course, along with a few other courses that I'll share about in the coming weeks!  If you're interested in being part of that experience, get on the Workshops and E-Courses Email list and get registration alerts right in your inbox.

 

The Anatomy of a Curriculum

I love working with educators and caregivers.  People ask me if I miss working with children everyday - the answer is yes, but with a caveat.  I get to spend my time supporting the adults who support children - advocates and practitioners who want high-quality, actionable ideas for their learning environment and teaching practice.  

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

When I work with teachers and educators and caregivers, I aim to teach in a more conceptual way, with opportunities to reflect and think about how to put ideas into action.  There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to anything in life, and this is especially true with curriculum.  I cannot stand in front of you and give you step-by-step directions for immediate success - teaching is an art, not a science.  There are many people who are trying to add elements of inquiry based, play-heavy practice to other curricular obligations, including the Creative Curriculum and other outside assessments of space, quality, and time.  These tools are aiming to help early educators with structure and content, but real excitement and passion around teaching comes from living in the moment, seeing ideas and curiosities develop through thoughtful planning of the space, environment, and invitations to engage.  Every child, every group of children, every learning environment, is unique.  The world is full ideas to copy, but what if curriculum was designed from the bottom up, rather than the top down?

 

When I think about “high-quality” early childhood education, I think about curricular design.  What does it mean to learn about the skeleton and the basic principles of ideas, and then learn how they manifest in one’s own setting?  

 

I thought about this as I walked along the streets of Hong Kong in early December.  This is a time of year I associate with rain and wind and cold in the Pacific Northwest, but in Hong Kong, people are buying imported Christmas trees while wearing sandals. Christmas decorations, including snowflakes and snowmen and images of people in hats and mittens and scarves - abound.  Although Christmas doesn't look snowy on this tropical island, the standard imagery is snowy.  This is all understandable - Santa does live at the North Pole, after all, so perhaps we are celebrating like he does.  But the copy-and-paste culture is global: good ideas are picked up and implemented in new ways.  It is more important to focus on how we might remix those ideas.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

I grew up in a place where you were almost guaranteed a white Christmas - I could relate to the snowy graphics that I saw.  If I lived somewhere tropical, it might feel strange to buy a tree and wrap gifts and watch holiday movies -  but I would still do it: its part of the way that I prepare and celebrate for the holidays.  Right now, in the cold and the rain of Washington state, I engage with the holiday traditions that hold meaning for me.  They aren't pointless  - they connect me to culture and place and time and people.  

When we look at the skeleton of a school's curriculum, traditions can be part of what is examined, and thinking about how to make those traditions authentic and worth the time, energy, and money that they require is really important.  We don't like to let go of the familiar, and we don't like to be the person who suggests erasing a tradition.  When I would interview for a position as a classroom teacher at a new school, I would always ask about traditions: what do they celebrate?  Some centers spend a lot of time thinking about holidays, and some say holidays are for the home.  Some centers go to the fire station every year, regardless of children's interests and inquiry; some centers wait and see what happens.  Understanding the things that a collective of stakeholders value enough to weave it into the fabric of the school - that speaks volumes about the image of the child and the priorities of the center.  Traditions can be wonderful and memorable, but they can also just be old, still in place to appease a small group.

 

So, where do tradition, best practice and authenticity meet?  Where is that intersection?  It seems that all of those elements are important, and would be described quite differently from school to school.  When I work with teachers, the diversity of knowledge, needs, and passion is enormous, and rather than being uncomfortable or trying to teach every last detail to every last person, I am thinking through a curricular lens: how might educators apply this idea to the curriculum they have or prefer, rather than feeling a need to make a big shift in the whole system?  

 

This metaphor of curriculum-as-skeleton is vivid for me as I plan for both teaching teachers, and how we might plan to teach children.  The skeleton is made up of the non-negotiable aspects: perhaps the space that we have, the mandates, standards, and benchmarks from outside sources, the weather, the budget.  The skeleton in itself is worth examining, worth understanding deeply, for biases and assumptions.  Take the example of traditions from above:  traditions are worth investigating with an open mind.  There are other systems that we can add, just as our bodies have nervous, muscular, cardiovascular, and more. Everything complements each other and interacts; the well-being of one system is often tied to the well-being of another.

 

I'm thinking quite a bit about the skeletal system of the workshops and e-courses that I offer, and the other systems that are supported by the skeleton.  This is a metaphor that works for me when I think about curriculum, and I hope it sparks your thinking about the possibility of building curriculum from the bottom up.

 


(You might also enjoy It's Not About the Branch, a post from last year that muses on implementing big ideas in individual schools.)

 

 

Why I Make the Early Childhood Playlist

 

I have been making the Early Childhood Playlist for one whole year!  I am celebrating by sharing my motivations behind the Playlist: where it came from, why I write it, and where I think it is going.

Where It Came From

The Early Childhood Playlist is the development of the Weekend Links feature on Bakers and Astronauts.  There were times when I felt like I did not have enough to write about, or anything personal to share from my teaching experiences, but my interest in learning more about early childhood education is a constant.  We are lucky to be living in the information age, but that can also be a bit overwhelming.  Articles, videos, other people’s classrooms: all of these things that demand our attention everyday - but where is the quality?  How do we know what will be useful for our own teaching practice?

 

Why I Write It

The goal of the playlist is to expand our thinking about what Early Childhood Education encompasses.  Teaching young children demands that we are flexible and knowledgeable about everything from current events to the materials we can offer to children in the classroom.

I write the playlist as a casual way to connect educators with information to stretch their thinking about the field.  Teaching young children should be more than setting out materials and knowing songs for circle time.  As you shift from beginner to intermediate teacher, you need to make connections between ideas, read between the lines, and reflect on that information to put it into practice in the way that your setting demands.

Each of our settings is unique, from physical location in the world to the kinds of families that we serve and the values and priorities of each community.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot all take in the same valuable information; it simply means that how we apply ideas will look different in each place.  

I aim to share information that will spark an a-ha moment for you.  I don’t really believe in cut and paste solutions - perhaps cut and edit is more my style.  

The playlist is meant to be a catalyst for thinking and reflection.  I envision educators taking a few minutes to click through the playlist on Saturday morning, with that first cup of coffee or tea for the weekend.  Not every link will entice every reader; rather, the goal is to get you thinking about classroom practices and how children connect with the world through play, dialogue, and action.

 

Where It is Going

The playlist began on a whim, but it becomes more intentional with each edition.  It feels like an important responsibility to me, and an important part of the work that I am developing for myself.

My hope for the playlist is that it continues on, reaching more inboxes to expand more educators' thinking around the issues that really matter in Early Childhood settings.  I see it as a way to spark reflective practice, moving educators forward with a deeper understanding of global issues and how they translate in local communities and individual classrooms.

If you already subscribe, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the project, and for you to share the playlist with a colleague.  If you don’t subscribe, please join us: it is meant to be read by people just like you.

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Choice in the Early Childhood Classroom

I had the opportunity to interview Anne Sommer Bedrick a few years ago when she released her eBook, Choice Without Chaos (iTunes/Amazon).  Anne does not teach preschool, but she teaches primary school art, and there are so many parallels to be drawn between this particular style of art teaching and the play-centered, child-centered, inquiry based classrooms that so many Early Childhood Educators strive to create.

I am a member of some Choice-Art Teaching groups on social media, and the dialogue reflects a celebration of both common ground and differences.  The educators are not asking about crafts or products: they are supporting each other in deep understanding of what it means to engage students with choice.  As Early Childhood Educators, we are always thinking about the approaches to curriculum that truly engage children.  Choice-art embraces that everyone, every group, every day is a little bit different.  The choice, not the product, is key here.

A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group

A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group

 

I want to share the basics of this choice-based idea here because it resonates with me as an Early Childhood Educator, and I know it will inspire you as well.

 

What is Teaching for Artistic Behavior/Choice-Art?

Picture the stereotypical preschool classroom, and its “centers”.  What do you see?  Traditionally, we think of dramatic play, blocks, sensory, painting, books, and the like.  Some of you may have evolved to think about different centers/areas that reflect the specific needs of your community and your philosophy of teaching.  For example, a Montessori classroom may have more specific materials that are offered in more specific places; or a project-based setting may have canters that reflect a current inquiry.  

Now, picture a room with centers, but those areas each cater towards a specific material or medium for students to enjoy.  New centers are opened occasionally, adding increased choices for students.  According to the TAB Website, centers will work well if:

  • Students can find what they need without your input
  • Students are able to create a wide variety of pieces using the center (not everything is the same)
  • There is adequate space to work in the center OR materials can be easily transported to work tables elsewhere
  • Clean up takes place quickly and materials are put away properly, due to your good directions and organization

The choice-art room is like the intersection of art and early childhood.

ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

The points above are good advice for any classroom, and any setup really.  The year begins with limited choice, and new choices are added over the course of the school year.  The TAB website indicates that “centers are earned with good artistic behavior”; I can agree with that statement if there are clear messages about what "good" means, and children are involved in a reflective process around their experiences with materials.  What works for each child, and each group, will be different, as well.  To teach choice-based art or infants, toddlers, or preschoolers is to be constantly observing, reflecting, and evolving.

 

Why Not Do it The Old Way?

Choice-based art is a contrast to the art education that I had as a K-12 student.  My experience was having a finished product as an example held up in front of the class in elementary school, which represented “what we were making”.  In high school art classes, we used the same materials as our classmates, at the same time, working towards our own products, but those products were in the same category.  For example, we are all painting a still life - the same one that everyone else is painting.  Students in a choice-art classroom will spend time working with the same prompt at the same time as their peers when a medium is introduced; children in an early childhood setting can also benefit from gathering together to inquire and wonder about new prompts and materials.

Choice-art educators are finding ways to take limited time and engage children deeply and independently in making and exploring media, from drawing to digital art and beyond.  This is a contrast to the "we're all doing this" attitude.  Early childhood educators have the same goals: exploration of the world through play.  It is easy to get caught up in the logistics, and see those as barriers to this kind of teaching - from limited time with children to basic human needs to parent expectations, it is far too easy to make excuses to just fall back on run-of-the-mill teaching.  Can we get past those voices in our head that look for problems, and shift our perspective to the big picture, where a tone of trust and true understanding of children will take us much further?

What if we took the time to share materials with children and explore them together, seeing the potential that they have?  What if we reflected on those artistic experiences with these young artists, respecting their original ideas about the potential of media?  

It seems that Early Childhood Educators spend a lot of time thinking about engaging children with materials, getting children to focus, take care of materials, and clean up.  The students who are in classrooms with choice-based art educators are older than our lovely little preschoolers, but that does not mean they will be easier to engage.  Choice-based art educators approach this topic with the understanding that we need to do some scaffolding to support students as they learn about how to use certain materials with success.  Students don’t walk in on day one and have every choice available; instead, the room is curated, with active conversations and reflections to increase understanding of the materials that are available.  

When children have the space to explore in this art environment, they make more connections with the way the world works; they learn to persevere through problem solving; they learn to focus and engage independently; they learn to talk about art and process with others; they are learning that the way they express themselves is valuable, valid, and celebrated.  Thinking outside of the box is a life skill.

 

Choice Art and the Reggio Emilia Approach : Parallels

The idea of choice-art will likely resonate with Reggio-inspired educators: there are some very clear parallels between Choice Art and the atelier at a Reggio-inspired school.  Learning about choice art is like reading about the Reggio Emilia Approach: there is no one way, one-size-fits-all formula for implementing this idea.  This is a philosophy about what works, translated into one approach to curriculum.  

The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

Ten years ago, when I found myself deep in my own professional learning about the Reggio Emilia Approach, I was taken aback by the work that children would produce in those classrooms, before the age of six.  These children are not more “naturally artistic” - they simply have access to materials that they are able to master and understand, rather than being overwhelmed by gel pens and crayons and paint sticks and stickers and dotters- you see the point there.  Just as we can curate a provocation of loose parts, we can curate mark-making materials and support children’s learning.  We can paint with watercolors together at circle - perhaps just black on white paper, talking through the process and really understanding the medium.  Some children will engage deeply with that prompt, while others will not.  A choice-art teacher of older children might do more of a demonstration; when we work with three-year-olds, we need to be realistic about our expectations for them, and modify accordingly.  

Looking at art education through this lens allows us to increase the number of languages that are available for children to express themselves.  When children have access to black pens, watercolors, clay, cardboard, collage materials - these are materials that children can use to create and make and express themselves.  This lens also helps us transcend the idea that boys don’t like art and girls do - its probably high time that we stop making that assumption anyway.  

Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia

Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia

 

What should it look like?

“A center is a “three dimensional lesson plan.”  Each center contains menus with set-up procedures, directions and lists of materials and tools.  Resources include images by student and adult artists, books, charts and other related references.  Materials and tools are organized for easy access and return.  Centers can be as large as half the room or as small as a shoe box and can be arranged to accommodate a wide variety of ages and abilities.  Some basic centers will remain in the classroom all year, while others make brief, limited appearances.  Centers are opened one at a time.”
(Teaching for Artistic Behavior)

I think of these studio spaces as art workshops: evolving based on the projects that are happening and how much space they need.  Let go of the "art room" and the "bulletin board"; think about the kind of engaging work that children are really doing: a workshop, a lab, a studio.  The learning space should be an inspiring place that the stakeholders in the environment are drawn to working in, and you are one of those stakeholders, too.

 A communal workspace at Sabot at Stony Point

 A communal workspace at Sabot at Stony Point

 

Applying it to the 0-5 set: How might this look in Early Childhood?

It is really exciting to think of the possible ways that this can influence design and curriculum of an early childhood setting!  Keeping in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to classroom and curriculum design, think about the following ideas.

Make your space flexible.

 If you follow an inquiry-based, emergent curriculum, leave room for things to change.  Perhaps tables are flexible for children’s material choices, with a large work table close to materials that allows for flexibility.  In my interview with Anne, she talks about how a center can simply be a box or a kit that has the flexibility to be moved around the room; so a box with materials for exploring and using textiles may be brought to a certain part of the room with younger children, or brought to the carpet.  There may be times when everyone wants clay: instead of making that situation stressful, think about expanding the clay choices temporarily.

 

Make observations about how children use space and materials.  

 How much flexibility and freedom do children have with the choices they have in your setting now?  What is their understanding of the materials at this point - do you need to slow down, or are they already confident, independent creators?  If children are not engaged with an open-ended painting prompt that you set out, reflect on that information rather than jumping to the conclusion that “this group doesn’t like to paint”.  That may be your final conclusion, but take some time to observe, write, take photographs, and reflect on what is really happening in the classroom.

Let children be part of the design process.  

If you want to make change, involve children in that process!  Use a simple material together - black pens and paper - and think out loud during that process.  Point out how you see children using the materials, and ask them where pens and paper should be in the room, and talk about what children might use that material for throughout the day.  As you introduce materials to children, ask them about how they might use them.

Apply the choice-art “centers” philosophy to the overall design of your classroom.  

Those “standards” for a good center, listed above, are wonderfully applicable to the idea of early childhood settings.  When you create a center for materials for children’s use, ask yourself if they fit those standards.  Again, observe children as they use the materials, and revisit the kit/center as a group to reflect on children’s experiences with it.  Inspire children with their art, famous art, books, music, sound-making.  Ask yourself, what might the children explore?  Am I telling them what to explore, or offering the building blocks for them to take their explorations wherever they decide?

 

Extending Your Thinking

The essence of Choice Art is open-ended, child-centered choice-making.  Rather than that example of the snowman made out of cotton balls available as an example, children might extend their exploration of glue with your “kit” that includes paper, cotton balls, glue, the little circles that fall out of the hole punch, white paint: that curation of materials may help children find focus, and you can use the word “collage” to introduce that idea.  If you have been meeting to talk about materials and reflecting on the experiences in the room (and if you have talked about collage!), this will be a no-brainer for everyone.

Like loose parts, art-making does not always need to be about a permanent, take-home product, but rather about the experience of being deeply engaged with materials and following your own path.  Listen, observe, and reflect, and you'll see the ways that you might apply these ideas to your learning environment.