This is an edited and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on the Play Lab blog.
Also, as a warning, one of the videos I use in this post is from a user on YouTube, and it has a title that doesn't bother me, but it is not typical "preschool language".
When we present materials for children to explore, we usually have some expectations about how children might use those materials - even when we are trying to be open-ended. A marble run is an example of something playful that also holds expectations: we expect children to build a marble run and send marbles through it. This is not an inappropriate expectation, we just have to recognize that we have a goal in mind.
Depending on our expectations for an activity or a material, the adults may choose to keep children on our adult track, working towards the goal we had in mind. This is appropriate sometimes, but not always.
When materials are engaging, they pull children in and they hold their attention. When the marble run collapses and an adult is not available to put it back together, the pieces and marbles are abandoned for something else. If children need an adult troubleshooter, their play is interrupted, and engagement is sometimes lost. When we have a specific formula in mind for children's work, we need to be very present troubleshooters and keep-on-the-track monitors. That is not very engaging for kids, nor adults. Just ask Mr. Wizard, who seems to have limited patience for mistakes and exploration:
Working with children is far more complex than just writing lesson plans and achieving learning outcomes. Is Mr. Wizard underestimating children, or is the planning off kilter? What I remember from Mr. Wizard - and what I still see on many "science" websites - are step by step instructions instead of exploration and discovery. I remember learning about the scientific method in high school, and having some wonderful teachers who applauded experimentation and deep thinking rather than a perfectly successful outcome.
When we focus our planning on the materials and the experience, we put children in the driver's seat, and we trust that they will find a learning path. If we are careful observers, we can see what children are naturally curious about and support that line of exploration.
Paint is a truly open-ended material: something we use almost daily as young children, and then stop using as we grow older. I have been reminded quite a few times that a young child’s engagement with paint is not about the representational picture that might end up on the page. A two-year-old’s painting experience is typically focused on the sensory experience. As adults proposing a painting activity, we need to remember this before we stand over the table/easel and ask children, “What are you making? The sky should be blue! Is this for your Mommy?” When we add our own adult meaning and expectations to what is, for the child, an exploratory experience, we run the risk of closing windows.
There are, of course, appropriate times for helping guide children with our words. I advocate for taking a pause and observing before we pepper children’s play with our own interpretations and meaning.
Paint is a wonderful example of an experience that is often different for adults and children. In the videos below, children explore paint as an experiment.
Putting watercolor paints on a table implies some sort of structure from the adult: in this situation, I expected A to paint as we had been practicing: water, paint, paper, repeat. Is he wasting paint? Not really. Are his actions disrespectful to the materials, other people, or the classroom? No. He is learning about the way the world works through experimentation - the way we make those strong connections and gain those deep understandings as children. There are times to sit together and learn about using different media, but there are also times to trust children to take ownership.
In the above video, where S works on a tempera palette, I had talked for a full minute while S chose his paint. I asked what color he was using, what color will he put on his paper; I reminded him not to squeeze too much paint out. When he started mixing, I stopped talking: his priority was mixing all of those contrasting colors together. The paint never ended up on his paper. The verbal cues that I presented had nothing to do with his intentions. Although I did not hinder his explorations, my interpretation of his focus was far off. I hoped to see S paint a picture - he rarely paints. He appears to have reached the goal he had when he sat down for open-ended paint exploration. My goal for him to “paint a picture” was off point. He will paint a picture at some point, and I have documentation of his paint mixing experiments to illustrate his development as a painter.
As two- and three-year-olds gain more experience exploring paint, their fine motor skills are also developing so that they are able to create more representational images. They can put the brush down where they truly want it; they can choose the color that they mean to; they can wash the brush more efficiently.
There is still, of course, exploration and experimentation. As teachers, we see children continue to explore media, even as they are able to represent with it. Think about clay or charcoal: there is something about making big movements, manipulating the materials so that they make loud noises, or doing something with a material to make someone else at the table laugh. These media are languages for children with which to explore the world. When making is a collective experience, we add a new layer of social possibilities: what does it mean to be with another person? What does it mean to share an experience?
When children have access to materials and the time and space to explore them, they can reach that place where a painting is representational: a sun, a family, a flower. As they enter this period, the adults need to remember that there is still a sensory element to painting: the strokes can be smooth, rough, dry, wet, drippy, dark, light, and more.There is something to be said about making a quick line with paint that uses your whole reach from left to right on a large piece of paper.
As adults making choices for children (as we so often do), we should think about the impact of our choices, and our intentions. Paint is an art medium, yes. Paint is also a cold, squishy, shiny manipulative that is meant to be, well, manipulated. Next time you have an opportunity, dip a brush into some paint and transfer that paint to a new surface. When you were three, you didn’t worry about what it looked like - you simply put paint on paper. See if you can find that place again.
Seeing Meaning by Barry Goldberg, Bank Street Occasional Papers #31