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Art, Nature Play, Parenting, Play

Are you a playdough master? Or… perhaps you are like me and the thought of making playdough fills you with fear?! 

Too oily…

Too crumbly…

Too lumpy …

Too sticky …. 

I used to struggle to make playdough when I was working in a service and used to always find a way to offload that task to a much more capable educator! But, when I had my own children I quickly realised that unless I wanted to buy the chemical laden, smelly, expensive store bought playdough (all good if that’s for you… but it wasn’t for me!) I needed to learn how to make it and make it well. 

Luckily I stumbled across a simple “no cook” recipe and have since tweaked it and made it my own. This morning we made yet another batch of playdough, this time using BEETROOT to colour the dough. 

2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup salt
2 Tablespoons of Cream of Tartar
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of boiling water
Beetroot juice to colour

Combine all dry ingredients and oil in a bowl
Add boiling water and stir until combined (it takes a little while and a good strong arm!) 
Add beetroot juice
Using your hands (be careful…it will be HOT) knead the dough to combine and smooth out any lumps

And the most important step…. PLAY!



Art, Pedagogy, Play

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing – Salvador Dali

They sit side by side painting. He is 7 and she is 4. 

She begins painting her (almost trademark!) rainbow flower, each petal a different colour, while he begins with a series of black circles. She completes her flower and stops to watch him for a moment. She can see his circles beginning to form something. She retrieves another piece of paper and washes her brush. As she begins the black circles on her page he says “she’s copying me!” to which I respond: “she must be inspired by you.”  This simple explanation satisfies him and they both quietly return to their work, he creating his vision and she replicating it. 

We see the scenes often in early childhood settings. A child sits building a tall tower with the blocks, arranging them in a specific way before another arrives and begins using the same approach to tower building. Elsewhere, a child has adopted an accent and is “playing mum” in the home corner, giving away all sorts of “family secrets” as they imitate her behaviour and language! 

Children are natural imitators because the world is new to them.

They imitate to make sense of things that they may not understand.
They imitate to process ideas.
They imitate to try new ways of playing and working. 
They imitate because they see another child experiencing enjoyment or success. 
They imitate because their experiences of the world are still relatively limited. 

Many years back, I was working in a preschool room team. We were still exploring our own identity and at times that meant imitating.

We imitated because we thought someone else knew better. 
We imitated because we saw what worked for others. 
We imitated because we were learning about new ideas and ways of doing. 

We saw ideas in books and we tried replicating them in our program. We saw photographs of experiences and environments that inspired us and altered ours accordingly. We imitated and we played with ideas and we observed and asked questions. 
And then we made it our own. 

Its the same for children. Often they will imitate others, but the end result varies. Perhaps they just needed a little inspiration to get going. In our preschool room, we often observed children peering around the side of the easel to see what their friend was working on before even picking up a paintbrush. As they painted, they would take breaks every few minutes to peek around the side and check on their friends progress, returning to their own to make adjustments. When we established an art studio in our space, one of the key elements was that children were able to paint and create side by side. We began to see even more of this artful imitation. One child’s idea could lead to a whole group exploration! 

Another feature of our art spaces was often the inclusion of a provocation. An idea that stemmed from our understanding of the work in the early childhood services of Reggio Emilia, Italy. We would place an artwork, book or an object or jar of flowers beside the painting area. At times we questioned if this was too prescriptive, if it led children to create only in a particular way. Yet, we found that while some children were inspired by the provocation, others chose to ignore it and set about bringing to life their own vision. For some children the provocation was merely a start point, while others chose to replicate it in its entirety. So how is this different to “today everyone is going to paint on this stencil of a bird”? The key is in the choice. That and the ability to make it their own. Just the same as how we adults took what we were seeing in exemplary programs and approaches, imitated and then adapted to make it our own, no two artworks will be the same, even when the inspiration is the same or where one child imitates another. 

She  had watched as he painted the white frame of the bicycle, yet she chose yellow. While she was clearly imitating his work, inspired by his vision, she had a vision of her own – a vision of a yellow bike! His arched rainbow became a flat rainbow for her (who usually, interestingly paints arched rainbows!). 

In this case, the imitation was a great example of scaffolding. He, an older child, unwittingly supported her to go above and beyond what she had previously been able to create. While rainbows were already in her repertoire, had you asked her before this to paint a bicycle, you almost certainly would have heard “But I don’t know how!”  Yet , during the process of imitating him, she found that she could in fact paint a bicycle, she expanded her skill set, and no doubt – these new elements, such as the carefully crafted wheels, will make their way into other artworks of hers. 
Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate – Anonymous

Art, Pedagogy
Well, it’s that time of year. Christmas is just around the corner and the craft projects are being shared left, right and centre on Pinterest and Facebook and being touted as “art experiences”. Of course, as they usually do, the painted handprints made into Christmas trees and paper plate snowmen have sparked heated debate amongst educators. Yet, once again, I lament that it seems for every educator who is frustrated by these “product based” crafts, there are several others defending it. Why?

I think for some these crafts are cute. They are something that “looks like something”, something that will be fussed over by the families. The most common responses to the challenging of these crafts are that “it’s just a bit of fun” or “the children love them” or “the families expect them.”  Recently though, I have heard a justification for these crafts that made me stop and scratch my head. 

“But it is a process. The children have to follow a process to be able to complete the craft” 

Hmmm… Yes, technically the children are following a process to complete these crafts, but when it comes to creativity – I just don’t think this hits the mark. Mary Ann Kohl (author of  Preschool Art—It’s the Process, not the Product, among other books) says “In children, creativity develops from their experiences with the process, rather than concern for the finished product.” 

The photograph above is what I found on our drawing table today. My 3.5year old has recently become obsessed with cutting and folding and twisting paper. Walking into the room and seeing this today, I was immediately taken back to my early days working in long day care. I remember the constant sighs and frustration of educators and the subsequent comments to the children: “you are wasting the paper!” Why is drawing or painting on paper seen as valuable and cutting or scrunching up paper is not? I could have easily looked at this scene and thought about the “wasted paper”, but her exploration of the properties of the paper, of manipulating it to fold and scrunch, are just as meaningful as if she had drawn on each sheet. The same can be said for sticky tape. How often have you seen a preschooler go nuts with the tape dispenser, taping anything and everything, layering piece over piece. It would be easy to see that as wasteful of materials, but we need to stop and look at the creative process. What is the child exploring? What skills are developing? How are they expressing ideas? 

Coming back to the Christmas craft issue. For me – I am not a fan of pre-determined, adult led craft activities. I would much prefer to provide children with a range of art materials, time and space every single day and if they’re inclined to make something “Christmas-y” then so be it. Sure, add some glitter or ribbon or something “festive”, but otherwise – leave it to the child. And… if you simply MUST do Christmas craft, for whatever reason, just call it what it is. It is craft. It is not art, it is not about process, it is not about creativity or exploration. Sure, it’s all just a “little fun” and it’s “cute” – but don’t children deserve more than that? Aren’t they more capable than following an adult designed activity? 

Embrace the process. It might not always look pretty, it might not always be what we imagine it will be, but you can guarantee it will be authentic. 

Nicole Halton


Our “Reflections on Practice” digital download on Process vs Product might be just what you need to spark some professional thinking and discussion! Click to find out more

Yesterday marked the start of school holidays in our household and with a six year old, three year old and one year old… it’s certain to be a busy three weeks! We started the day with some outdoor play – hours spent riding bikes, playing in the cubby and jumping on the trampoline. After lunch we decided to do some painting. Here is where it all went a little haywire!

We set up the acrylic paints (you know the ones… they don’t wash out of anything!), some jars of water, brushes and some canvas sheets. The three year old and six year old were in their element, mixing colours and narrating their process and their product to me. But the one year old… was not happy. See, she had been left out. I had not made a place for her to explore and so she began climbing on the table, stealing their brushes and making a general nuisance of herself. I quickly found some less permanent paint and paper for her and gave her a brush. A brush which she promptly cast aside in favour of a pencil that she use to stir and poke at the paint. She wasn’t interested in “painting”, she was interested in the paint. 
And so, I let her explore the paint. She dug in it, she poked it, she rubbed it between her fingers and held it out for me to inspect. And it was then that I began to think about the way in which we often (not always) approach painting in the early years. Over the years I have heard phrases like “keep the paint on the paper” or “don’t mix the colours up, you are ruining them” countless times. While we claim to value process over product, in saying things like this, we undervalue the fact that paint is simply a material. Sure, it often is used to make marks on a page, but it’s not its only purpose. 

When we provide materials and experiences for children we need to just let them be. Let them explore, create, discover… let them just play

I have never made any secret of my disdain for stencils and structured, adult driven craft experiences being labelled as art. Whether you like these experiences and routinely offer them to children, or call for the burning of such atrocities, or sit somewhere in the middle, believing everything in moderation,  to call them art really is an insult to art. Art is defined as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”  (www,oxforddictionaries.com)

I would like to think that the majority of educators would not refer to a reindeer footprint, where a child has been used as a human stamp and then an adult has craftily drawn in a face and other “reindeer parts”, as art. There is clearly very little creative skill (definitely not on the child’s behalf) and imagination (particularly when 25 children all have the same reindeer). It is a very adult directed experience. 

Art on the other hand is free. Art does not need to be an experience, simply a creative exploration of materials and techniques. When children engage in art, we see things that we would never see in a craft experience. We see the world through their eyes. 

With this in mind, I created an art space for my daughter who is almost three. She asks to paint almost daily and draws constantly. I wanted a space where she could access materials and be free to create. Today was the first time she used it and she was delighted. As for me, I found myself walking a fine line between guidance and interference. I wanted to show her how to wash the brush. I fought the urge to explain that if she didn’t blot the brush after washing it, water would drip down the canvas. I resisted stopping her from turning each colour in the tray into a delightful shade of brown.

The whole time she was painting, I had this internal struggle between guiding her and showing her technique (which was well intentioned and is a genuine part of learning) and actually interfering in her creative process. Perhaps dripping water down the canvas was part of her process. Maybe she intended to create lots of variations of brown! 

As educators, this internal struggle is a good thing, a sign of critical reflection. It is important that we really think about just how free and creative and imaginative we enable children to be when exploring art. While stencils and product focussed craft activities are not my idea of a quality early childhood experience, I think we need to remember that they are merely a symptom of an adult focused, controlling attitude that lurks within some of us. If we take that attitude into creative art opportunities with children – we may as well be using stencils! 

So, take some time to reflect on your attitudes to art. Do you allow children to manipulate ,materials in ways that they are comfortable with? Do you encourage them to learn trial and error? Or do you feel the urge to yell out “no, you’re ruining it!” when they paint over their lovely flower with black paint?!

i would love to hear your thoughts… And as for me,  I will get back to washing paint of the floor!

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