Saturday, April 10, 2010

Toddler Art: Process and Play at Palisades Park

I discovered a book at the library last week that has me so excited about making art with my toddler son that I feel like I might jump right out of my skin. As I turned each page for the first time, I heard myself repeatedly saying "Wow!" out loud and could hardly wait to curl up on the couch at home at night and read it more thoroughly. The book is First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by MaryAnn F. Kohl, an author who feels "the process of art for young children (is) more important than the finished product". Kohl collaborated with a parent and an art teacher who encouraged her to fill a literary void by writing a book about art for children this age.

First Art fulfilled a need for me, too, as I learned that art classes for children in Washington, DC, start at 18 months of age at the earliest and do not fit within our budget. Only Gymboree offers an Art 1 class for tots age 18-24 months, but it is costly at $79 a month. Last December, I resolved to more cheaply introduce my infant son to art-making at home by using nontoxic materials, corresponding methods to his capabilities, and using appropriate caution for his safety (see "Arts in Infancy: Part 2"). Kohl's book is just the thing to help guide AS's toddler endeavors in open-ended art activities. She also wrote a book for preschool children that focuses on the "experience of art, not the final product a child creates".

Why focus on the process of making art and not the end product? We all remember at least one art teacher who expected us to merely imitate their examples, but how much of these copy-cat experiences did we internalize and retain? By giving young children the freedom to explore different media (traditional and non-traditional art-making tools, materials and methods) at their own pace, we open the door to more meaningful learning opportunities and a sense of ownership. Children learn best by experimenting and they develop confidence by problem-solving. For example, Kohl relates the story of a boy who was given a tightly rolled tube (like a cigar) of colored crepe paper leftover from a birthday party, a bowl of water and a large sheet of paper. He dipped the crepe paper tube in water and discovered he could draw with it as the dye from the damp crepe paper transferred to the paper sheet. After doing this several times, he tore off a piece of newspaper and dipped it in water to see if it would also work as a drawing tool. This demonstrates direct development in his visual thinking skills.

One key to success is to neatly present just a few materials at a time so that your toddler is not overwhelmed and immediately discouraged. Also, you may model art-making techniques but should encourage your child to investigate autonomously, praising them for their efforts. Often, there will be no "finished" art product. Instead, the child may employ the tools and materials in imaginative play rather than art-making or abandon them entirely to play with something unexpectedly more intriguing.

Since the weather had turned unseasonably warm, we tried one of the outdoor art activities suggested in First Art, "Out and About Water Painting". Preparation was quick, and there was virtually no clean up! We filled a plastic bucket with water, sealed it with a lid, and collected a round sponge and large paint brush to take with us to Palisades Playground at 5200 Sherrier Place, NW. I brought my camera to document the process knowing that photographs would be the only keepsake remaining from this activity. We found a wide stone and concrete patio adjacent to the mulched playground area and put the open water bucket on the ground with the sponge and brush inside. The light gray patio surface darkened dramatically when wet, providing the perfect "canvas" for water painting. My husband and I demonstrated the process for AS by making a few preliminary marks on the flat gray stones with the damp brush and sopping sponge. The marks disappeared as the water evaporated in the sun, reminding me of an Etch-a-Sketch.

AS saw he could make different types of marks with his painting tools, including lines of varying length, width and angles as well as dots and splatters. I described the types of marks aloud, introducing new vocabulary to him. He also tested other surfaces by dampening his skin, clothing, and a fence post with the brush, exclaiming "Wow!" as I did when I first opened Kohl's book. A look of concentration appeared on his face as he alternately dipped the tools and his hands in the cool water, and he laughed when he realized the sponge floated. He eventually picked up the bucket and dumped the water out on the ground, making a puddle to joyfully stamp with his feet. The entire art activity lasted just 15 minutes or so before AS was satisfied with his work and decided it was time to explore the rest of the playground.

Some scholars believe there are different styles of learning, visual, auditory and tactile, but it is sometimes difficult to determine what a child's preferences are at an early age. Parents and teachers can ensure their students' success by using methods of instruction that address all three styles. The goal is to both accommodate children's learning preferences while encouraging them to ultimately become adept at learning in a variety of ways. Effective, fun education ensures children are successful in and out of school and more likely to become lifetime learners. By bringing art to the park, we provided our learner with multi-sensory experiences that educated his mind and exercised his body through play.

Palisades Playground has several multilevel wooden forts with ramps and bridges, red plastic slides and tunnels, and tire climbing areas bound to exhilarate active kids and inspire imaginative ones. A picnic area, bucket swings, and a sandbox welcome parents with babies, too. When we were there on a Saturday afternoon, soccer games were in progress on the nearby fields so the parking lot was full. We found a spot on Sherrier Place, a pretty residential street, and walked a short distance to the playground and recreation center. See the DC Department of Parks and Recreation website for more information on free and discounted activities at the recreation center for DC residents.

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