Illinois Early Learning Project

Make Art a Part of Every Day: Focus on the Process

When I was a teacher of young children, I especially loved setting out materials in the art center. I would admire the colors and textures of the materials while pouring cups of paint and glue and filling little baskets with drawing and collage materials. I wondered how the children might explore and use the materials. I enjoyed setting up interesting ways to make art, such as painting with spoons, golf balls, or lengths of yarn.

One vivid memory is from teaching 2-year-olds. After trying to use pine needles instead of brushes, the children and I wondered about other natural items we could use for painting. We tried pinecones, sticks, and even the fascinating fruit of an Osage orange tree near our playground.

The children had noticed the large, bumpy green fruits falling from the orange tree. They were very curious to investigate these fruits. Together, we explored their shape, scent, and texture. We rolled them in tempera paint and delightfully discovered they left a beautiful pattern on the paper. What started as a painting activity ended up providing the children a chance to explore math and science concepts while building their language abilities.

Our conversation about where these mysterious fruits had come from led to conversations about the growth of trees. We talked about how the fruits grew from flowers and increased in size over the summer until they were heavy and fell from the trees. We talked about the weight, shape, and size of the fruits. We watched the squirrels nibbling the fruits, and that inspired us to look inside the fruits.

Children gained vocabulary related to trees and texture (e.g., skin, seed, bumpy, waxy). They practiced their hand-eye coordination and dexterity as they explored the materials. If we pause and reflect, we can see how powerful this type of activity can be in promoting learning because we refocused our attention on the “process” of creation rather than what was created.

High-quality visual art experiences for young children should emphasize the process of creating. However, the art created by these “process art” experiences usually lack easily identifiable images. Because of this challenge, adults guiding young children may be tempted to plan “crafty” art activities that lead to an identifiable product to avoid this challenge.

Therefore, our classroom team had to help families and other adults in the center understand how the painting experience supported the children’s development and promoted their learning. We included photos and a short explanation of the activity with our display of the paintings. When the children looked at the display, they were eager to point out how the bumpy hedge apples had created circular trails of paint as they rolled them on the paper. We wrote down their words and included them as part of our documentation display so people looking at the artwork could have insight into the children’s creative experience.

Recently, I worked with a group of Head Start teachers and family advocates in a workshop in which we experimented with crayons, different types of papers, and textured materials. I encouraged them to make crayon rubbings of bubble wrap, cross-stich canvas, and bumpy cardboard. We also experimented with drawing on bumpy paper, sandpaper, and slick aluminum foil.

The room was quiet while everyone focused on their experimentation. I heard a few people ask, “Why are we just coloring with crayons during a professional development day?” I assured them that this was part of the learning process.

Suddenly, a participant said in a frustrated tone: “This sandpaper is eating up my crayon!” We talked about how a child might make a similar observation. We realized that the art activity could easily become a science experiment with young children. Teachers brainstormed about trying different-sized crayons, trying different grades of sandpaper, and counting the number of strokes it might take for a crayon to be used up.

There were so many possibilities to explore with crayons and textures! We began to list other things to explore with texture, such as creating rubbings with chalk, dipping textured items in paint to make patterns, and pressing textured items into clay or play dough.

I think the art centers in these teacher’s classrooms will be busy this school year. Perhaps you and the children in your home or center may also make art a part of every day!

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Pour It! Stir It! Yum!

Cooking is a wonderful way to engage children and provide rich learning opportunities. Cooking engages the senses and gives children hands-on opportunities to explore food. Children enjoy discovering the smells, textures, and tastes of different foods. Cooking experiences are a wonderful opportunity to work the small muscles of their hands by using simple kitchen tools and to develop hand-eye coordination as they are sprinkling, pinching, squeezing, and organizing ingredients.

Baking cookies is often what comes to mind when many early childhood educators and parents think of cooking experiences for young children. Children are excited to pour ingredients, stir them in a bowl, scoop the dough onto trays, and see raw ingredients change into finished cookies after a trip to the oven.

Baking provides many wonderful opportunities to measure, mix, observe, and predict what will happen with ingredients. Curious young learners will be interested to learn about the source of ingredients such as flour. You can describe how wheat is grown in a field, is harvested by a combine, and is processed in a mill. Read stories such as The Little Red Hen and find informational books with photographs of the production of flour to expand upon your cooking conversations.

Of course, a baking activity with young children might seem like an overwhelming task that has potential to create a big mess. Your classroom or home setup may not make it easy to bake with young children. Many cooking activities require less setup and preparation, but they are still meaningful learning opportunities. These simple cooking experiences can help you build your confidence about cooking with young children. These activities also allow you to have these rich learning experiences even when space or resources are more limited.

Here are some cooking ideas that can give children experiences that help them develop the skills and knowledge described in the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards (IELDS). Cooking with young children can provide lots of opportunities to address several IELDS benchmarks.

Make a sandwich together. As you gather the ingredients, encourage children to look at the labels on the items. You can encourage your child to look for letters and words she knows. Talk about the order you need to follow when putting the sandwich together. What food needs to be put on the sandwich first and what food is last.

Slice soft fruits or vegetables for a salad using a butter knife. Count the pieces of fruit you have cut and talk about their shapes. Compare the quantities of items in your salad. For example, ask children “Does the salad have more tomato or cucumber slices?”

Squeeze lemons for lemonade or oranges to make fresh orange juice. As you create your beverage, you can talk about the trees where the fruit was grown, who harvests and transports the fruit to the store, and the parts of the fruit such as the peel, pith, and pulp.

Spread cream cheese, nut butter, or hummus on toast or crackers. Introduce vocabulary such as thin and thick as the children use a dull knife to put the spread on the crackers or toast. To encourage math thinking, you can ask children how many crackers are needed to make three sandwiches or to guess the number of crackers on their plates.

Crack and whip eggs for scrambled eggs. Talk about how a chicken lays eggs. Name the different parts of the egg (shell, yolk, white). Supervise children carefully by the stove so they can watch the cooking, and talk about how the eggs change as they are heated in the pan.

Perhaps your next meal or snack can become a learning adventure for the children in your care. Below are some resources to help you get started.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

When you read the word treasure, what images come to mind? Oftentimes, something is considered a treasure if it has some sort of monetary value. Perhaps you think of diamonds, gold coins, or a delicate china doll. Family photographs, letters, or quilts may also be considered treasures. As adults, we may have our notions of what makes something a treasure. In addition to being a noun, treasure is also a verb. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb treasure as “to hold or keep as precious; to cherish; to prize.”

Adult definitions of what makes something a treasure may differ from what a child would consider a treasure. Children find treasures everywhere. Some treasures that excite children are sparkly sequins for a craft project, pebbles, pinecones, seeds, beloved toys, or a tattered blanket. The items that capture the attention of children may be different than those adults may focus upon.

We can capitalize on children’s natural motivation and desire to learn when we as adults choose to follow the lead of children as they explore. With found materials, children have a natural desire to sort, classify, talk, and write about their discoveries. These found objects are sometimes referred to as “loose parts” that can be incorporated with more traditional classroom materials, such as blocks or items in the dramatic play areas, and they can spur children’s creativity.

I was fortunate in the spring of 2014 to travel to Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Italy, with other early childhood educators. There, we visited the municipal early childhood centers. In these centers, I saw examples of how teachers capitalized upon the treasures children had discovered and encouraged children to incorporate their treasures into their play and learning. One school I visited was La Coccinella, a program for children ages 3–6.

My fellow travelers and I noticed that in each classroom there was a shelf filled with small cardboard boxes labeled with children’s names. In the classroom for 4-year-olds, the teachers allowed us to peek into a few of the boxes, and we were delighted to see that the children used these boxes to collect items they treasured. The boxes were filled with natural objects such as stones, seashells, and pinecones. We also saw tiny dolls, toy cars, and other small treasured objects such as coins and marbles.

When we looked at some classroom displays of children’s work, we saw similar materials. For example, we saw a display the children had created that sorted stones and shells by type, shade, and size. Through this creation, the children developed several early math skills such as counting, creating and recognizing sets, and comparing the attributes of objects.

Another impressive display was an entire fairytale village that had been built by the children out of clay, recycled materials, and many treasures such as figurines and little toys similar those we had seen in the children’s treasure boxes. The fairytale village provided an opportunity for storytelling and dictation of stories, and the children used their emergent writing skills to label their creations.

I wonder what kinds of opportunities we can create for children to learn with treasures in our classrooms, family child care programs, and homes. Our first challenge is to “treasure” or cherish children’s perspectives. We can tune into what they find fascinating. We can provide containers and spaces for collecting items, write down children’s words, and encourage children to use their emergent writing skills to label their collections. We can let them play with these items and bring various objects for children to explore in small group activities rather than using “boxed” manipulatives.

Even older infants and toddlers can join in joyful exploration of treasures, provided we plan for their safety. Boxes, containers, large plastic lids, scarves, measuring cups, and spoons can be left for discovery in special treasure baskets or boxes in their play areas. You could even encourage older children to create a treasure basket for infants and toddlers. With your guidance, they can help classify items first as safe for a baby (e.g., smooth edges, large enough not to choke on) or unsafe for a baby (e.g., sharp edges, very small items) and then by other attributes such as the material the objects are created from or their color.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

Illinois Early Learning Project

Go Outdoors and Explore: Build Upon Young Children’s Natural Curiosity

The birds are singing and little green shoots are popping up out of the ground. Springtime has arrived in Illinois. There is new activity in our neighborhoods as people are getting out and walking their dogs, pushing babies in strollers, and holding the hands of toddlers as they make their way down the sidewalk.

You might see caregivers standing and watching their toddlers crouch down to look at ants on the sidewalk. Perhaps you overhear questions from preschoolers, such as “Where are the squirrels going?” or “How did the green leaves get onto the trees?” There is so much to see in the springtime, and being outside engages a key motivator for young learners: curiosity!

When we talk about curiosity in young children, we are referring to their desire to learn about their world. Outdoor spaces are of full of opportunities for discovery. Children can explore the natural environment as well as the “built” environment. The natural environment includes items such as trees, grass, and animals. The built environment includes things that are created by people such as buildings, sidewalks, playgrounds, and roads. There are also many places where the natural environment and the built environment cross over. Some examples of these crossovers include when dandelions poke up through the sidewalk or tomato vines climb up a trellis. These crossovers delight children’s curious minds and provoke questions. A child who notices this might say, “The stems are winding ’round and ’round!”

One discovery can lead to another. Imagine a visit to the park. As they explore, children might discover that each blade of grass is a tiny plant. A conversation with an adult may help them understand that the tiny plant grew from a seed. Next, adults and children might examine individual roots buried in the soil. The children might notice that the soil and grass feel different under their feet and in their hands from the sand. They may wonder, “Why do they feel different?”

With simple tools such as magnifying glasses and empty containers, the children can investigate these differences more closely. Upon closer examination, they might discover that soil is filled with tiny insects and little bits of leaves whereas sand is made of tiny rocks. Perhaps it is time to go over to the library and find some books about soil, sand, or insects. This is one example of how following children’s natural curiosity can lead down a path of discovery.

When you open the door to the outdoors, you will discover opportunities that can engage the whole child! Curious young children are eager to use their bodies and minds to explore. As they run, crawl, and climb in different spaces, they discover the ways their bodies can move and the properties of different surfaces.

Conversations with caregivers and peers happen during these times, and these conversations are opportunities to build vocabulary and knowledge. You might find children arranging rocks, sticks, and leaves to build nests like birds and squirrels do. Children often use found materials such as pinecones, sticks, or rocks to represent their ideas and figure things out. Outdoors, there are many chances to put curious minds and bodies to good use! Where will your next outdoor adventure with young children take you?

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Go Outdoors and Explore: Build Upon Young Children’s Natural Curiosity