Open-ended art at preschool storytime

dmccsnappI began studying for a Master’s degree in Human Development two years ago, though it had been a dream of mine for a number of years — possibly as early as the fourth grade, when I began to wonder what motivated people, and why some of us practically jump out of our beds in the morning while many of us can hardly stir up the energy to eat breakfast.

In furtherance of my dream, I decided to study at Pacific Oaks College because I heard that they offer a widely respected program for early childhood educators, and I knew it would enhance my work with children.

“You will like the program,” said my librarian friend. “You’ll be glad you did it. I promise.”

Pacific Oaks has expanded my knowledge base. I learned about various development theories, though Erikson was always the focal point of my studies. Later, I began my field work and was able to observe Montessori and Reggio Emilia classes in action. At the Reggio Emilia school I was invited to observe children in the atelier.

I marveled at the beauty of the atelier. There were lots of paints and brushes; there was fabric and sewing needles; and varieties of paper and glue and sequins and chalk abounded. In the atelier, I watched children between the ages of 2 and 4 create art their way. If children expressed any doubt in their creative abilities, the instructor would gently say, “It’s your art project. You get to choose.” These words always freed them, I noticed.

Some children poured purple and green paint on sheets of paper and blended the colors with thick brushes. Others poured yellow, pink and scarlet. Still others built their creations with a multitude of objects and an abundance of glue.

When I returned to my library, I was inspired to employ at least some Reggio Emilia principles at my storytimes. How could I resist after the experience of the atelier? I learned in a single afternoon that I shouldn’t show children a paper plate alligator that I made myself and tell their parents in good conscience that they should help their children make their own, because the children will make a copy of mine, the one that the storytime librarian made.

Sometimes a very kind parent will suggest that I show an example of what I want the children to make, and when I first prepared storytimes early in my career, I used to show a sample of the craft to be made. Then I watched as the parents put the crafts together while their children mostly observed. Even as the children proudly showed me their completed projects, I felt a twinge of guilt. I knew that the children hadn’t really done the work themselves. How could two, three and four-year-olds possess such skills? How was I being fair to them? Here was a new group of children, fresh in the world, and all of them needed to know how to hold crayons and pencils. I wondered how a copy-cat craft was going to teach them those skills. Barely, if at all.

I’m sure that there are lots of places where librarians are still making examples of craft projects. It’s what teachers were doing when I was a child in the late 70s. I well remember feeling like a failure in kindergarten when the teacher distributed a lovely black and white drawing of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and then told us to draw our own versions in the blank space opposite. I remember feeling helpless in the face of these directions. I knew I couldn’t draw a picture that beautifully. What made it even harder for me was the fact that I was developing a love for fairy tales. In my view, fairy tales deserved proper reverence, a reverence I believed I was not capable enough to measure up to. When I refused to draw the picture, explaining to the teacher tearfully that mine would be “ugly,” she told me that I would have to sit there for the rest of the day while the other children enjoyed themselves. She made it clear to me that I was being the uncooperative child who refused to draw. I felt terrible. I cried. Nevertheless, I sat at the table, still refusing to draw.

Recently, I was reading from Bev Bos’s book, Don’t Move the Muffin Tins, and came across these words that verified my own experience:

“Never make a model to show a child. In the first place, it’s insulting. It’s like saying, “You don’t know what a turkey looks like, so I’ll show you.” I’ve heard teachers say, “Well, I always tell them they can make theirs any way they want, even if I make a model.” This isn’t a solution. I know how inadequate I feel trying to copy any product made by someone much more skilled than I.

When I do adult workshops, I bring drawings done by an artist, put them up, and ask the participants to copy them, so they can see how [an] art activity feels when one has been presented with a model. Of course, it feels terrible. Would you be happy and excited about drawing in the face of that kind of threat to your end product? […] Children do know what turkeys, apples, and trees look like; they’re able to see. Let them. And let them create without the intimidation of a model.”

Suffice it to say that one of the best discoveries I’ve made through my studies in child development is precisely this: formulaic crafts for small children aren’t the best use of their time. They don’t instill in children a sense of their own independence and abilities. The art projects we do at the Grace Mellman preschool storytimes will always include an open-ended component.


by Dominique McCafferty-Snapp