Working With Found Materials

I recently purchased Beautiful Stuff! Learning With Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. This is not a how-to book; it’s a documentation of how the authors and teachers worked with early childhood students, in a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom, collecting and exploring found objects. As the authors say in the preface,

Rather than focusing on the creation of products, this book is based on observation and recording of children’s and teachers’ processes.

Fabulous. That’s what I try to do, too. I bought this with our natural collections in mind–mostly rocks and seashells–although the book covers all found materials, mainly recycled, and not just natural ones. Our collecting really ramps up in the summertime.

kids + nets + salt pond = summer as it should be

Documenting is an integral part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Here, the authors share the process of collecting and organizing the materials, exploring them, and working with them.

The kids are involved in every step. The first chapter begins with the authors acknowledging that it’s “crucial” to involve the kids and parents right from the beginning, thus with the collecting. Anyone who spends time with children knows they are natural collectors anyway. N picks up rocks everywhere. I find acorns in pockets, sticks on the floor, and G’s buttons absolutely everywhere.

We did not collect these jellies. We just observed them and let them go.

The kids in the book collect, clean, and categorize their materials. They spend time getting to know these items. How many ways can you classify something? They sort by material, by color, by shape. They work with them in temporary ways and in more permanent ways. They re-create self-portraits using found materials, they create 3-dimensional pieces, they study blue and circles and metal, with materials and through drawing and in paint.

The latest haul, rinsing in fresh water

It’s impossible for us to visit the beach without bringing back treasures, and we visit the beach at least weekly in the summertime. (The crabs in the left-hand bucket, by the way, were dead when we found them. They were supposed to be left behind, but G slipped them in.) On the way home, N was considering what we could do with some of our items–we can make rubbings of the Irish Moss, we can try printing with the underside of a crab (although, he pointed out, the paper might smell bad afterwards), we can make rubbings of scallop shells, with all those wonderful ridges.

Beautiful smooth purple piece of clam shell

I also collect at the beach, and I’m fond of the small polished pieces of broken clam shell. This visit, I found several purple pieces. (The bits that became the most valuable wampum, N pointed out. See here; scroll down to #9.) Aren’t they beautiful?

The main idea to take away from this book, I think, if you’re looking for just one, is that collections are not necessarily meant to be displayed and looked at, or, alternately, turned into some end product in order to have value. They can be living, breathing things, to be touched, to be rearranged, to be worked with. We have, literally, buckets of quahog shells, and I’ve been thinking they need to come inside and take their place on the shelf next to the tree blocks. Some of our rocks need their own basket on the play shelves as well (some live in the sandbox). Some items (oh-those-purple-pieces!) may become works of art to be worn; others may find their way into collages or sculptures; others we may love so much we give them a place of honor on the shelf for a while. But the best collections of found items, I think, are dynamic, just like the children who collect them.

Note: This particular beach is a barrier beach. We found most of the rocks and clam shells on the ocean side; we found living (and dead) crabs and jellies, as well as oyster and scallop shells, in the protected salt pond. It’s a fantastically neat place.

4 thoughts on “Working With Found Materials

  1. Zenobia Southcombe

    Great article!! When I was little we used to go to a friend’s bach (holiday home) every summer, and we would, without exception, always go to the beach and comb it for shells & rocks and whatever we could find. We used to take it back to the bach and make collages, or decorate our handmade photo frames with them. Once, I remember I made a picture of the beach and used the sand as sand.
    We used to really enjoy the whole process, from finding the objects to admiring our work – thanks for sharing this with everyone, I hope all your readers try what you’ve described at some point! Grown-up children can make art with found objects, too!!

  2. Michelle

    I agree, kids are natural collectors. We spent half of our beach trip with a net in the surf. That purple clam shell really is beautiful. Great find!

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