Category Archives: all ages

{Art Together} Make A Simple Color Wheel

Make A Simple Color Wheel

Materials: Paint (our samples include gouache, watercolor, and acrylic), heavy paper, brushes; compass and protractor (optional)

This isn’t an open-ended activity, but a color wheel can be a useful tool to have hanging on the wall of your art area, and making one is much more fun (and instructive) than buying one or printing one out. Any sort of paint can be used for this, but it’ll be more useful if you mix the colors yourself.

My 4yo and I used watercolor; this is simplest for the youngest artists because you can mix the colors right on the paper. My 8yo chose to use gouache, and my 11yo used acrylics; they both began with the primaries and mixed the secondary colors on their palettes.

Pan watercolors (back), acrylics (standing up), and gouache (small tubes).

Pan watercolors (back), acrylics (standing up), and gouache (small tubes).

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. You can’t mix these yourself; that’s why they’re primary. From them, you can mix the secondary colors: orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (red + blue). We’ll talk a little more about the colors when we have them in a wheel.

My 11yo decided he wanted to make a color wheel with wedges like a pie, so he used a compass to draw a circle and a protractor to divide it into six equal slices.

11yo's color wheel in progress.

11yo’s color wheel in progress.

The rest of us used simple dots arranged in a circle. (If it helps, you can draw the circle, or draw three lines intersecting in the center and place a dot of color at the end of each line.)

Regard your circle as a clock and place a dot of red at the 12-o’clock position, yellow at the 4-o’clock position, and blue at the 8-o’clock position. If you are mixing your secondary colors on a palette, put your dot of orange at 2-o’clock, green at 6-o’clock, and purple at 10-o’clock.

If you’re mixing right on the paper with watercolors, you’ll mix your red and yellow to get orange; your blue and yellow to get green; and red and blue to make purple. My daughter and I did this by putting two circles of each color together and then going back to overlap.

Watercolor color wheel in progress

Note, though, that purple can be really hard to mix. Most likely you’ll feel your purple is a little too red or a little too blue. Try to be okay with this; I’ve had a professional artist/teacher in a class advise me to buy purple rather than try to mix it myself. (But I’m cheap, so I mixed it myself anyway.) Start with just a little red and a little blue and mix gradually and don’t get hung up on perfection.

Watercolor color wheel in progress

Once you have your complete color wheel, take a closer look at it.

Acrylic color wheel

Colors that are opposite each other are known as complementary colors. See how red is opposite green? Green is made from the two primary colors other than red (ie, blue and yellow). That’s why they are complements—they complete each other. (That’s how I remember it, anyway!) Yellow and purple are complements, and blue and orange as well. Complementary colors are said to “pop” when used together. Try it out and see what you think.

My 8yo decided to take his color wheel one step farther and tried to include tertiary colors, which are secondary colors mixed with a bit more of the primary color next to it (ie, yellow-green, yellow-orange, etc; you can see a labeled one here).

Tertiary color wheel attempt

But if you’ve never made a color wheel before, a simple one with the primary and secondary colors is plenty enough to start. Hang it near your art area to remind yourself which colors contrast strongly. Are there any colors you avoid? When I was in kindergarten my purple crayon stayed sharp all year because I refused to use it. For some reason I thought purple was a scary color when I was five! Try using just a little bit of that color that overwhelms you with its complement and see what happens.

Further Resources

The MoMA Color Play Coloring Book is a large-format book designed to be painted in, with prompts for color mixing. We own it; we haven’t used it yet. But it might be just the thing if you’re a little wary of delving into color mixing without some guidelines.

You might want to also explore color through story books with a younger child. Apartment Therapy has a nice list of 20 Kids’ Books About Color. I say “also” because listening to a book or watching a show about color mixing can be a nice addition, but it doesn’t replace the actual experience of creating and observing the magic in real life. When a child has a chance to discover and experience color mixing while being in charge of it, the knowledge is real and theirs. It’s magical.

Take it Further

Preschool Color-Mixing Activity using colored water

Preschool Color-Mixing Activity using tempera paint

Consider adding a color wheel to your sketchbook using whatever materials you might take with you on a sketching excursion. For this, you wouldn’t necessarily be mixing; use the colors that come with your watercolor pencil or colored pencil set and draw yourself a color wheel to use as reference.

Share Your Work

A reminder that a Flickr group is available if you’d like to share photos! Just click the request to join.

Tips for Art-Making With Various Ages

Making art together, January 2012 (ages 3, 7, and 10)

Making art together, January 2012 (ages 3, 7, and 10)

In the comments to the last Art Together post, Sunny said she faces challenges trying to do art with all of her kids given their age range of 4 through 9. I can relate; my kids are 4, 8, and 11, and we began really making a habit of art time together when the youngest was 2. I wanted to share some things that have worked for me in trying to juggle the different needs of three kids, and I’m hoping others will share their experiences and what has worked for them as well.

When we’re in the studio all together, we have several choices:

Same activity, same materials: This choice is pretty straightforward. If we’re using materials everybody can use and doing an activity that works at all levels, we don’t really need to do anything differently. This doesn’t mean everybody is working at the same level. When we’re creating observational drawings or paintings, there may be a huge difference in skill level, but as long as the atmosphere is supportive of this, it shouldn’t be a problem. If younger kids are feeling less confident next to older ones, or older ones are feeling competitive, this doesn’t work well. In that case, I’d step back and set expectations beforehand, both for one’s own artwork and how to talk about each other’s artwork. (Is anyone interested in a post about talking about artwork, both to and amongst kids?)

Same activity, different  materials: You could choose to give a younger child different materials than an older child; for instance, tempera paint instead of acrylic, or oil pastels instead of chalk pastels, but you’re all heading in the same direction as far as the activity goes. Sometimes, my kids choose different materials anyway, because they’ve spent time exploring them and often know what they’d like to work with or experiment with to get a desired result.

Same materials, different activity: Perhaps a younger child is still at the point of exploring a material, while an older child wants to use it for a more directed purpose. If you can tolerate the messiness that is bound to accompany a toddler or preschooler’s exploration, this can work out well. My daughter began using charcoal at age two; she got a bit dusty. My middle child still most loves charcoal for the way he can smear it all over the paper with his hands. It does wash off skin, so this doesn’t bother me too much.

Different activities, different materials: This, of course, is the most difficult set-up for the facilitator (that’s us, the adults!). Sometimes we just all want to be in the studio together but we’re doing different things. My daughter might need paint, my son is using watercolor pencils, my other son is drawing with Pitt pens, and I have paint out, too, but different paint. Or I present a bunch of ideas and they each pick something different (as described in this post). We’re still all together, but I’m hopping a bit more to make sure they all have what they need.

Same activity, tweaked for age level: As much as possible, I try to adjust the activity so all the kids can participate at whatever level they’re currently at.  So, when we tried our hand at a Matisse-inspired collage (an activity chosen from a book), the youngest joined in by cutting and gluing.  When we carved stamps, the boys used the carving tools with my supervision, but my daughter, who was a bit past three at the time, made her stamp using craft foam and scissors. It definitely takes some creative forethought to tweak activities, but I have found that most open-ended art activities can be adjusted for various ages and stages. It’s simply going back to the idea of starting where you are.

Have a helper: If I’ve planned something more complex, it helps to have another adult around. The first time we printed with scratch foam, my husband was around to assist as well. Having an extra set of hands during a more intensive activity makes it so much easier to help anyone who needs it.

So it really depends upon the specific activity—but flexibility is key to facilitating art-making as a family activity with multiple ages. If anyone else has tips to share, please leave them in the comments! It will be helpful to us all.

{Art Together} Experimenting With Watercolors

DSC02728{This post is part of the art together series. You can see all the posts in the series here.}

I suspect watercolor paints are one of the most common art supplies offered to kids, because they seem fairly tidy. The colors are contained in their little trays, the drips are easily wiped up, everything closes up shut at the end and stores neatly. But I think watercolors have the potential to be one of the most frustrating mediums, especially for kids who are trying to paint something specific but don’t quite know how to control the paint. Watercolors depend on water, and water is so runny! It flows everywhere. How do you get more pigment? Add more water to your brush? But then the color is even runnier on the paper… and if you try to paint with wet paint next to paint that hasn’t dried yet, it’s all going to bleed together into a frustrating, tear-inducing mess.

Now, you know I don’t like to micromanage my kids’ art experiences. We’re not going to sit down and “create” step-by-step to all produce the same thing. I value the individual vision, but I also want them to have the tools necessary to execute that vision, which means we need time and space to experiment with different materials to see what they can do, before we try to use them in a specific project. I was an adult, taking an art class in college, before I realized that watercolor existed outside of those little plastic trays. (Tubes! It comes in tubes!) I vividly remember walking into the art supply store in the city, supply list in hand, feeling like an impostor.  Truly, going into that store knowing nothing and needing so much was an act of bravery. Nowadays, I’d just search it online and know exactly what I was looking for, but back then, the list may as well have been written in Greek. I was so confused. To hopefully save you from similar confusion, I’ve updated the Materials page with more specific information about watercolor options.

Whatever watercolor you choose, before you sit down to try to paint something specific, take time to just play and explore the material. When I get a new-to-me art supply, the first thing I do is play with it. Doodle, draw, scribble, if it’s a marker or pencil; dab, swirl, smear, if it’s a paint. What can it do? Watercolor behaves differently from acrylic. If we—meaning you, me, and our kids—want to be able to execute our idea, we need to know which medium is best for the job. What effect do we want? How do we know, if we haven’t played with a whole bunch of stuff? The more we experiment, the larger art vocabulary we have.

A quick word on paper: I usually use a cold press, thus slightly toothed, watercolor paper. Regular printer paper or drawing paper isn’t heavy enough to support the wetness of paint. Tooth means the paper has a bit of roughness to it. That’s helpful with watercolor, since it absorbs the paint better than a slick surface would.

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Watercolor pads I found hanging around my studio.

For this session, my kids and I browsed through Water, Paper, Paint by Heather Smith Jones and chose some prompts as our starting point. My younger two kids and I liked the idea of painting circles and adding colors to them while wet. My oldest wanted to painted a checkerboard pattern, letting the first color of squares dry before painting next to them with the second color. We used pan watercolors and began to experiment. I can tell you that wet paint on wet paint will bleed together, and you can tell your kids, but it’s better for everybody if you sit down and do it yourself. Then you will know it.

Wet paint on wet paint runs together a bit.

Wet paint on wet paint runs together a bit.

Sometimes that’s exactly the effect you’ll want in your painting. Other times you’ll want more detail and a sharper edge. What happens when you brush wet paint next to dry? What kind of an edge do you get then?

11yo's painting: The blue paint was dry before he began painting with red. He used a set of Van Gogh pan watercolors.

11yo’s painting: The blue paint was dry before he began painting with red. He used a set of Van Gogh pan watercolors.

Which is a better way to mix colors right on the paper—wet on wet or wet on dry? Do they both work? What’s the difference? Only by experimenting in this way and observing what happens yourself will you really begin to understand what you can do with the medium. Plus, it’s just plain fun to make designs on the paper without any real plan in mind. It’s like doodling with paint.

8yo's layers of color, wet on wet. He was using Reeves pan watercolors.

8yo’s layers of color, wet on wet. He was using Reeves pan watercolors.

My 8yo, 4yo, and I played with wet colors into wet colors.

4yo's painting: Purple dots painted onto a wet turquoise circle, using Crayola pan watercolors.

4yo’s painting: Purple dots painted onto a wet turquoise circle, using Crayola pan watercolors.

It’s just fun to lay down some color and “see what happens.” When you go into it with the idea that you’re experimenting, there are no mistakes, just unexpected outcomes. When my 8yo layered white on top of a color he thought was dry but the white looked muddy, we talked about it. Was the white paint itself muddied in the tray? Let’s wipe it off and try again. He experimented with having black as the first color—would anything at all show up on it? This is knowledge he’ll take with him the next time he paints. This is how we get to know a material so that we don’t try to make it do something it just can’t do.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

–Vincent van Gogh

Further Resources:

I often turn to books for adults to use with my kids. Techniques are techniques, and we all use the same materials and try the same things. I really like Water Paper Paint as a resource for techniques and ideas, as well as specific information on materials.

A Waldorf-specific method of wet-on-wet watercolor painting can be found here at The Magic Onions.

Take it Further:

All my previous posts that include watercolors can be found here.

Lori shares a post on watercolor techniques over at the Camp Creek blog, with some specific instructions on guiding your kids and yourself through some experiments with watercolors.

Share Your Work:

Reminder, you can share photos in the {Art Together} Flickr group, and that’s where I’ve posted photos of our finished watercolor paintings.

{Art Together} Looking Closely

{This post is part of the art together series. You can see all the posts in the series here.}

“’The teaching of drawing is the teaching of looking.’ A lot of people don’t look very hard.” –David Hockney.

Looking closely at a pussy willow, by V, age 11.

Looking closely at a pussy willow, by V, age 11.

Before we go any further, you need to promise me you’re not going to start comparing. Don’t compare your artwork to mine, your kids’ artwork to my kids’ artwork, or your work to your kids’ or your kids’ work to each other. Remember to start where you are. Also remember that I’ve been doing this with my kids for a while now. We’re all comfortable with the process. Brand new things often feel uncomfortable, so if you or your kids are feeling awkward, it’s okay to acknowledge that. Like anything else new, it’ll feel less awkward the more you do it.

Okay, then! Let’s get started. We’re going to start not by trying to draw but by trying to look closely, with a pen or pencil in our hand. Because I find natural objects so interesting to draw and because I am craving spring, I suggest finding a Growing Thing to serve as the focus of your observation. If you can head outside, wherever you happen to live, and find a dry patch of ground on which to sit, and it’s not so cold or windy as to be distracting, do that. If you have houseplants, pick one. I am death to houseplants, so I bought some tulips and pussy willows at the supermarket. We have so many collected natural treasures on our table that some of those found their way into the drawings as well.

As for art materials, we used sketchbooks, but loose drawing paper and even regular old printer paper will work just fine. I gathered a selection of sketching pencils and markers.  I love my Pitt DSC02670Artist Pens, but a fine-point black Sharpie is a good alternative, and it’s cheap and easy to find. (Also, I don’t share the Pitt pens with my youngest, since she still presses down too hard on the tips for my liking. She uses Sharpies.) If you don’t have sketching/drawing pencils, there’s nothing wrong with using a regular #2 pencil, but I suggest taping over the eraser. If you have it as an option, you’ll want to use it. You’ll get hung up on getting everything “perfect,” which will just interrupt the whole process of looking at what you are drawing. My kids decided they wanted to use colored pencils too, so we added those to our pile later.

Start out by looking at your drawing item together. What do you notice about it? Here are some of the observations my kids and I made as we drew:

8yo, drawing pussy willows: I’m shading the puffy things in to make them look furry. Do you notice these have a furry texture?

DSC02678

4yo, drawing a tulip: Is the green the flower too or just the yellow and red? [Answer: The green she was looking at was the leaf; the stem was green too.]

Me: The edge of this tulip looks like a clam shell the way it comes together in the middle.

11yo: This [the hardest pencil in the group] is horrible for shading. (For more information on soft/hard pencils, see this post; I’ve updated it with more pictures.)

Me, to 8yo, as he struggled to draw a junebug’s wing: Look at the shape of it; it’s not symmetrical. The bottom is a smoother line but the top goes up and then tapers down. Start with the overall shape and then fill in the details.

DSC02680

In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, author Betty Edwards explains that we have built up a shorthand of sorts—what a hand should look like, a flower, a tree, a house—and when we sit to draw, our brain supplies these symbols, and we end up drawing what we think we see rather than what is truly there. I remember my first drawing class that included a live model; the professor pointed out how the proportions of the human body are not at all what we think. For example, a hand is much larger than we usually draw it; in fact, a hand is extremely odd looking if you really investigate it.

4yo drawing a sand dollar; she counted the "petals" in order to draw it accurately.

4yo drawing a sand dollar; she counted the “petals” in order to draw it accurately.

I’ve come to think that the true value in drawing isn’t the image itself, it’s that a drawing practice teaches you to really look at something. Of course the ability to recreate what you see can be extremely useful. You can use this skill to make notes on a nature walk so you can compare what you see (a flower? a leaf? an insect?) to a field guide later on. You can use it to sketch out the idea in your head to help you get it across to someone else—or even to help you figure out exactly what you’re thinking. But the sketch on the paper is only a small part of what you’re doing. The first part of drawing is looking—looking closely.

If you feel yourself becoming discouraged by your perceived inability to draw, try to reframe it: You are learning to really see. And remember that as with anything else, if you practice, it will begin to get easier. You will learn to truly look closely. You will begin to see what is actually there rather than what you think is there, and that is a valuable skill to have in life whether you become an accomplished sketcher or not.

Further Resources:

Drawing Lab For Mixed Media Artists: 52 Creative Exercises to Make Drawing Fun: My kids and I (together and separately) have enjoyed many activities from this book; flip through and pick out something that interests you.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: Presents an approach to drawing designed to trick the brain to leave those preconceived notions behind.

Take it Further:

Blind Contour Drawing: This post at the Camp Creek Blog describes a method of drawing that involves only looking at the object, not at all at the paper.

Share Your Work:

I’ve created a Flickr group, where I’ve added more photos from our drawing session, and where you can share photos too, if you want to, or ask questions in the discussion section…whatever seems useful and helpful to you. If you have any questions please leave a comment or email me at amyhood AT amyhoodarts DOT com, and I will see you again in a week. Happy drawing!

Why Process Over Product? {Part Three}

(Part One, Part Two)

Part Three: Realizing a Vision

In Part Two, I said that if someone hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. Learning new skills is both exciting on its own and a means to an end; sometimes it begins as one of those and progresses to the other. Do you want to re-create somebody else’s vision, or know how to express your own? I want to do the latter, and I want my kids to be able to do the latter, too. I learned embroidery because I wanted to embroider poetry on my jeans, but in the process it became another way for me to express myself, and while I embroidered some commercial patterns at the beginning, while I was learning, I can’t see doing that anymore, because I’d rather use embroidery as part of my own artwork.

Practicing embroidery

Practicing embroidery

My 8yo, who already knew embroidery’s properties so well from having watched me, and already knowing how to sew, decided to learn how to embroider so he could make his aunt a snowflake ornament, based on his own vision of the finished project. I helped him with the angles of the snowflake and transferred it onto the felt for him, but the idea was all his. And we didn’t have an example of “this is what your felt snowflake ornament should look like,” either. It was all his own thought process and design.

Following directions give us the skills to re-create somebody else’s vision. There is nothing essentially wrong with that. I have no problem with knitting a sweater somebody else designed if I like it and want to wear it. It saves me the trouble of doing the design work myself. But if I have an idea in my head, I appreciate having the ability to make it a reality, rather than trying to find somebody else’s vision that sort of approximates my own. Following directions is certainly a useful skill to have, and prevents any of us from having to re-invent the wheel. But exposure to process-based activity is essential to gain the skills and confidence to realize our own unique vision.

“Just messing around” with materials allows the space for accidents to happen, for unexpected results, for discoveries, and that is when we learn. If something unexpected happens when the goal is to re-create a predetermined end product, it can be perceived as a disaster. If it happens during a process-focused exploration of a material or technique, it is a delightful discovery, leading to knowledge that is filed away for future use. When and if we have an idea that requires that particular effect, we know how to obtain it. Process-based art is not pressure-filled. It is fun. It is play. It is essential, for children and adults.

We cannot expect children to be creative, original thinkers if we only present them with so-called “art activities” that involve following directions to reproduce an end product. They deserve (as we all do) the space and time to develop the confidence and skills to determine their own end product, and then figure out how to get there. When I said, “I’m going to knit a stocking,” having never knit before, nobody was around to tell me I couldn’t. When my child says, “I’m going to make a snowflake ornament out of felt and embroidery,” even though he’s never embroidered before, I’m not going to say, “You can’t do that.” I don’t even say, “Let’s look and see what patterns you can follow.” My response is: “Let’s practice embroidery so you know how to do it. Sketch out what you’re thinking. You can totally do this.”

The process of looking for an already-existing project that meets your criteria versus creating the project you have in your head is so very different. Children who only have experience in following directions to produce a version of somebody else’s vision may not ever make the leap into realizing they can create the steps to produce their own vision. It takes more work on the adult’s part to mentor a child’s individual vision. It is harder to have a room full of children interpreting new materials or techniques in different ways, rather than following directions all at the same time. I see my job as facilitator, and I am on my toes when we’re in the studio, especially if we’re doing something new. But this sort of mentoring is essential, because the ability to have an idea and realize that idea is essential. And one way to raise children who have the confidence and skills to not only realize their ideas but to have the idea in the first place is to provide plenty of exposure to process-based art.

Why Process Over Product? {Part Two}

(Part One)

Part Two: Knowing the Materials

When a child (or adult) has an idea and a specific end result in mind, if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore different media and materials to see what they do, he or she will have no idea how to achieve the desired goal. I can’t stress this enough. It seems so basic, but I see so many people going about it backwards. Until we learn how to use various materials, we have no idea which one is best for the task at hand. If we have a vision in our mind but have a limited number of techniques from which to choose, we may never reach our vision.

When my children come into the studio with an idea, they have a vast array of materials from which to choose. They learned how to use these materials not by following step-by-step directions to reproduce a project designed by someone else, but by experimenting with the materials in a controlled way. Parameters are, I think, necessary when learning a new material or technique. I didn’t just give them watercolors and leave the room. We used, at different times, watercolors wet on wet, wet on dry, pan watercolors, liquid watercolors, watercolors from a tube. The different methods and materials yield different results, and we learned what they were by doing. In the same way, watercolors are different from acrylics and gouache and tempera. So when my kids say they want to do X and they need paint, I can now ask them, What kind of paint? And they will think about their desired end result and decide what they think they need.

The same thing is true of every material in our studio.

Non-representational creativity is often difficult for adults to understand. They think kids are just “messing around,” the painting is “random,” the activity is “aimless.” If it’s not a picture OF something, an adult often doesn’t see the point. Firstly, if the child is enjoying himself, is another point necessary? But beyond that, quite a bit is going on—or can be going on—when someone is “just messing around” with a material. The first thing I did when I bought new watercolor pencils was scribble with them and add water to see what happened. It would be frustrating to try to use a material for a specific end result if I didn’t know what the material could and couldn’t do.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

Exploring tints and shades of blue.

In the same way, a child learns quite a lot while “smearing” paint around. He’s learning how paint moves, how much to put on the paintbrush to get different effects, what happens when wet paint touches. If it’s quality paint, he learns what happens when different colors mix. When my middle child was about five, he spent weeks investigating different paint colors, a couple at a time. He learned about tints and shades and secondary colors while he moved the paint around on large sheets of heavy paper that I’d pinned to the wall. Limiting the color palette meant that he could see what happened when just those two or three colors mixed. This is, again, about setting parameters to help a child learn about the materials in a useful, meaningful way.

During this time, he happened to be painting while an adult relative was over, and that adult stared at the non-representational paper that held all that exciting information about tints and shades, and instead of asking my son about it (and he would have eagerly explained what he’d done to get that range of color), she stared and stared until she found something that sort of looked like a flower and pointed it out. “You painted a flower.” No. But now, when he does want to paint a flower, or anything else, he is confident that he can mix any color he needs or wants, in a variety of paint types. In fact, like me, he’d rather have just the primaries, white, and black in his palette, and mix his own colors.

For more on this sort of sequential introduction of materials (as well as how to talk—and NOT talk—to children about what they’re doing), I highly recommend Susan Striker’s Young at Art.

Next: Part Three—Realizing a Vision.

Why Process Over Product? {Part One}

Part One: Discovery vs Following Directions

Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, has a terrific forum area of her website, and currently it contains an active thread on process vs product art for children. If you’ve dug around on this blog of mine at all, you know I’m passionate about allowing children the opportunity to explore process-oriented, open-ended art. This series of posts grew out of the thoughts I shared in that thread; I encourage you to join Lori’s forums, if you haven’t already.

Playing with monotypes

Playing with monotypes

In process-oriented art, the DOING is what is important: the PROCESS of making, exploring, and discovering. Product-based art is focused on the end result. In an open-ended activity, we don’t know where we’re going to end up, while in a closed activity, the end result has been predetermined by someone else. My elementary school “art” classes were exercises in following directions, with the (teacher’s) stated goal being 30 projects that looked just like hers. Sadly, this is still true in many schools. There is no room for creativity there, for amazing discoveries and delights.

One example given in the forum thread as a possible support for product-based “art” experiences for children is that of a new knitter following patterns until she knows enough to design her own, the connection being that children learn skills by following directions rather than by process-based exploration. I taught myself to knit because I wanted to make something specific, a Christmas stocking for my first baby. I decided upon a specific skill, knitting, which I needed to learn, so I did. And yes, I followed the pattern for the stocking. Taking a class wasn’t a possibility, so I didn’t “learn” that a new knitter’s first project should be a scarf. There was nobody to tell me, “Oh no, you can’t start right off knitting a tube with four needles. New knitters don’t do that. You have to progress through this predetermined sequence of easy projects before you can attempt anything like that.”

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I figured I could do anything. That is the confidence I want for my children. I taught myself to knit in October and had a hand-knit Christmas stocking ready in time. Sure, I struggled, and the argument can be made that I persevered because I had a specific end product in mind. But—and this loops back into the goals of authentic project-based learning—I was committed to learning a new skill in order to realize my own vision and goal (and even with that first pattern, I changed it to suit me). The next item I knit was the sweater sampler from Jacqueline Fee’s Sweater Workshop. This project didn’t result in anything recognizable or a useful “thing,” but the process taught me a variety of skills. Then I either followed patterns, or not. Or I began with a pattern, but modified it to suit me, because I understood what I was doing.

I can tell you with much assurance that only following patterns doesn’t teach a knitter much except how to follow patterns. It is the same with any other skill. Only following somebody else’s directions only teaches you how to follow somebody else’s directions. If you don’t truly understand your materials and how they behave, you won’t recognize when the directions are wrong. Or if you do, you won’t be sure how to fix it. Learning how to design knitted items doesn’t come from knitting a whole lot of them, following directions slavishly. It comes from experimenting with different stitches and techniques, different weights and needles, and comparing the resulting fabrics. It comes from playing with the materials.

And that will be Part Two: Knowing the Materials.
Part Three: Realizing a Vision

{I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how important a mentor is, even for adult self-taught learners. My sister, an accomplished knitter, loaned me several of her books, including The Sweater Workshop and Knitting in Plain English. These are not pattern books. They are think-for-yourself knitting books, and I’m sure being exposed to that sort of philosophy right from the start helped shaped my attitude towards knitting and every handwork skill I added thereafter.}

O’Keeffe Leaves

(Inspired by “Gorgeous Gigantic Flowers” in What’s the Big Idea? by Joyce Raimondo.)

Materials: Watercolor paper (or other paper that can handle paint); paint (we used tempera cakes); pencil; permanent marker (we used Sharpies); leaves for looking at

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a straight-up art activity! My daughter said she wanted to make a painting using one of our Art Explorers books, so I told her to go ahead and pick one out. She chose the activity inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, but when I looked at the materials list I realized we didn’t have any fresh flowers on hand.

However, a suggested alternate was leaves–and it being October in New England, we have leaves a-plenty. We headed outside to collect some. When we came back indoors, I took my O’Keeffe book off the shelf and showed my daughter some more flower paintings and the way they took up the entire canvas.

G wanted to follow the suggested process exactly, so after choosing a leaf for inspiration, she drew with her pencil and then traced over those lines with a black Sharpie. Then it was time to add color. We both used the tempera cakes. I quietly noticed a couple of things–her ability to trace over a line, and the fact that she is old enough (and so experienced with art supplies) to remember to rinse her brush between colors.

There is such joy in observing her growing up in this aspect as well–she is so confident in the art room, so comfortable, so sure of her decisions and what she needs for her artwork. Here is her finished piece along with the leaf that inspired it.

She decided she wanted to use all the colors, and she enjoyed mixing them. (The tempera cakes are the primaries plus white, black, and green.) She enjoyed the movement of her line, as well.

I also did this activity–I am grateful for the time and space to draw and paint and this activity was challenging for me. I also tried to follow the suggested directions and make the leaf spill off the page, as O’Keeffe’s flowers do. I discovered that it was easiest to do this if I started from the center, with the veins of the leaf. Here’s my finished page, with the leaf that inspired it.

I’m sure I’ll be trying this again. (We have lots of leaves, did I mention?!) I like, too, the idea of taking something so well known–O’Keeffe’s flowers–and translating it to our own landscape. I think I will be using this activity in the art class I lead at our co-op, too. There are a couple of kids who tend to draw small, and I’ve been looking for ways to encourage them to go bigger; I think this is a good activity for that.

I enjoy following G’s lead. When she is in charge of the day (or at least part of it), we tend to do fun things. I had no idea we’d be using autumn leaves to inspire a painting…now I can’t wait to do it again!

Field Trip: MFA Boston

This post is not really about what we did at the MFA Boston. It’s more about how we ended up there. You see, in project-based learning, the child is leading the way. The adult is mentoring. My job is to help the kids get where they want to go, not by drawing the map and marking the trail but by helping them draw their own map. I’m not picking a theme and setting up activities. They’re picking the theme, and they are figuring out what they want to do to support their learning. Right now my kids’ projects are overlapping. My eight-year-old hasn’t quite settled on one topic right now; he is researching various topics with Ancient Egypt that interest him. I’m keeping track of what he mentions and reminding him of what he’s said he wants to do or learn. My daughter has been diving into mummies, mummification, and Ancient Egypt’s ideas of the afterlife and the importance of mummification to these ideas. So in this regard, field trips are simpler because they’re bound, at this point, to apply to both projects.

However, it’s not my job to plan the field trips. No!! I simply make sure the kids know that I am able and willing to take them places to support their research. My son got onto the computer a couple of weeks ago to research real-life Ancient Egypt resources.

(All photos in the post are small cell phone photos, because that’s how I take project documentation photos, so I can upload them into Evernote. Right now, this is my method because it is convenient and easy and thus more liable to get done.)

After quite a bit of research, he had a list (which I wrote down for him) of places he’d like to go to support his study. This list isn’t constrained by distance or budget; everything is allowed.

It might be hard to read; it says: King Tut’s treasure, Egypt, Oriental Institute-Chicago, Yale Museum-New Haven, Met Museum of Art-New York (Sphinx of Hatsheput), RISD Museum, MFA Boston. I told him that three of these destinations were reasonable day trips for us: New Haven, Boston, and RISD (which is in Providence). He’s been to RISD many times before, actually; it’s the closest. We brought the Egyptian collections at all three museums on the computer, and he compared them to decide where he wanted to visit first.

He originally thought he’d want to go to New Haven, because he’s never been to that city, but after viewing collections online, he decided to visit the MFA in Boston first. (Link to their Egyptian collection page.) The next decision was how to get there–we could drive or take the commuter train, which is newly present near to us. It only runs all the way down here on weekdays, though, so that factored in.

He definitely wanted to take the train (as did his sister), so the next step was to figure out how to read a train schedule, which I showed him. Which stop did we need to get off at in Boston? I suggested that the MFA’s site might have that information for us. Together, we navigated the site to find out all he needed to know; he needed less and less of my guidance, and eventually he knew where we had to go, what time the trains came, whether we could sketch in the museum (yes), with what materials (just pencils), if we could bring in a backpack (no), a stroller (yes, but we didn’t), and if there was a place to leave our lunch bag while we toured the museum (yep). Together, we talked about which days of the week were possibilities given our other commitments, and he decided upon a day. Finally, he emailed his dad at work to see whether he could take the day off and come with us and/or be available to meet his brother’s school bus if his brother decided he’d rather go to school than come with us.

Eventually, it was decided the whole family would go. My daughter was elated about the train ride.

The MFA has an entire room of mummies–my daughter was quite pleased. My son, who has a strong interest in rocks (so much so that geology was a possible project topic, too) was thrilled to see alabaster in person. I suspect this will open up a further area of study and his interests might converge to provide that focus that’s been missing. He’s also interested in the gods and goddesses, though, and brought a list of names with him to the museum. We saw many statuettes of gods and goddesses, and we’ve talked about using our air-dry clay to try to make some.

Because he’s mentioned hieroglyphs, I purchased a poster of hieroglyphs and a hieroglyph stencil in the gift shop (along with all the postcards of Egyptian pieces they had–only four, alas). Tonight he mentioned making a cartouche with the clay. And we came across something in the museum that we hadn’t in our books–false doors, which allowed the ka to pass through. This will surely lead to further research.

In other words, our trip to view the Egyptian galleries at the MFA Boston was not the culminating event. It is part of the process of the kids’ research, and we came home with more interests to pursue, more leads to follow. And most importantly, this field trip wasn’t something presented to them, already planned, already decided. They both had a hand in planning it (my son more than my daughter, but she was involved as well). They have ownership of this learning.

I have so much more to share about their projects, but I’m not always able to blog by the end of the day. But I’ll do my best, because how else to get across how amazing this type of learning is to witness?

Beginnings: Project-Based Learning

In her book, Lori says that preschool age is the ideal time to introduce project-based learning. This might seem counterintuitive–aren’t older kids more capable of more extensive work?–but so far, the experience in my house is falling right in line with this advice. My daughter, who is almost four (!), has taken right to the idea of learning and expressing. My son, at eight, is struggling a bit more, but I chalk this up as much to the way in which his school used these same terms to mean very different things as I do to his age.

I have to admit right up front that my grasp of project-based learning is still–not shaky, but not firm, either. Our environment could be better organized. My documentation could be better. But we’re beginning where we are, and even with small steps, big things are happening. You just need to know where to look.

We started with a trip to the library.

We’re beginning history at the beginning, and my son mentioned several aspects of Egyptian history he’d like to learn about. (We’ve since added to this stack through interlibrary loan.) He also, though, has a strong interest in geology and thought that might be a possible project topic, too. I wrote down everything he mentioned so I could remind him about them later.

My daughter wants to learn about mummies. Now that she understands the general plan, she has a huge list of things she wants to learn about, but the mummies seems to be a deep interest, tied in with an overall interest in death and dying and what happens to people when they die. Not too long ago, she made the connection between “dead” and “never coming back” and melted down completely about not wanting to die, ever. It was heartwrenching and one of those unexpected epiphanies that occurred as we drove past a cemetery–nothing planned, with no precipitating event. I suspect the interest in mummies may be tied into this mulling over about death that has been going on in her mind.

Once we had the books, we read. My son read to himself, and I read out loud to both of them. He decided to focus in on pyramids, although I reminded him of his other initial interests. He does not see “project” as the entire process–learning, documenting, and sharing. He connects the term “project” with a thing, something tangible that has been constructed: a model, a poster, a diorama. I’d recognized this over the summer and had intended to call our projects “investigations,” but the word project slipped through anyway, and he is, at the moment, a bit hung up on the doing. His former school purportedly has a project-based curriculum, but we are using many of the same words in completely different ways. I explained to him: “I am not going to tell you your topic, what you have to learn about it, and how you have to share that information (which is how “projects” seemed to be handled in his classroom last year). You get to choose the topic, you get to learn what you want, and you share it how you want. My job is to make sure you have the resources you need, help you figure out how to find out what you want to know, and get any materials for you.”

So it comes back around to what Lori was saying–to my daughter, who has spent her entire life soaking things up like a sponge (that is what babies and toddlers and preschoolers do), it’s entirely natural to explore a new subject in exactly the same way. My son needs to relearn to trust his natural curiosity. I could tell we were making progress when I told him that he wasn’t going to have a set amount of time, like in school, to finish a project. He could take as long as he needed to learn what he wanted to know.

“So if it takes me five months, that’s okay? Five months on the same thing?”

“If that’s what you need, that’s what we’ll do,” I told him.

In an upcoming post–because I realized this post would be super long if I included it all here!–I’ll share more photos of how our reading transformed our living room and how my daughter distilled some of what she’s learning into her first representation.