Children's Art and Igniting Ideas

Professional development shakes loose the cobwebs and status quo. It ignites...ideas, creativity, and resolve. Ignites is a word that Tom Hobson (Teacher Tom) celebrated during his presentation at Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI) Annual Meeting. He used it in reference to the quote, education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire and during his presentation, along with an idea shared during a quick snippet of conversation, many flames were definitely ignited. The evening before the Annual Meeting and his presentation, Andrea gave me the assignment of traveling with our first haul of dumpster booty while she returned for more with other parents and teachers. I lost my ride and our friend for San Anselmo Cooperative Nursery School, Chantal Micheline found me a ride with Tom. Tom didn't even bat an eye when I transferred the haul to his car. He is no stranger in the reuse, repurpose game after all. We visited Oswego Playschool, a warm, cozy place and on our way there and then on the way back to the hotel, we did what cooperative school teachers do, talked about EVERYTHING in bits and pieces. We are so used to finding tiny slivers of time to talk to adults and being able to express grand ideas in short bursts from listening to children that we are able to free wheel ourselves around all kinds of topics in 60 second bursts.

It was just as we pulled into the parking lot when we touched on art. I found myself saying something that I have said a lot, "the art at our school is like smoke and mirrors, it is lovely to look at...the most important part of our program is the social dramatic play." It just tumbled out and here is the thing -- it wasn't until the next day, listening to Tom's presentation that I started thinking, "What is that supposed to mean???" It really sells the whole thing short and that is why professional development, networking with other teachers, and igniting, or in this case, feeding our own flames is so important.

What I mulled over as I listened to Tom talk about filling pails and igniting flames, is that in early childhood education, it is easier to present and describe instances of children taking physical risks. On the other hand, how children take intellectual risks in a play-based environment is a bit more complicated to illustrate. We know, of course, that taking physical risks result in so many intellectual gains. The lightbulb moment for me happened when Tom talked about how each year, the children craft their classroom agreements. Cooperative schools are founded on the democratic model -- they function for the most part on consensus rather than majority rules. Parents and teachers arrive at agreements and this naturally and rightfully trickles into the classroom structure. We agree -- parents, children, and teachers -- to fold in each of our diverse views and to arrive at something that rings true to our community.

We devote time at each of our monthly membership meetings to support this effort, not just in terms of operational decisions like setting tuition, but also in understanding and shaping our philosophical underpinnings. The children also do this during our circle times and through small group meetings. "I need a meeting" is such a common refrain in the 4-5s class that we usually have 3 or 4 scheduled throughout the day.

This is time well spent, igniting-wise. It gives the children time and space to express their needs relative to their community. Taking the time to do this enables the children the confidence needed to take intellectual risks. They become comfortable and conversant in sharing their experiences and ideas with others. We see this every day. It is amazing. Then -bing- I realized that this is what we do with the artwork at our school.

People ask us how the artwork happens at our school. My dismissal of it in the "smoke and mirrors" comment needs to be addressed. In actuality, the care we take in building our community and in creating opportunities for physical risk as well as the care we take in making room for the children to go out on a limb with their ideas -- we do this same thing with paint and paper.

The artwork is an ongoing conversation with intellectual risk. We begin the conversation as we would with any conversation, using the vocabulary of line, shape, and color. Most importantly, we revisit the conversation. We don't walk away after one conversation. Just as diverse views on the same topic are acceptable in creating our community, we welcome many differing expressions of line, shape, and color to arrive at individual experiences of the whole. To sell that piece short, to simply offer art experiences as an aside or as a one-time endeavor walks away from an opportunity for building intellectual risk.

We are a community that is capable of expressing ideas through action, through the exchange of ideas, and also on paper and through careful arrangement of objects. It certainly is not so easy to dismiss as "smoke and mirrors" indeed. It is as careful and thought-filled as any of our endeavors. It is another flame ignited rather than simply poured in!