The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.

Wrong.

This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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Bejewelled Creations

One of my favourite things about the Reggio Emilia approach is its focus on the Arts as valuable languages of expression for children and adults.  Whereas in traditional schooling, we tend to treat the arts, at best, as a nice but unnecessary frill, something we can relegate to Friday afternoons when children are at their worst and can’t handle any ‘serious work’ – the hidden curriculum being that we don’t think Art is hard work, we don’t validate it as a career path, and we don’t value what it teaches us – all well-intentioned, I’m sure.  But is it true?  Ken Robinson, and many others (Maxine Greene comes to mind), would disagree.

sculpture made with plasticine, beads, wire, and little gold roses

I always have lingering in the back of my head that developing good fine motor skills are a critical part of the kindergarten experience.  Partly, this is because of all of the conversations I’ve had with teachers that have centrered on the misconception that the only way to teach fine-motor skills is by using worksheets (colouring, cutting).  But there’s another, more personal reason.  When my eldest child was recovering from surgery he had as an infant, I sat beside him as he slept and marvelled at how small the sutures were (the things you fixate on when you’re exhausted).  They were impossibly small.  How could anyone have such precise fine motor skills?  And what am I doing in these early years to make sure that children have the fine motor skills they need to pursue any career they want – even pediatric surgery?

child's hands manipulating a bead with sculpture in the foreground

The arts are one of my solutions.

There is more fine motor development in making a sculpture than there could ever be in a worksheet.

triangular sculpture with two bases and patterning of the beads between the bases

This week we’ve returned to a favourite activity – beading – but with a twist.  A parent donated thicker, heavier wire than we’ve had in the past and they were able to create 3-D sculptures using plasticine as a base.  It has presented many challenges.  Stringing the small beads and buttons onto the wire after struggling to pick them up, bending the wire, and manipulating the harder plasticine.  We’ve also noted that they’ve had to think about the structural integrity of their sculptures and have tried a variety of strategies to get them to stand on their own.   There’s also been lots of learning demonstrated in patterning and measurement.

They’ve had a blast working with these new and familiar materials and their creations are just beautiful.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we have!

wire sculptures displayed on a shelf