Drawing a Lesson: Familiarity Breeds Creativity

Putting herself in an unfamiliar learning setting, Christiane Dufour experienced first-hand what happens in the “making” process when one is unfamiliar with the materials and the techniques associated with them. It brought home what three teachers discovered when they implemented STEAM the Kindergarten Way through Play.
Be sure to scroll all the way down to the video at the end.

I have a confession to make: I envy the creativity and ability of those who can imagine something and then give form to it. Whether they draw it or make it, it seems to spring easily from within to be translated into the medium of their choosing. That’s an illusion of course: they learned their craft through a lot of experimentation over time.

I’ve never experienced that apparent ease. But, as a teacher, I must and do believe that you can learn anything when you set your heart to it. So, listening to the admonitions of the adage that you’re never too old to learn, I decided to take art classes, starting with learning how to draw.

Drawing Materials
Drawing feet by hand (count the iterations!)

Pencils and paper; lots of paper and a good assortment of pencils! I’m in familiar territory. The teacher is great, creative. He has a road map in his head but many ways to take us along. He listens, adapts to our abilities and interests. I’m learning to draw, to manipulate these familiar pencils along with a few other simple tools to create the effects I see in my head or in the models he gives us to reproduce or to inspire us.

Every week, he enriches our toolkit of gestures and expands our capabilities by building on the previous lessons. When he shows us a technique or corrects our work, he tells us what he is doing and, while doing that, he provides us with a language for shapes, forms, gestures, tools, space and more. All good! I’m still in friendly territory. I see where this is going and, more and more, I imagine things that I could do along with an ever greater variety of ways to do them. I think my drawings are sometimes quite nice. It feels good.

After weeks of learning all kinds of techniques and eventually practicing how to draw hands in all sorts of positions, the potter’s hands emerged from my page by bringing together many of these techniques.

Reaching my potential

Setting my skills into motion

Then he throws us (me!) for a loop. He says he’ll show us a technique that will allow us to marry drawing and painting. This time, he proceeds with the lesson in steps.

  1. Apply paint to this canvas. (Voice in my head: is any particular way better than another?) Now wait to let it dry.
  2. Apply this gel to the canvas in this way. (Ok, what does the gel do? Thick or thin coat? What will it look like when it dries?)

    One of the Cheshire Cat’s Dreams
  3. Sprinkle this powder over the gel. The powder prevents the gel from drying too quickly, we are told. (OK, but my brain still wants to know what the powder will look like when gel and powder dry.)
  4. Now take this bamboo skewer and draw by scraping away the gel and powder. (Draw? What, how, why?)

This is not the end of the process; there will be a few other steps to the finished product but I don’t yet know what they are. So I draw the way I do with pencils: lines to create a shape and a few details to give it volume.
I scrape away!
I feel lost.
It doesn’t look like anything I can relate to! I can’t imagine what this will end up looking like. I can’t even think of other things I could do that would give an interesting effect. It just looks like a mess!

I have no idea what I’m doing with these materials!

This is an “ah ha!” moment for me. I feel lost.
I can’t even imagine what I could do because these materials are so unfamiliar. I don’t know what they will let me create.

And, there and then, I’m brought back to what we discovered in our STEAM in K one-year experimentation. Namely, how important it is for children to be given ample time to play with and explore materials, tools and techniques freely and with no end-product in mind. Well, this doesn’t apply just to preschool children, does it? It certainly applied to me! And it’s true for any learner at any level. It‘s true also for anything we learn, from art to coding and for all the other letters in STEAM.

LEARN by doing!

In our year-long project in which three experienced teachers implemented STEAM in Kindergarten, this fact was spectacularly brought home the day clay was introduced in the class. It was a totally new and unfamiliar medium which just shouted to be explored. Their exploration started with the medium itself.

How does it feel? How does it let itself be manipulated? What different gestures can be used to shape it? What can be done with these shapes? Then, what tools can be used to refine manipulation? How do you change its texture? How do you stick pieces together? And so much more!

After having played with clay in many ways and used different tools and techniques over several sessions, the children discovered how this material works and what they could do with the tools. It also gave the teachers time to provide them with the language associated with this medium, the vocabulary of clay, its tools and gestures. Having worked with it many times with no particular goal in mind, the children were finally able to imagine what they would like to MAKE with it AND they were able shape their idea into the clay and obtain an intentional result.

The lesson I draw from this experience is that when we are introduced to new, unfamiliar materials, practices or techniques, we need to be given the opportunity to explore the potential of the materials multiple times before we make something with it whether it be a picture, a “thing”, or a program.

I am reminded that when we observe children inventing and making things with wooden blocks, with LEGO or with cardboard boxes, we tend to forget that they are quite familiar with these materials which have been part of their environment since daycare. They can turn them into any number of wondrous creations or use them in unsuspected ways to serve their goals. Add a few new materials into the mix, such as cars, balls, PVC pipes or cardboard tubes, tape, and they will be able to imagine new things to do and to make.

Without that, we are only following instructions without much understanding or transferable learning, very much like I experienced in my fateful lesson. Familiarity breeds creativity as well as proficiency.

Observe the exploration and creativity that is possible when Kindergarten students familiarize themselves with new materials without having to worry about creating a single product.

Artful Tinkering in Kindergarten: The creativity table

Be sure to scroll down in this post to see the many photos of children’s work, and their descriptions of what it made them think of.

These days, many educators are preoccupied with helping their students develop creativity. We can harness children’s innate creative reflex in Kindergarten, and set them on a path of making, tinkering and creating. If you wonder where to start infusing the Maker spirit in a Kindergarten class – a creativity table may be just the thing for you! 

A creativity table is an open-ended activity center. Children usually prefer play that stimulates their curiosity and gives free rein to their imagination and creativity. One of the best ways to enhance their natural curiosity is to introduce a wide variety of materials we call ‘loose parts’ into their play setting. Your creativity table should offer your students plenty of loose parts to choose from.

Loose parts possess infinite play possibilities. They offer multiple rather than single outcomes; no specific set of directions accompanies them; no single result is inevitable; they are open-ended.

Materials become invitations that don’t focus immediately on the creation of products but instead support the children’s building relationships with those materials. Louder for the people at the back: materials are invitations. They do not lead the child to any particular course of action. The materials, and the creativity table ethos, allow children to build their own connection to what is offered. Materials are usually artfully presented, organised and sorted, preferably in transparent containers.

 

Transparent containers filled with loose parts

The children are given time to explore, to touch, to feel the textures and to let the materials lead their creativity with no particular outcome, product or set steps in mind. The invitation to create is open-ended and not time-restrained.

Their beautiful creations are ephemeral. This may be difficult for some children who are used to produce work that is always considered final and displayed. They learn to enjoy making them and then letting them go, though they can live on in the pictures that they take of them.

In one teacher’s words:

“[The first time] I put it out there, I thought ‘Let’s see what happens’. I’ll just change it.  Have them create some kind of images with shapes. They have had experience before [with art work that is ephemeral]. It’s really hard for them [not to keep their creation]. But they’re so good. They just create, have fun, and if they want me to take a picture, I can take a picture and put in their portfolio binder. But [I tell them] ‘Don’t make it permanent’. And they learn to do that. They respect that. And they respect putting everything back in its own place. It’s kind of fun actually [that they enjoy sorting things back into their containers]. Usually this is my plasticine/play dough table, but I’m looking forward to changing it up and see what else they can create with the stuff I’m just going to put there: my Exploration Table”

She compares it to building sand castles on the beach. 

“You create and play, and the next day it’s no longer there so you can start over again.”

September’s sea-themed exploration/creativity table

October’s fall themed table

 

When the children were “finished”, the teacher took pictures and asked them what their creations made them think of. (not “What did you make”!) Here is what they said about their creations – “It makes me think of…”

…nature
…the heart of a tree for a ladybug
…a flower
…a nest
…a beautiful garden

 

There were many more. All their creations were beautiful. But even more beautiful is what the children SAW in them. That is both creative AND poetic!

This very simple activity over time creates a maker mindset which values autonomy and exploration, which makes tinkering the default first steps of any activity, which gives permission to try different ideas and which provides invaluable experience with the medium used.