At American Jewish University’s Early Childhood Program, students are quickly able to apply their learning straight into the environments where they are teaching. As an instructor, it is a joy to be teaching educators who can apply their coursework directly into their everyday teaching. In this semester’s bachelor’s course, “The Indoor and Outdoor Environment,” the students are inspired to make changes to their environments through writing observations in their online journals. In their journals, they share reflections of how their students respond to the classroom changes, as well as how the change in environment affects the role of the teacher.
Our class recently explored the process of creating an art environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and independence. We spoke with guest presenter, Robin Koo from Teaching Beyond the Square, about how to create a process orientated art environment. We learned so much from her presentation, and one lesson was clear: less is more. Robin’s teachings inspired an observation in which students in the class removed materials from the art area and then noted how children interacted with four or fewer materials. Through reading their papers, it was obvious not just that these teachers had taken risks and become more open to new ways of teaching, but also that their students benefited from open-ended process art. Children were more focused, and they engaged socially with peers in new and exciting ways. Throughout reading their observations some trends and principles became apparent.
Principles of Exploring Open-Ended Art:
- Art for Art’s Sake
- Use Fewer Materials
- Give Children Time to Focus:
- Children’s Imagination Has Endless Potential
Art for Art’s Sake:
One shift when working on process orientated art is that children are focusing on creating art for simply learning new ways of creating art! There is no need to assign a project or relate art to a book or holiday. Children are learning through exploring tearing paper, using glue, scissors, and children’s imagination. Chana Gubani, who teaches at Temple Isaiah, wrote about her experience teaching art for art’s sake as part of her observation.
“I would say this also challenged me because I always make sure to let my students be independent. I truly value that in my classroom, but with art projects or anything to do with art, it’s always something I did in my classroom tied to a lesson. This time, I let them create all on their own without any lesson, or much detail of what to do. At some point, I knew If I stayed sitting with my kids at the table they would probably ask for my help to do things, so I really wanted them to create all on their own. All the things they were able to think of was just amazing and truly beautiful. Children never cease to stop amazing me with how they see the world through their eyes.” - Chana Gubani
Use Fewer Materials:
Many students shared that fewer materials led to more creativity and use of children’s imagination. Their play was richer and they were engaged for more time. Two different students, Yamit Florentin and Becca Taube, shared their observation of this principle in their journals.
“I think that taking away all of the other materials and just using a few of them allowed children to be more creative and to really use their imagination.... I understand how other teachers love to include many types of art materials in the art center, maybe to make it look approachable. My approach is completely different. I once read an article that says how children benefit from fewer toys and fewer materials. The fewer toys' children have, the more they play.” - Yamit Florentin
“This observation showed me that having a smaller number of materials allows students to focus more intentionally and holds student interest for longer periods of time. I was also able to observe how each student brings their own ideas and abilities when using the same materials. Overall, I think this classroom would benefit from keeping things simple in the future.” - Becca Taube
Give Children Time to Focus:
Although we know that having fewer materials gives children the opportunity to focus, unless we truly give them the time to deeply engage in the artistic process children will continue to bounce from activity to activity. If we are able to provide children with a calm environment and inspiring materials, children will be engaged and focused for a longer period of time. The following was observed by Venitia in her University Synagogue classroom.
“The most profound take-away from this observation was the focus of the children. Usually they blast through their project, but I believe they spent a longer period of time working on their masterpiece because they had fewer options. The children took their time in creating their artwork. This observation exercise was beneficial and necessary to allow my children to be able to choose art materials which are in plain sight and appealing to all. I can still keep a part of me in the area, i.e., the sea stars, driftwood and plants. But every day can be a new art adventure and I can’t wait to see the different and unique projects they come up with.” - Venetia Lambo
Children’s Imagination has Endless Potential:
Sometimes when adults limit materials they can be concerned that there are not enough opportunities for children to be creative. We need to remember that children’s imaginations have endless potential, and their ability to be creative is powerful. The more we expose them to open ended materials and open-ended art, the more that they can continue to grow the muscle of their own imagination. Suzana writes about how she noticed this through her observation of shifting the dramatic play area in her classroom at Valley Beth Shalom.
“In conclusion, this experience reminded me of the endless possibilities that our imagination offers, and which I managed to forget in this COVID era. Inspired by Robin Koo’s presentation, I initiated a complete “remodel” of our housekeeping area. Our children’s interest in caring for babies combined with some strong inclination to space and spaceships brought about a loose part exploration, with materials like boxes, space blankets, a variety of packing materials and babies, of course. The children’s use of the materials, however, completely surprised us all.” - Suzana Tsimerman
Learning at American Jewish University is a group process. In the classroom we share our observations and classroom experiences to discover and formalize our own individual educational philosophy. Changing the classroom environment can happen any day of the week, by chance, or intentionally. Through our coursework and work in small groups, we have discovered principles that help inform the choices we make in our environment leading to deeper and more engaged learning for children.