At the Heart of Children and Art

Supporting Creative Art Experiences for Young Children

Painting by Ruby Stafford, age 4, as part of a Butterfly Study

Ruby's Butterfly

One of our values at McKendree is the opportunity for children to engage in creative art experiences.  We believe that every child is born an artist and that expressive activities such as painting, drawing, sculpting, and collage are ways through which children can explore and communicate their understanding of ideas and the world.

All of our classrooms provide creative art experiences for children.  Our older babies might begin their artistic development by making simple marks with chalk, markers, or paint.  The toddler’s scribbles are evidence of increasing motor control and the capacity to intentionally create.  By age 3, shapes emerge in children’s drawings, often followed by the distinctive “mandala”, a circle within a circle.  Suns, radials, and combinations of shapes, as one unit, typically emerge by age 4.  Between 4 and 5, children often begin to draw people.  These are beautifully illustrated by the monthly displayed self-portraits created by the children in our Researchers and Constructivists classrooms.

The developmental changes in children’s art and drawing is only part of story. The plot thickens when we see the child as capable and trust her to experiment with a variety of materials in a way that honors the creative process.  Our classroom teachers support this practice in the classroom and in the studio.

Delightfully, in our desire to extend these experiences, we plan to add an Atelierista to our program later this year.  The Atelierista or Studio Teacher’s role is different from that of the classroom teacher.  She will add another perspective to the learning that takes place through art.  The Atelier or Studio is not just an isolated space for arts and crafts but rather is a laboratory for thinking and making connections through the use of creative materials.  The Atelierista’s role will be to guide the children to be more active, more adventurous, more reflective, and more creative in the Atelier.

Cindy recently attended a wonderful day-long professional development workshop called, “It’s a Messy Job: A Crash Course on the Role of the Atelierista” in preparation for our shift to deepen McKendree’s practice of supporting creative work.  Our studio’s materials are growing and much of the children’s work already reflects our increasing value of art.    It is with joy and wondrous anticipation that we embark on our continued journey to extend children’s learning.

Emergent Curriculm

What Happens When We Begin With The Child?

 Discovering a Grasshopper on the Roof

Recently at a local early childhood conference, Heather Marshall and Danielle Ficili presented an Introduction to Emergent Curriculum Workshop to their peers.  The room was packed with early care teachers eager to learn about our child-led and teacher-framed model of respecting children’s ideas, interests, questions, and lines of inquiry.   Heather and Danielle offered rich examples of the purposeful work of our McKendree children, bringing to life the philosophies touted by important theorists: Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky.  They described the principles and practices that support child-centered curriculum:

  • Observe the children
  • Provision the environment
  • Sustain the play
  • Enrich the play
  • Represent and re-represent the experience

These principles become evident as one tours our center.  In the hallways and classrooms there are photos and narratives (documentation) that “tell the story” of children’s learning.  Investigations sometimes begin slowly and emerge as children explore – for example:  the months’ long Worm Project in the Discoverers Class. Other times, projects begin serendipitously – for example, the Researchers’ new investigation on insects was spurred by the discovery of a beautiful grasshopper on the roof last week.

Often the project topic is not the real story; themes — about movement, power, sensory exploration, transformation, and other developmental schemas (those repetitive patterns and urges in children’s play) — become the driving force in the changing curriculum.  The recent explosion of interest in “sticky things” in the Explorers class is a great illustration of the transforming schema. Young children in the sensorimotor phase of learning are creating cognitive structures by exploring, discovering new textures, and acquiring new language to describe these new experiences.

Currently, you will find the Constructivitists (our Pre-K Class) researching Zen Gardens.  The children in the Investigators Class are building an interest in dinosaurs — not as a subject of study but more as a representation of “powerful and strong” animals.  And, even the older babies are actively engaged in exploration of paint and water.  These rich experiences are part of a curriculum designed especially for the children, by the children themselves.

Creativity is killing our creativity

Anderson Williams, parent to two McKendree kids, was our guest recently for a parent talk on the subject of “CREATIVITY” (3/22/17). His blog post below, shared with his permission, summarizes the conversations we had during the meeting.


Those of us who were typically developing children pretended, played, danced, and colored and cut and pasted and taped with abandon. I see it every day with my own children ages 3 and 5. For most of us, supportive adults let all of that creativity happen, and even encouraged it. Creativity was part of our early development. It was a process. It wasn’t about the output.

I don’t know anyone who would look at the drawings or collages or sculptures of a 3 or 5 year old and evaluate whether or not they are creative: “No, honey, the way you taped that pipe cleaner next to that scribble mark is not very creative.” It seems odd to even conceive of making such a value judgment because most of us appreciate a child’s process, their exploration of materials, and early efforts at self-expression. That’s what kids are supposed to do.

Somewhere along the way, however, we do start judging. We start telling kids that this creativity of theirs is either good or bad – or, more specifically, they are good or bad at it – rather than reinforcing it as a valuable part of who they are and who they are becoming. We do this because we start judging their creativity as a product and lose the beauty and necessity of the process. In doing so, we actually push our kids away from the creative process as they get older.

To make matters worse, we also start to evaluate good or bad creativity relative to very specific and finite mediums. So, the kid who can draw or play an instrument is told he is creative. The kid who loves math or history or even science, on the other hand, is at least by contrast, if not explicitly, told he is not. Creativity perversely then becomes the exclusive realm of the arts. As a result, we again push most of our kids away from the creative process. Creativity is for some and not others.

Most of us have no idea how we have used creativity in a way that hurts the very idea we value. We see how “creative” people question, deconstruct, or synthesize things in ways that are unique. We appreciate ways that they interpret and express the world. But, we have lumped this all into a generic term. We should be more explicit about what we value in creativity.

We should tell people we appreciate how they thought about something, that their question was great. We should ask them how they came to think of or express an idea in a way we hadn’t thought of. We should celebrate and ask about their process for learning or organizing new information. We should try to understand how and where they arrived at some kind of divergent thinking.

Basically, we should be more creative about how we think about, acknowledge, and invest in creativity.

I understand why so many adults say that they aren’t creative. I just don’t buy it. We’ve been brainwashed by an evaluative and arbitrarily narrow use of the word. We need to reclaim creativity in each of our lives and work. We need to stop seeing creativity as the developmental realm of the child or the specific domain of the arts.

Creativity is within all of us, and all of us will be better off when more of us accept it, and put it into action.



Bang, Bang — Gun and Weapon Play in Our Preschool

By Cindy Ligon, Director

Recently, a mom of a three year old came to me in a bit of a panic.  “My son is obsessed with guns and yesterday he played, ‘shooting police,’” she confided.  gunplayObviously unnerved by the theme of her child’s play, she wanted to know how we were guiding and responding to this sort of play at the center.

So, what is the best reaction?  A zero tolerance approach banning all weapon play?  A modified approach, allowing some gun play with rules and restrictions (“no shooting at people”, or “ask before you take aim.”), or an approach that allows and supports this type of play as a natural part of childhood?  To re-evaluate our position (we have always had a loose no gun-play policy), I went first to the experts – our team of early childhood educators who spend forty plus hours a week observing and interacting with young children.

I started by asking the teachers, “Why is it so appealing and of interest to children, especially to boys?” We acknowledged that weapon play is a common theme in childhood play that seems to satisfy their needs to feel strong, powerful, and in control.  We discussed the social aspect of the game – good guys vs. bad guys, the roles that can evolve as children try to determine what is good and what is bad (evil), and the fun of games that involve pursuit and capture.  We also examined the draw of “projection with power” and how there was a naturally occurring impulse to throw things (especially for boys).  All in all, we shared over fifty years’ worth of collective observations that concluded:  children (boys) like gun play.  But, we still felt uneasy.  Some of the teachers felt downright disturbed with the prospect of supporting violent play in their classrooms.

Next, we turned to the limited research on the topic.  Some studies indicated that where gun play is permitted, it tended to spike then taper off in popularity.  Another study affirmed that “aggressive”, or rough and tumble play where gun play is sometimes permitted, is linked to increased social competencies.  But still, we felt uneasy and conflicted.

After many discussions and shared emails detailing research and hypotheses, we huddled for a nap-time meeting and rather quickly agreed that we just were not comfortable openly allowing weapon play at McKendree.  However, we also agreed that we had to respect the children’s needs for power-related play through intentional activities and experiences.  We brainstormed ways to use children’s literature, The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland is a great example, to create games of chase and pursuit, and good vs. evil.  We compiled a list of topics rich with schematic play opportunities for children – giants, super heroes, magic, community helpers, and Disney characters and story lines – and vowed to thoughtfully explore these more often. cape We also shared ideas for incorporating more “projection with power” experiences so as not to squelch children’s energy or impulses but to direct and channel them into positive directions.  For example, we might ask, “How about we line up some cans and knock them down with tennis balls?’, “Let’s get a hoola hoop and shoot balls through it.” Or,   “Who is up for a game of basket ball (using a laundry basket and soft balls)?”

When gun-play surfaces, we will not have a knee-jerk, corrective response but will instead ignore (if possible) and then purposefully redirect.  We are prepared to tell the children that pretending to hurt others is not safe and is therefore not allowed at our school.  Play is a tool that children use to make sense of their world.  We are committed to helping them to do this work in a safe and peaceful way.  We began with a group discussion (led by Safety Dog, our well respected ambassador of staying safe) and will continue to purposefully provide safe ways for the children to play.

Why We Play Outdoors Even When it is Cold

snow-covered_mittensAt McKendree Day Care, we go outdoors for an hour each day unless we are experiencing extreme weather –a high heat index, poor air quality,  extreme cold and/or heavy rain or thunderstorms.

snowmanLast year we had an amazing 8 inch snowfall. Heavy snow blanketed our rooftop outdoor classroom, offering us hours of magical play.
National and state early childhood best practice standards recommend daily outdoor play for young children, weather permitting.  ECERS-R , the Environment Rating Scale used by TN to measure program quality explains, “Even in climates with more severe weather, children should be dressed properly and allowed to play outdoors unless there is a danger associated with outdoor exposure.”

Rules and regulations are not the only reasons that we value outdoor play during the winter months.  We believe that there are several benefits that accompany this outdoor playtime.

  1. Children Can Escape Indoor Germs, Bacteria and Build Stronger Immune Systems

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). “Outdoor play in winter strengthens the immune system by allowing your child an escape from indoor germs and bacteria and helps form a resistance to allergies.”  And, “When children and adults spend a long time together in indoor spaces that are small, overheated and poorly ventilated, germs and illnesses pass easily from one person to another.” Therefore, the commonly held belief that keeping kids out of the cold will keep them healthier is not necessarily true.

  1. Opportunities for Better Exercise:ice-2

According to the CDC, children should get 60 minutes of exercise every day, and exercising during the winter can be even more beneficial because larger muscles are able to get more use when children move through snow and ice. Increased exercise will help promote a better sleep cycle and can lead to children growing stronger and maintaining a healthy body weight.

  1. Promotion of Problem-Solving, Imaginationsnow-mud-kitchen

A winter-scape offers children a new set of challenges to overcome, both physically and cognitively. The mud kitchen may be filled with ice and snow, the frozen garden beds provide a new landscape for play and children are forced to find alternatives to warm weather play.

  1. Provides Essential Vitamin D:

According to the National Institute of Health, Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption, prevents rickets in children and prevents bones from becoming too thin or brittle. Sun exposure is an important source of vitamin D and has also been shown to improve mood