ARTICLE Beautiful Stuff: A Conversation About How Young Children Learn

Cathy Weisman Topal has been a visual arts educator at the preschool, elementary, middle school and college levels for over 40 years. She had a long career as a studio art teacher at the Center for Early Childhood Education at the Smith College Campus School in Northampton, Massachusetts and as a lecturer in Visual Arts Education in the Department of Education and Child Study at Smith College. She is also the author of six books that have grown from her explorations and exchanges with children, classroom teachers and in-service and pre-service teachers across the country. 

Cathy’s grandson, Jacob, is a student in Covenant Award recipient Amy Meltzer’s Kindergarten classroom at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. In a very special conversation, Cathy and Amy discuss how children learn, how we can set up classrooms to best serve our youngest students, the value of “loose parts” and more.

AMY: Tell us about how young children learn.

CATHY: In watching children in early childhood settings, and now having the luxury of being a grandparent –which truly compels me to be fully present - I am convinced that young children learn through their explorations--touching, smelling, looking, listening, moving things, testing how things work; using all their senses as well as their intelligence.

My 4 _ year old grandson was outside my house the other day. He picked up a piece of birch bark from the ground. After holding this object carefully and really studying it for a while he said, “It's from a tree.” Shortly after turning the bark over and around, he said, “It’s very colorful.” As he unrolled the bark and studied this new section, he said, “But not here.” His words caught me by surprise and made me step back and wonder too. How much we take for granted!

Watching my grandchildren, I notice that they might not talk for long stretches, but they are listening in their own way. It may not seem as if they are paying attention, but they are! Consequently, as parents, teachers and caregivers, we have to also listen with all of our senses in a deeper, empathetic way to really “hear,” and respond. By recording quotes and observations and then revisiting them with the child, we connect sensations and discoveries with language and understanding. We co-construct knowledge.

AM: Do children learn differently from adults? If so, how?

CT: After teaching groups of many different ages and stages, and often pondering that question, I don’t think it is all that different. As I have grown, over time, to be a better listener and documenter, I have come to see that often children’s ideas and explanations are much more thoughtful and sophisticated than we might assume. But we don’t hear those explanations if we are not paying attention and allowing time and space.

AM: How do you think this understanding impacts the choices we make when we are setting up learning opportunities?

CT: In working with young children I keep stepping back to look for ways to put the emphasis on wondering about and exploring materials, tools, processes, strategies and approaches. What is this material? How can we describe it? Let’s make a list of descriptive adjectives. What actions can we do to change it? Let’s make a list of verbs. Let’s play with testing out some of our ideas - the actions on our list. How could we hold a paintbrush, scissors, printing stamp, or crayon? Let’s experiment with different ways. How can we move this particular tool to make it work better? From where in our bodies (what muscles, joints, etc…) can we initiate movement? What parts of the body are we activating?

Projects grow from explorations and discoveries. All work with materials is physical and involves movement and the body. I always offer a few techniques to try out first as a way to get the experimentation going. After all, getting started is the toughest part. And then, stepping back from experiments to look as a group and to share and discuss discoveries is critical! That is when children see and realize their strengths as well as the strengths of their classmates.

AM: When we understand how children learn, how does that impact the choices we make in setting up classrooms and learning opportunities?

CT: When working on Beautiful Stuff: Learning with Found Materials, we did everything in the classroom of four and five year olds. We did not have a separate art studio.

Immediately we noticed that children just wanted to touch and wonder about individual objects. We found that we had to figure out how to allow time for them to do that without having to make anything. That was a huge learning moment for me. Now, I allow time for wondering, exploring, and experimenting with every material, tool, or process that I offer.

Sorting and organizing also became a very powerful way to explore, to get to know and to enjoy materials without having to make anything. Creating order is an aesthetic and satisfying experience. That was another important finding from Beautiful Stuff.

There are always a lot of preparations to make in teaching with materials, and especially with young children. But, we should always ask, “Would this work be better for the children to do? How could we set it up so that it becomes a learning experience for the children?”

AM: How do you get teachers to feel more comfortable with materials? 

CT: Teachers need time to explore with open-ended materials! I’ve spent my whole career teaching--more than 40s years--and I still have to experiment and play with materials before I teach.

I don’t think preparation for teachers today includes much experience with studio materials. This is unfortunate; so many of the goals for learning grow out of exploring materials, tools, processes and approaches to communicating. I think teachers might not realize that active learning--with hands and minds--has the same importance as play in the life of children. And, by the way, teachers also need on-going support to grow and to try out new ways of working.

AM: How does the Reggio Emilia method inspire your teaching?

CT: When I went to [visit a Reggio Emilia school in Italy] for the first time it was truly overwhelming. The classrooms were so beautiful--not in a fancy or expensive way, but in how they were arranged and organized. I did not see plastic toys in red yellow and blue. I did not see posters with the letter A and a picture of an apple. I did not see cartoon characters on the wall. I did not see primary and contrasting colors everywhere. Everything was soft, neutral colors. The theory is that by using neutral colors in the classroom space, you allow the “color” of the children and their work to stand out.

AM: Not every center can send their teachers to Reggio. How can teachers try this approach even without visiting?

CT: Teachers need to play with materials and processes, to explore, experiment and acquaint themselves with materials. It is also important for teachers to work together, to build relationships with and through the materials, to reflect on their experiences and think about how they could apply what they’ve experienced, in their own settings.

AM: What do you wish every early childhood teacher knew?

CT: I wish they all knew how much more rewarding, satisfying and just plain fun teaching could be if they let explorations with open-ended materials, tools and processes guide them, rather than cutesy projects like snow people made with cotton balls that all look alike. I wish they realized that most of the standards, benchmarks, and goals of teaching could be met simply by observing and listening to children as they explore and problem-solve, recording significant words, and reflecting with the children.

I suggest using the lessons in Explorations in Art: Kindergarten as a way for teachers to explore together.

AM: This year, your grandchildren were enrolled in Jewish preschool and kindergarten. Can you talk a little bit about where your approach might fit in, in a Jewish space?

CT: Amy, your classroom offers an excellent example. You were not always so comfortable with materials. You have used and built upon the units in Explorations in Art: Kindergarten, and Beautiful Stuff, Learning with Found Materials and used them to make important concepts in Jewish education and teachings from the Torah come alive. For example, I loved how you used watercolor explorations to express the feeling of Shabbat. You definitely enriched the experience by adding this emotional aspect.

Another fantastic idea you implemented was making beautiful stuff--or loose parts--available for children to tell the story of creation. Breaking the story down so that the children could really think about each facet added complexity. Children also worked in pairs, exchanging ideas and solutions-- adding another level of cooperation.

Sewing and decorating challah and matzah covers was another beautiful way to use new materials, tools and skills to further inspire the children. Bringing in a parent to work with the children on dying yarn and weaving certainly made the story of Joseph much more meaningful. It’s not easy, but making something real, overcoming problems, and getting good at the skills of sewing and weaving requires focus and attention. The fiber arts always seem to engage unexpected children--especially boys!

By using studio materials, tools and processes in teaching, you have made Torah come alive for your students, but also, you are deepening the way your students understand and apply these stories and lessons. And you are helping children turn these stories into memorable experiences.

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