When it comes to preschool art, our rule of thumb is that it’s the teacher's job to provide a certain collection of art supplies each day, but how the children choose to use them – as long as they’re not hurting or frightening someone else – is up to them. Last year, for instance, in the 3-5 class we had a group of girls who turned every art project possible into finger painting, which became an excuse to apply paint, glue, paper mache paste, or any other substance from their fingertips to their elbows. They often produced no actual paintings to take home, but rather temporary body art to wash off before moving on to the next station.
A few years back the father of one of our students was a rather notorious artist. Not only did Peter fully understand the theory of the art station, I soon realized that he was applying the same principle to every station in the room. And not only was he encouraging the children to use the materials as they choose, he himself was finding new and startling ways to use what I’d provided. I learned to especially look forward to when it was his turn to be in charge of the block area.
Our block area is the largest open space within the classroom; it doubles as our Circle Time venue. Whenever I saw Peter was to be working that station I started just tossing out a collection of random items to see what would happen. This wasn’t a secret. I told him what I was doing. One day I gave him the challenge of gym mats and several large wooden boxes along with a few other randomly selected items. The area went through several iterations, one of which included using the ability of the mats to be connected to one another by means of Velcro strips to wrap large numbers of children together like meat in a burrito. Ultimately, however, the most successful result was when the boxes wound up under the mats to create an ever-changing soft landscape over which the children leapt, fell, and tumbled.
Needless to say it got wild and sweaty. Kids weren’t always landing on the mats, there were several head-bonking collisions, and more than a few twisted limbs, although surprisingly few tears. I guess it was too much fun to take the time out for crying. There were a lot of kids rubbing it off and jumping right back in.
In the midst of this scene, our parent educator Jean Ward walked in. I gulped, wondering what she would say. She stood watching the kids buffeting themselves and one another for a while. Finally she said, “This is terrific. The children are getting a full body sensory experience.”
This block area set-up is now a staple of Woodland Park’s curriculum. Since not all parents have the ability or desire to perform the ongoing construction and de-construction that Peter did, it has lost its “every-changing” quality. I’ve also taken to using duct tape to hold the wooden boxes together so they don’t slide out from under the mats. And this week, I threw some of our new giant soft blocks into the mix for both extra padding and fun. But it still maintains much of the crazy-time fun of the original.
Both the Pre-3 class and 3-5’s played on the soft landscape set-up this week, and while there were a few bumps and bruises, I don’t believe there were any more injuries than on a usual day – preschoolers can get bumps and bruises doing just about anything. It’s a fantastic place to experience things like body space, being gentle/careful with the bodies of others, taking turns, and being responsible for one’s own safety. A few children always lose themselves a bit and engage in spontaneous wrestling or tackling. I tend to let a little of it go as long as both parties are enjoying it, but that’s not always the case, so I’m constantly reminding the kids, “If someone is doing something to you that you don’t like, you can say, Stop!” A lot of children said “Stop!” this week, especially yesterday in the 3-5 class, and just as many children got the message and stopped doing whatever it was that was infringing upon their friend’s enjoyment of school.
I’m always amazed at how well this set-up works. It’s hard sometimes for the parent in charge of that station to step back and let the kids take a few chances, because it is so manifest to our adult brains how easily they could be hurt. (And sure, sometimes we have to make a safety rule when someone insists on repeatedly attempting some risky maneuver.) If it were us, with our much more fragile adult bodies, we would certainly emerge from this experience with wrenched necks and twisted ankles galore. But children, with their extraordinary flexibility, low center of gravity, and undeveloped knee caps, have bodies designed for the rigors of the soft playscape and it's "full body sensory experience."
At one point yesterday Finn V. found himself buried under a pile of bodies. I was keeping an eye on things as they developed, watching his face for any sign of pain or panic. His face was flushed with excitement. At one point, even though he was smiling from ear-to-ear, I got concerned and asked, "Are you okay?" He answered, "Yes. I'm under a blanket of kids!"