One of the things I like most about my job is that I get to teach most of the children for 3 years. They come to us when they're 2, usually still in diapers, and leave as sophisticated 5-year-olds, ready to take on kindergarten. People have argued that the middle school years are the time of most developmental change in children, that rapid transition through puberty from childhood to young adulthood, but the changes these guys go through, moving from the end of infancy into full-on childhood, is at least as dramatic.
I don't think I can even quantify all the ways getting to know these children over the course of these important 3 years helps me as a teacher. For one thing, we get most of the separation anxiety out of the way during their 2-year-old year when it's much easier to handle, allowing us to get right to work when they arrive in class as 3-year-olds, confident and comfortable.
And at the other end, there is no reward greater, and nothing that makes a teacher's job easier, than the bonds of comaraderie and friendship that characterize a group of 4-5-year-olds who have been coming to school together for as long as they remember.
We often undertake the same art project, on different days, with both of our age groups, Pre-3's and the multi-aged 3-5's.
We try hard to not steer the children in their use of materials, although that's a more challenging thing that one would think. It's hard for some of us to watch as a 2-year-old chooses to paint the table top, for instance, skipping the intended "target" (in this case foil) altogether. And likewise it's hard for many of us big-headed adults to let a child be finished after a mere dot of paint. "You can paint some more," we say, "What about all that area over there? It needs some color." It comes out of us sometimes, involuntarily, even as we regret it later.
Two-year-olds often don't distinguish between materials, painting their foil, the tabletop, the paint cups, themselves, or even the other paintbrushes with equal enthusiasm and interest. We're at our best as teachers when we're merely refilling the paint cups and putting words to what we see happening without passing judgement or giving instructions. "Simone is using orange." "Kiran is swirling his paint." "Rex has wrinkled his paper."
Two-year-olds tend to like holding a tool in either hand as they work, simply dropping their tools when and where they've finished with them, or when they want to pick up another one that seems for the moment more attractive. They don't seem to notice or care about anything other than the experiment at hand. It's the mess of a mad scientist's lab, full of experiments that will be replicated again and again through the years, but that are essential for each crop of scientists to undertake on their own, for their own delight and edification.
By the time they're experienced 3-year-olds, we see them tending to stick to the conventions of using their tools to apply paint to the "target" before them, staying inside the lines so to speak. Is this something we've forced upon them, even inadvertently? I don't think we're laying that expectation on them, but maybe we are, subtly. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they've grown conscious of the concept of "finished artwork," the kind of thing we hang on the classroom bulletin boards or the walls at home.
Whatever the case, we are teaching it, and there is definitely a growing consciousness of their work becoming something -- a "picture" or a piece of art. Their work is more purposeful as they strive to make the pictures in their heads appear on the paper.
These 3-year-olds are far more likely than they were a mere 12 months ago to lift their head up and look around at the art being made around them, to share in one another's artistic experiences, to comment and ask questions.
But it remains, at it's heart, a science project. This 3-year-old, for instance, spent a long time, carefully concentrating on drizzling her paint, shaking and moving her hand to to make shapes and squiggles, before finally swirling it all together into a new backdrop against which to drizzle another color.
She did it over and over again, an exploration of technique and color.
Not a single one our older 4 or 5-year-olds dropped by to paint on foil. I wonder why? I always have more questions than answers as a preschool teacher, which, I've decided, is the way it ought to be.