Saturday, January 14, 2012

Waterfall Painting

It seems like so long ago, but the 2010-11 school year was when we launched Woodland Park's outdoor curriculum. It shocks me, so I know it will shock some of you, to know that up until last year, the time we spent outside during our school day could have been measured on a stop watch. I exaggerate, but there were days when we'd open the door for a mere 20 minutes or so to give the children a chance to run around on the slab of asphalt we called a playground. The kids had fun, of course, and we did what we could, tossing out a variety of toys, but it wasn't an important part of our school day.

I was just a few months into blogging then. As part of that experience, I came across Jenny over at Let the Children Play, who was also just getting going online. She was doing research on ways to enhance her own school's outdoor space, then sharing what inspired her on the blog. This opened a whole new world for me, one that started our community through a sometimes rocky transformation to where we are today, with a robust outdoor curriculum and an outdoor classroom of which to be proud.

So while I can say I'm a seasoned "classroom teacher," with 3 years of apprenticeship in my daughter's cooperative preschool, followed by 10 more as a teacher at Woodland Park, I'm still a relative newbie when it comes to an outdoor curriculum. Today our 3-5's class is spending close to half its day outside, even in the dead of winter, and our summer group doesn't use the indoor part of the school at all. 

One of the aspects of this curriculum that has the steepest learning curve for me is doing outdoor art. So much of what we think of as art involves paper, and in a rain forest climate like ours, especially a maritime one with quite a bit of wind, paper is a frustrating medium: it gets soggy, tears, dissolves, gets blown away. Naturally, there are some ways to use paper that take advantage of the weather (like rain painting or painting with watercolors in the rain), but we're limited. We have similar frustrations with trying to use white glue for projects: colder temperatures seem to cause it to somehow separate, losing its adhesive and curing qualities. We use our glue guns out there quite a bit, but when the rain is torrential, I start to get nudgy about the combination of wet and electricity.

In other words, I'm still in the process of developing a core collection of outdoor art projects that I can rely on, meaning our "failure" rate is still quite high -- probably greater than 50 percent -- failure being defined as things not going the way I'd anticipated, which means that more often than not, our outdoor art projects wind up with the children simply making it their own.

Recently, on a non-rainy, non-windy day, we rolled out a sheet of butcher paper. I was thinking about how much fun I'd had as a boy using drinking straws to blow wine corks around the dining room table with my brother, and thought we could try something like that on our art table. The idea was to get the kids working on their blowing techniques first with corks, then introduce the idea of blowing paint around on the paper with their straws.

The corks held their interest for almost no time at all (there's a lot of other stuff going on outside competing for their interest), so we went to the paint fairly quickly. Tempera paint straight from the bottle is too thick for blowing with straws, so my plan had been for the kids to experiment with diluting it themselves, then test it with their straws. I do have enough experience to know that the mixing would be the biggest draw for many of the kids, so I'd sort of thought we'd have one mixing table and one table for experimenting with straws.

I was called away to other things, so I'm not exactly sure how we got from here to there, but by the time I returned, the kids had taken off from my original idea and figured out a very cool art project on their own, one that we could never have permitted inside. They were ignoring my two table idea. Instead, they were busy diluting paint, but instead of ladling it out on the paper as I'd thought they would, they had discovered that mixing, then dumping it out was far more fun, causing "rainbow waterfalls" to run off the table and onto the ground. Others still circled the table with their straws, blowing on the pools and puddles. At some point the paint brushes also came out.

We went through lots of paper and lots of paint and made a big, wonderful mess. I think we'll call this waterfall painting. I wonder if we'll ever do it again or will they discover something new next time.

With each of these experiences I become a little less of a newbie. This is the real story of a teacher's education.

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Anonymous said...

Those paintings are amazing - thanks for sharing. I wish I saw more schools that spend time outside around here; I recently worked in a preschool where kids in the half day program got to play on the playground for a meager 15 minutes or so a day. It didn't feel right to me.

Maria Wynne - Casa Maria's Creative Learning Zone said...

Love this spontaneous outdoor art; there is no way to be totally in control of the process. Nothing is more exciting than watching paint drip.

Shelley @Little Explorers said...

I have the same problem with outdoor art. I try to give them as much time outside as needed but my outdoor space is still a work in progress. And now with the cold and snow, it limits what kinds of materials we can use outside. I am always looking for new ideas like these, though.

M said...

We often use wall paper to paint and draw on outside since it’s thicker and lasts longer than ordinary paper, especially when it’s wet out. Both sides of the same piece of wall paper can be used most of the time and the different textures and colors on the front can be a challenge of its own.