Monday, 20 April 2015

Artfully engaging play

A visual metaphor for my impulse upon entering the beautiful play space set up at a ThinkinEd thinkshop.

 In March I was asked to participate in an incredible exhibit experience held by ThinkinEd. This was no small honour for me, a fan of their work. Their loose parts playscapes are always a multi-sensory, deeply thought-provoking invitation to celebrate creativity. I am so inspired by all that they do with their professional play experiences that I attend as many as I can though they're usually located an hour or more away for me. ThinkinEd takes something I've been actively engaging in with my students for several years now (playing, creating, thinking through use of loose parts) to a level I rarely see anywhere: their invitations are somehow transcendent, sweeping up participants in a feeling of utter delight. The thought that goes into the materials is art itself, and the participants become artists, architects or magicians simply by engaging in the experience. Below are images from some of the different events I've been fortunate to attend. 

June 2014: My daughter surveys a landscape she created with Aviva's daughter. The surprising reflection changed their play and their focus. At the joint Hawkins Exhibit & EdEx pop-up event at Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Click here for an interactive version of the photo, including audio.

August 2014: An invitation to play with the elements of design as used in Canada's most iconic and beloved artwork, that of the Group of Seven. At the incredible "Open House" pop-up event at MacDonald Art House in Vaughn. 

My response to the invitation above: I was joined by my friend's daughter as we looked carefully at the painted image for lines and colours to echo with the fabric swathes. 

While we were recreating the fall scene with fabric, my friend Helen got up close to a pair of snails (one large, one very tiny) with her older daughter. The snails soon became a living loose part, joining in fairy stories outside in the large wooded lot at MacDonald house. Like in an emergent curriculum classroom, there may be many threads of inquiry going on at the same time. Being able to wander from room to room, to follow one's own interest, made the experience personally meaningful to all.

My favourite room at the Open House event (and they were all inviting so this wasn't an easy choice). It wasn't simply the sense- and thought-provoking materials and set-up, but also the connection to the discovery made by our daughters at the EdEx event that made extending the play more meaningful. 

A closer look at the description in the reflections room. This particular scene with the trees and water intrigued me when I found it. I could see the images from the painting wonderfully captured with the tiles and stones, but it seemed incomplete somehow, not related to the mirror against the wall. So I experimented by turning their creation a full 180 degrees in order to orient the reflection as I saw it in the painting. It took that change for me to realize that unlike the other paintings, the reflection in this image could not be captured in the same way, with the island above and below in the water. Again, the play of reflection became a deeper exploration when something surprising happened. I realized my error, and laughed out loud.

 To see why I so connected with these pop-up events, I looked back to posts I'd written a few years ago when I first thought to look closely at what was happening in my evolving program. I went from having "centres" or areas for certain materials to a more organic space where students and materials were freed up to move and combine as desired: 

I have been experimenting with loose parts as artistic expression for a few years, more on my own or with my children, but as I learned about Reggio-inspired classrooms and saw images of students creating installation-type artwork in primary classes, I began to see the possibilities for my Kindergarten class. Another way I like to think of it: I stopped putting out glue as a way to capture natural materials in artwork, and started playing with balance, pattern, movement and time. (from "balance, pattern, rhythm and awe")

 I learned from students who once rushed through drawings and gave scant details ("It's my house. That's the roof.") and who now were telling elaborate stories with characters and setting. There is something very powerful about paying attention to the choices students make in what, where, and how they decide to spend their time. This might be more a function of leaving behind "must-do" tasks and less about the materials in use, but what I was seeing was evidence of "the environment as third teacher". I was seeing students in a whole new light, getting to know them as I hadn't been able to with a teacher-lead lesson followed by "play" (which wasn't nearly as engaging because I didn't yet know how to extend it). Later that same month, two years ago, I described how it changed student behaviour overall:
Loose parts art invites collaboration and problem-solving. Sometimes it looks like several students working on their own little pieces in frames but sharing bowls of materials, chatting about their designs, offering each other new parts to add or asking for someone to pass them another item. Perhaps it is because I have been collecting so many materials to use, or perhaps it is the sheer pleasure gleaned from playing with beautiful, tactile materials, but I rarely see arguing over materials even in such close quarters... 
Sometimes it looks like one child beginning a small pattern and then, slowly or all at once, being joined by several more students bringing more materials. Time after time I have watched students enter into a process already begun, adding their ideas, sometimes knocking things over, sometimes changing the story or design quite radically. (from "loosely told stories")

These ideas permeated my overall view of teaching young students, but it took learning about the work of David and Frances Hawkins later that summer for me to realize how meaningful the ideas are for us adult learners, as well. It was at the Reggio Inspired Summer Intensive in July 2013 where I met Simone, one half of ThinkinEd.

Pride and delight as we finally get our marble run working. From left: me, Simone, Cheryl. At Richland School during the Reggio Inspired Summer Intensive.

It was there I began to deeply relate to the messages from Reggio Emilia, through exploring the ideas of Via Vecchi, Lella Gandini, and Loris Malaguzzi. Perhaps that's not giving a proper description of how the week worked, though. We did have readings to do each day before our session, however we did little "studying" once at our session each day. Instead we explored ideas by engaging in hands-on play, and reframed our experiences afterwords by touching on the readings as we reflected on what had transpired.

It was also at the summer intensive where I was first introduced to the transformative ideas of Hawkins-inspired learning (and that is a post of its own, someday) including the necessity of "messing about" with materials and ideas for educators, not just for their students. The big picture was beginning to come into focus.

For tweets from this exciting exhibit, explore the hashtags here and here for week of March 17-21.

ThinkinEd is the creation of two incredibly inspiring friends, Simone Speigel and Aviva Fudem. I became friends with Simone during our week together (the impact of which took four posts to share and I felt I'd only scratched the surface with my documentation) and I was in awe of her artist's eye. All the participants (including the host teachers) were surrounded by beauty and wonder each day, but when Simone documented the experience she somehow translated it with a bigger perspective. Aviva, her dear friend and partner in ThinkinEd, is also incredibly talented at seeing artistic potential in what might seem like mundane materials. Together they see the vision of Hawkins-inspired learning come to life in pop-ups, thinkshops and exhibits for all ages. See more about their vision and wonderful programs on their blog & website. The quotes below illustrate to me why their work is not "professional development" but something much deeper:

Meaningful learning opportunities for educators need to reflect the unchangeable fact that idea sharing and knowledge co-construction are the key to progress. (from "back to the drawing board")
The very essence of our human existence is the ability to create – to create life, to create thoughts, to create ideas, knowledge, you name it. So imagine what you'd learn about yourself if you went beyond observing and reflecting on your individual learning journey and moved closer to genuinely embracing and understanding your creative journey. (from "imagining impossible things")

Embracing that challenge, to understand our creative journey, I've been thinking about play. Play, not work, is the stuff of constructivist learning. Work to me means finishing an assigned task, completing a job. Learning is not inherent in the process, in fact what is produced might illustrate knowledge from long ago, or worse, mimic understanding but instead demonstrate an ability to follow instructions. Play, not the creation of something to demonstrate learning, but actual engagement in meaning-making, is the stuff of learning. I've read it over and over said different ways, from great thinkers as far back as Dewey, and more recently like Lilian Katz. The most quoted in relation to early years learning is Loris Malaguzzi who speaks of pleasure and research in the same experience of learning:

The art of research already exists in the hands of children acutely sensitive to the pleasure of surprise. The wonder of learning, of knowing, of understanding is one of the first, fundamental sensations each human being expects from experiences faced alone or with others. 

What stands out for me, from reading and from my own teacher-research in the classroom (now shared with my wonderful teaching partner Pooneh Haghjoo whose observations add exponentially to my learning) is that when loose parts are involved, the focus shifts away from "what will it be made" to "what is". The mindful awareness that can come from exploring materials collaboratively is how students can come to understand ideas I once thought too deep, too abstract for young learners.

Last year, just before the EdEx event, Simone and Aviva visited Thornwood PS where I work with a team of educators whose dedication to emergent curriculum equals my own. It was a joyous day, with our students taking on the role of tour guides, showing off the most exciting or meaningful parts of their classroom and outside environment. After their visit Simone wrote about the day, in a touching post with many photos from Lada Duric's room (a place down the hall I visit often for inspiration and thoughtful advice too). In that reflection she had an "aha" moment that resonated powerfully for me: 

Throughout the day, I heard Laurel remind her students to "look closely". This had the wonderful effect of slowing them down and pushing their thinking. When I got home – with those words echoing in my head – I took the time to "look closely" at the photos from our visit. Here's what I noticed: Hands appear in almost every photo – maneuvering lights, creating patterns, touching, moving, poking, sorting. As I put together this PicCollage of images, a thought popped into my mind: We use our hands to think!
That got me thinking about the moment Lada announced she had captured a loose butterfly from their collection and wanted to release it into the (amazing) no-mow zone out back. The excitement of holding the butterfly in her hands, of gently opening her hand in the sunlight and releasing the butterfly onto a dandelion brought so much joy and wonder to us as adults, I can only imagine how it must feel for a child. (from "thinking with our hands")

As so it is that when I was asked to collaborate with these friends to create an exhibit highlighting my favourite invitations, I jumped at the chance. Their "Art of Play" exhibit ran all through March Break. As a happy accident, we would up settling on an auspicious date for my part in the exhibit: March 20, United Nations' "International Day of Happiness". That we met at a Reggio-Inspired course, where we daily explored Loris Malaguzzi's vision for teaching: "Nothing without Joy" made the date deeply meaningful.

My selection of materials included those I've used many times before in everyday play and in special provocations to further explore ongoing ideas in class. As I spoke to Simone and Aviva about my vision for the playscape I wanted to create, I looked to an artist (and long-distance friend) Ranjit whose playful sound and materials installations always make me wonder "how did he even think of that?" and as such who had inspired me to "mess about" and create. While I have no knack for electronics and I have yet to learn how to be truly handy with tools, I have taken from Ranjit and others the need to throw out the rules of "what" and "how" common materials are to be used. Wooden blocks become a xylophone, nesting kitchen bowls become floating drums, ice becomes a slow-motion, suspenseful noise maker, water becomes both a background and an instrument. The only new item I added to the collection was an antique washboard found earlier in the week that I expected would be a wonderfully noisy addition to the play. 

I gave the materials list (those I would bring and those I would need to borrow, like an array of glass jars) as Simone and I discussed what it was I intended to inspire with the wood, metal, glass and water/ice. She wrote the educator profile (below) after we spoke, and I must admit I was at a loss for words to see it summed up so perfectly. Simone's vision is so clear. I also adored seeing the moment used for the picture was that reflections room play where I connected my own learning to student misunderstandings, and the importance of cognitive dissonance.

Everything packed and ready for a day of noisy exploration at MacDonald House.

To see a stop-motion-animation of the art of sound room as we set it up, click here. It's a fascinating look at how my helpers and I set up one half of the exhibit (the other half being out of view of the photographer). 

The description Simone wrote for participants to think about while in "the art of sound" room. The invitation at the bottom sums up succinctly what took me many more words to explain to her. 

The sunlight added another dimension to the beauty of the room and the simplicity of the materials. For a long while, everything seemed to glow.


Watching as different players engaged with the materials, I saw new combinations I didn't expect. Stef's tower cascade, a child's design to shower marbles into the bowls through a tube, a design and re-design of the tubing waterfall in the trellis.. ideas expanded and the music changed.  My big takeaway from using materials I'd played with before (with students over several years) was how differently the various players approach the invitation. Some young children embraced the noise and action fully, rolling large jingle bells into the water bowls, swinging the makeshift drumsticks, spinning the ice sculptures, pouring water from high up to affect a dramatic splash, jumping for joy when a particular sound was achieved. Other young children approached cautiously, careful to stay dry in a very watery room, and treated the delicate materials with respect and even reverence. This wasn't the surprise, though, as I've come to understand that children bring their whole self to such deeply sensory play, and personality naturally shines through. The surprise for me was the way in which the older children engaged with the materials. I loved seeing a boy persevere for over an hour when he discovered he could alter the shape of the water trellis, and thus the flow of the water. I was fascinated by the thought that went into design decisions when large tubes were used to funnel marbles into the various floating bowls. I appreciated the time taken by some older children who were supportive of what younger children were attempting to build. I especially delighted in seeing my Peel colleague and friend, Stef, who approaches loose parts provocations much like I do... without hesitation. She created a beautifully towering bowl cascade that provoked the others in the room to look at the materials in a new way. It was Hawkins-inspired learning in a multi-age room - joyous learning indeed.

*Note: click to play, and again to stop the vine clip. 
For sound, click the speaker icon, click again to mute. 

Early in the day the sunlight on the clear water in the makeshift xylophone was simple and inviting.

A request for colour like (here and in the water bowl tubs) changed the scene to a beautifully colourful expression of different pitch.

Meanwhile, elsewhere much magic was happening all throughout the historic MacDonald House. 

A welcome at the door.

The simplest materials, perhaps, but the strongest impact for me. My mind raced with possibilities for students, especially tying to ongoing inquiries in class such as our look at the structures in our neighbourhood.

This enticing lighted darkness was mesmerizing. My daughter spent much time here, as well as outside in the puddles and visiting the YR Nature room. I had only a few minutes to explore here (click for video clip) but the colours, reflections and shadows were enticing. I could've explored for ages. 

A calm and inviting space set up by Diane Kashin and Diana Fedora Tucci of York Region Nature Collaborative.

In "the art of line" room there were traces of the amazing Jessica who had been artist in residence days before but whose invitations and collaborations with ThinkinEd inspired a gallery of beautiful artifacts.

Traces of several days' worth of play with line. The shadows playing lines across the floor just added to the experience of looking closely at line. 

My day playing with sound, time and basic materials was fast-paced and fun. I left with my head spinning and my daughter still giddy from all she'd explored. I saw people of all ages connect to big ideas, simply by playing... playing with their own bodies in space, discovering possibilities and passions and even unknown talents. It was, as always, a deeply wholistic way to think about art and beauty. I am ever grateful for the opportunity to join in the play.