Sunday, November 13, 2016

The circle of play

After weeks preparing for an arts experience by discussing Matisse and Picasso, and by drawing or cutting out shapes, it was time for my small group of eight to put together a “product”. This would be our contribution to the school’s fund raising auction.

The children and I met around paper on a large table. I asked each child to choose a shape from the bag of shapes they had cut, and to place "their" shape on the paper. Then the negotiations began. My job, as teacher/facilitator, was to have the children think as a group, to let go of their attachment to their own shapes, and make some difficult group decisions about where the shapes should go to make a more pleasing (to the group) picture. I made changes and asked for a vote. I asked individuals to make suggestions for improvements. It was a very enjoyable group effort, one that pleased each child and myself. In the process some of the children caught on that using white space as part of the picture was an artistic choice, and not just for background. There were also lively and constructive discussions!

Arts integration means integrating both the formal ideas and ideals of arts disciplines with the ideas and ideals of language, history, mathematics, engineering, and science. Because the arts are integrative in themselves, they entice and seduce our children into learning.   During my own research for this work, I discovered (teacher, teach thyself!) that the word shape can be categorized as either geometric (that which we teach young children to the point of obsession), or biomorphic (shapes children see effortlessly, through their curiosity in exploring their world. These are the shapes of nature, and include the human body). We explored these shapes through the work of Matisse.

All process is a function of play.  All humans play with materials, with ideas, with words. Play is the precursor to invention, to innovation. In early childhood, some play-based programs have it half right. Their children learn through play, yes. But adults are often just furniture around which to play, or people who only talk to each other while they “watch” children. Adults should play a role, in school, to safeguard and encourage process, and they are instrumental in reminding children of their most deeply held interests when distractions prevail. If a child invents something, ruminates over it, takes time and energy all alone, that is a play/process/learning experience. When a group decides to make a trampoline out of old rubber mats and tires, it is a model of group invention and innovation. This is process, but the children rejoice in the product as well.

Using documentation (pictures, anecdotes, videos, of the children's process) makes their learning visible, as they say in Reggio. It allows children to see where they have been. There is nothing more interesting and, dare I say, entertaining than to listen in on children's conversations as they view their own art or photographs! Teachers of young children need the insight they receive from children's own mouths to proceed in their work.

Now perhaps my children would have made a totally different range of pictures, inspired by the book, Henri's Scissors, which we read, had I just let them go at it. And I believe that some wonderful works of art would have been the result. In this case, this teacher didn't want to leave this to chance, considering her deadline. All in all, it worked out, and we have all of that colored paper for more art for the children.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Visual art as play: Integrating the arts into the curriculum.

We read When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden, again this year. Each class responds with intense interest and curiosity when I read this story to them. No one is indifferent! But this year, I continued with actual stories about the artists lives. I read, Henri's Scissors, by Jeannette Winter, and Just Behave, Picasso!, by Jonah Winter, and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. These two books were labeled ages eight and up, so I was risking inattention and much silly behavior by reading them to a group of sixteen fours!

I was surprised and happy by their response to each book. The first book is a very true story about Matisse's shift to paper cutouts as his art. The theme included his old age and death. When I got to that part of the story there was a reverent hush among the children. "He died?", was a question. "Yes", I answered. "He was very old...", was one comment. The illustrator shows Matisse cutting out the stars in heaven, and the children accepted this premise.

The Picasso book emphasizes the wide expansiveness of self-expression in art, and how Picasso changed his art as his need to express himself changed. The children were mesmerized by the idea that, even though people said Picasso should "behave", he didn't.  One boy said, "Your art is for you! Nobody else can tell you how to do your art". That was the meaning of the book for him. Others were interested in finding the representational meaning of cubist paintings.

The children have begun following their muses, now. Some are drawing with "shapes", their take on cubism. Others are cutting paper and gluing it down. Because we need a school auction project, we will see where this takes us. I have materials at the ready! My take away from this experience is that even preschool children are grabbed by "big ideas". I forget sometimes. Never underestimate their ability to absorb meaning from their reading. Nothing I did during these readings and activities were "cute". They didn't need to be.

Here are a few pictures of preliminary experimentation before the auction project begins...

"Shape drawing"

Cutting shapes for bigger work

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Professional Development for Teachers

I don't usually advertise myself, but it seems that if one wants to continue to offer exciting, creative presentations for other teachers, one needs to toot one's own horn! 

My Horn

I have two dynamite workshops that have had rave reviews (really!). One is:

Engaging Curriculum: The Indoor and Outdoor Classroom 

The other is:

Music Every Day

Here are some of the nice things teachers said about the first workshop:

"I loved this class. I left with lots of notes. This class left me full of ideas."
"I really loved all of the info on outdoor learning and anything that Gail Multop does!" 

I swear I did not make this up.

Here are some nice things teachers said about the second workshop:

"It was fabulous! She gave me so many ideas to incorporate music into the class." 
"Love Ms. Gail and her workshop!! Highly passionate about what she does!"

I didn't make this up, either.

Please contact me for more information about training and workshops. Email me at 


Saturday, April 16, 2016

“It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests. This is the image of the child that we need to hold. Those who have the image of the child as fragile, incomplete, weak, made of glass gain something from this belief  only for themselves. We don’t need that as an image of children. Instead of always giving children protection, we need to give them the recognition of their rights and of their strengths.” Loris Malaguzzi.

Having worked in a Reggio-inspired program for four years, I endeavor to hold this idea in my mind as I teach young children, and as I teach adults. Young children are amazingly capable. They can learn anything at their level of development and as members of a larger culture. By providing support for what they are capable of, we honor their essential natures.

Recently, I have been thinking about DAP. What does developmentally appropriate practice mean to each of us? I think that, in spite of NAEYC’s very positive and specific guidance for us as Early Childhood Educators, schools and parents who want to honor DAP have differing images of children in their minds. I see so much that is good in the practices of my adult students, and among my ECE colleagues, but also I sense that many of us still tend to see young children as individuals who need protection, nurture, and dare I say, sheltering. The image Loris Malaguzzi presents in the quote above certainly contradicts this image.

In the NAEYC literature, 12 Principles of Development and Learning, the eleventh principle, “Development and learning are advanced when children are challenged” strikes me as particularly important. From self-help skills (pouring water, and counting out crackers at snack, to pulling up their own pants, with appropriate scaffolding) to project work (planning and creating a part of a project a child sees as needed, each contribution demonstrating not only skills, but ideas as well), young children are vastly more capable than we habitually see them. Perhaps, as Malaguzzi implies, we want to see them as needing more help, so that we can fulfil our own need to nurture (full-disclosure: sometimes guilty myself!). But we do not give them our best if we do things they can do themselves. Neither should we over-protect them.

Do you allow preschoolers shovels that actually dig a hole in dirt? Do you encourage them to climb trees, and hang upside down (yes, with an adult under them—licensing rules must apply after all)? Are they feeding and handling class lizards, or doing meaningful jobs (stacking chairs, sharpening colored pencils, sorting toys)? Are each of these activities enveloped in secure relationships with knowledgeable caregivers who are just as interested in what the children want to do as they are?

Here we have the path to a developmentally appropriate practice that allows children to go as far as they can because they want to; because they hold their caregivers’ esteem in high regard. No, “good job”, or star chart can make up for a lack of genuine involvement by adults and older children in what is important to young ones.

What inspired this blog post was a video of a three year old girl birthing a lamb. You may have seen it. If not, I hope you will be as inspired as I was. As you watch, consider how the adult (perhaps mother) holds back from diving in to take over, and uses questions and encouragement to allow this child to complete her work. The sense of capability, accomplishment, and self-respect she must have felt dwarfs anything that has come from a teacher saying, “good job” to a piece of artwork. Please take a look, and let me know what your response is.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Outdoor play and learning: Is this hard to understand?

Outdoor play is gaining popularity in direct proportion, it seems, to the rate of reduction of recess in schools. Those of us who played outside as children see the disappearance of nature play as abhorrent. I don’t need to cite all of the research that states that children need nature, and outdoor play as much as they need food, water, and sleep, but I want to explain my own view about such an important factor of working and playing with young children.

Playing in dirt calms children down. In my own experience, there is no better cure for restless young children than taking them outdoors, either to play in the mud, digging and creating streams with water, or to look for worms to populate a new garden. I have seen children put a bug on a leaf in water and watch it float on its own “boat”. Children make homes and playgrounds for worms and ask probing questions about their lives. If an unexpected nature event happens, such as the baby mole finding its way onto our playground, they are excited enough to burst. Attention spans elongate outside. Children work purposefully, and they collaborate. In mixed-age groups, especially, children learn to model, teach and learn above their developmental levels.

Why do we insist on latching on to the latest technology for children’s learning when there is such a wealth of rich experience outdoors? And how can children relate to each other and to the natural world if we establish narrow compartmentalization on their learning experiences? Technology was made for people, not people for technology. Children use tools outdoors, and then can use the technological tools indoors to graph, draw, or write about their learning. But these tools cannot be an end in themselves.

In multiple intelligence theory, Howard Gardner added “naturalistic”because it is a separate area of intelligence. To me, this means that learning in nature allows that mode of intelligence to flourish, and to bridge to the others. In my mind, inside and out must be extensions of each other. Giving children twenty minutes on a paved playground isn’t my idea of outdoor play.

Many folk are advocating for children to be immersed in nature. I recently heard about a school that has three twenty-minute recesses distributed throughout the day to keep children’s minds humming. This is certainly a start, but exploring and thinking about natural environments means that more children can learn and be successful. It is, after all, a goal on which we can all agree.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Is play a high form of thought?

Since my last post I have been thinking more about play. Why is it so hard to understand its importance? Then, two days ago, I went to visit a friend who has made (“French”) horns all of his adult life. George wasn’t trained as an engineer. He had drafting lessons in the Navy, and went on to be chief engineer for a well-known brass instrument company. Finally, he set out on his own to build horns by hand. His horns are played in symphonies all over the world. He has so many patents he has lost count. George is 84 years old. He still talks about horn making like a child with a new toy. He said something that struck me as the essence of playful creativity during our lunch together: “People say I should just order mouthpieces from Europe. It would be so much easier and quicker. Why do I make my mouthpieces by hand? And I tell them, well, what fun would THAT be?!”

What fun indeed?

This morning, my Pre-K students were all over the room solving problems through play. When I say play, I mean not only playing with materials, or playing games, or playing pretend scenarios, but playing with ideas as well. Two boys worked together with Magna-tiles to make something that they envisioned: A rocket within a space station. They worked for a long time to get the surrounding “station” just right so that the separate rocket would fit inside, but slide out easily for launching. Two girls challenged themselves to make a ball go “up” a ramp. Through trial and error, they made two ramps connect so that when a ball ran down the first ramp, it would, through momentum, go up the second one, only to slide down again. Their image was that of a skateboarder going up a ramp and coming back down, they said.

Is this only play? If someone walked into our classroom they would see children playing with many materials, including Magna-tiles, and ramps with balls. They would not see the creative problem-solving, nor the give and take of conversation driving the creative thought. They might think, “Oh, well, I want my child to learn. This is just playing.” How wrong they would be!

Einstein said that playing with images and thoughts was crucial before actually thinking and speaking logically about a new idea. When children play with toys, art materials, or socio-dramatic roles, they are thinking, and playing with images in their minds. If we allow and even facilitate this kind of thinking in play, we may just be nurturing an Einstein, or another George. Can we afford to lose this opportunity? I sincerely think not.

To learn more about learning through play you might want to read about observing children at play to see their thinking and learning. School ultimately must prepare children for the future, so we must help them learn to learn, and think about their thinking. Discovery is intrinsically rewarding, as Jerome Bruner wrote. Using one’s own faculties to discover new ways to do things makes learning “fun”. It is what both children and grown-ups actually want, after all.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Parents: Play is creative and cognitive!

I was so excited listening to Rae Pica’s program,” How PlaySupports Brain Development”. Her two guests, both experts in the field of early learning, emphasized how play is not an option for children. Children’s brains need play like a thirsty runner needs water! Children’s brains run on play. So why would parents worry if their children play in preschool or kindergarten?

I suspect there are many reasons, including that many parents’ early memories of school include academic instruction, and perhaps their struggles with it. Parents don’t want their children to struggle and they acquire the mistaken notion that doing worksheets and flashcards will give their children an edge. They want to see their kids buckle down and learn, darn it! Play looks too, well, uh…fun.

Another reason, I suspect, is that when they shop for preschools, they run into some programs that say they are play-based, but do now know how to make play the center of learning for the children. The teachers do not have the training to scaffold children’s skills to go deeply into their interests, to pursue and develop their ideas in play. The play these parents see is not high quality play. It is not avid, creative learning. It is just, well, let’s be frank—goofing around. Flitting from activity to activity.  I know this from what my college students tell me.

The most important fact, in my mind, is that mature, high-quality play is creative. Creativity is an innate part of cognition. Once I had a pre-K student who noticed that birds seemed to poop all over the playground picnic tables. He developed a hypothesis that if he made a bird toilet, our picnic table would be cleaner. In the classroom, working for over a week, he used constructive materials (boxes, tubes, and magazine pictures) to create his bird toilet. On the seat, he glued a picture of worms to attract the birds so that they would be motivated to use the facility rather than our picnic table. In the process, he explained his contraption (oral language; cognitive development), asked others to find materials for him (social development), and through trial and error, created his invention. He tested his hypothesis outdoors. Now I would love to tell you that the birds flocked (no pun intended) to his creation, but of course, this didn’t happen. What did happen is that other children began forming ideas of inventions they thought might be needed and began creating them. The bird toilet itself was used on the playground for imaginative, if bathroom oriented, play by many children!

This boy could not have made his invention, nor could other children have taken up the idea of creating inventions, if the program had been either an academic program, or a traditional program that claimed it was play-based, but did not scaffold inventive, creative learning opportunities. In the school where I taught, teaching staff applauded and encouraged the boy’s work. They brought in, and asked parents for, boxes, tubes, tape and other materials to give the children what they needed to pursue their interests. They began reading books about birds, and bird recognition. We found nests in trees to keep an eye on. We rode the wave of creative play.

All of this was documented in picture and text in the halls. Our parents learned the benefits of these types of projects because teachers and administrators put it up where parents could see them. In Rae’s program, one of the guests mentioned using documentation to illustrate the learning taking place in children’s play. For me, this is a deal-breaker. Connect those standards to the documentation. Explain, in text on pictures, or narration in videos, how the play allows children to learn across all domains, and in all content areas. Keep at it. And make sure the right people (administrators, parents) have it in their faces day and night. The effort is more than worth it if more children get the opportunities to learn through the language of play.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Gift of Water, and Adult Tools

Why buy toys when you can get the real thing?

If I've learned anything, children respect adult tools. Clear rubber tubing and PVC pipes from the hardware store, along with funnels, extend engaging activities far longer than the same old toys year in, year out. 

"It's a water fountain!"

"Did it come out?"

"Let's take turns."

Let's try two funnels, one tube."

"If you have the funnel in one side you can let the water out the other side".

These are some comments I heard while the girls experimented with the tubing, funnels, pipes and water yesterday. Children investigating, forming hypotheses, and cooperating are all part of preschool science. 

Prompted by the first two girls and their excitement, a few boys came to share the fun. What happens if you pour water into a funnel while it is facing down? How many ways can we fill a measuring cup?
The water table was getting crowded!

These are only a few tools that make water play challenging, exciting, and filled with learning. Pair this with Water, by Frank Asch,or Water up, down and all aroundby Natalie Rosinsky. This is the season to explore the gift of water with young children.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Space Shuttle or Millenium Falcon?

They are making the control panel for our space shuttle! So far we have colorful straws and buttons for the buttons and levers. The control panel will be placed under the table, and seats will be added.
Straws can be cut easily, and attached. Buttons benefit from Tacky Glue.

Under the table, engineers attach more controls to the soon-to-be rocket engine. We are asked, repeatedly, if they need to create guns. "Like Star Wars", they say. "The Space Shuttle doesn't need guns", we insist. "It is to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station." This does not compute, in these young minds. No guns!? "Okay, then they're boosters", they decide. Boosters make noise, and have fire. Perhaps that will satisfy the need for firepower.

My Dad was a NASA engineer. I regale them with stories of space flight and design. "Design?".
"Yes," I reply. You need to draw what you want to build. So they do, somewhat after the fact, and rather hurriedly.
"That's the idea", I say. Now let's get building!

Perhaps we can blot the Millenium Falcon out of their minds for a time. At snack today, someone says, "Let's talk about Star Wars". Others moan. "We always do that. How about that Air and Space Museum?"
I smile.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Preschool: Marshmallows and Toothpicks Offer 3-D Building Opportunities

We gave the children the materials to see what they would build. Mini-marshmallows, large marshmallows, and toothpicks created an open-ended opportunity to build, something our class loves to do!

Everything from a "one-legged ostrich" to "New York City"emerged from this activity. The beauty of open-ended, choice-driven activities in centers is that the children can work as long as they like, and make whatever they choose. Teachers are on hand to have powerful interactions with each child. 
The results are immensely satisfying to the individual child, and gives them a sense of accomplishment, nurturing self-esteem.

While older children are building atoms or scaffolding, our preschoolers are building what comes to mind. They deserve and need preschool to offer them time to imagine. This is one way.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Play: What are we losing it to?

Facebook is awash with fantastic memes about the necessity of play in early childhood. I adore seeing them. I also feel some anxiousness because I have noticed that, in a play-based program, five- year old children aren't playing like five-year old children anymore. More of them are playing like three's and four's than I used to see. This has made me anxious and uncomfortable, and grasping for explanations.

While I was looking for an article about Vygotsky for the Infant and Toddler course I teach for my community college, I found this article about play and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the fancy, early childhood development term for self-control. Self-regulation skills are developmental. You wouldn't expect to see a two-year old play by planning the role she would take with another two, then verbalizing what she wanted to do, consulting with her friend. You laugh, if you know two's! They just go in there and do what they do. Self-regulation is a complex of skills that children develop. An infant develops the skill of self-soothing. She is managing her feelings--something she couldn't do at birth. A two can be taught about feelings and how to identify them so that they gradually (some teachers might say hopefully) learn to identify them on their own and, as their verbal skills mature, express them. Adults facilitate this process and work to give the child choices that validate her feelings and problem-solving abilities. This is partly how self-regulation develops.

The authors that sparked my thinking articulate that Vygotsky and his students noticed fours and fives maturing through imaginary play. That play developed increasingly complex interactions, and that these interactions motivated children to inhibit impulsiveness in order to continue to play with their friends. They validated my observations by writing that today's play studies show children are playing at a less mature level than they once did. Imaginary play does not develop. It becomes repetitive, stereotyped, and stunted. The authors speculate briefly that perhaps academic preschool and kindergarten, with their narrowly focused curricula, have created this phenomenon, but their focus is on assessing play, not coming up with theories about how it has degenerated into more primitive skills. 

Years ago, there were justifiable concerns that videos of movies reduced children's play to verbatim retellings, with no variation. Many of my colleagues have noticed this. Ninja Turtles can only do what Ninja Turtles do. Ad nauseum. Disney "princesses" can only do what they do in movies. Frozen--Oy!--Frozen characters are cast in the stone of their plot. A girl asked me to be Elsa, recently. I playfully asked her, "Who's Elsa?" She walked away. I didn't know the plot. Could media be the culprit?

I don't know why preschool pretend play has lost it's maturity. I don't know why children often don't plan scenarios, talk about their roles, or come up with alternative story arcs. I do know that what the authors ultimately conclude is that adult involvement--setting up dramatic play areas that aren't always the same, involving themselves in the play, skillfully developing children's ideas and adding what will help them progress--has been lost. Teachers think that "providing materials", or "setting up play spaces" is enough."Look at what they are doing! They are playing!" For children who are on iPads at home, who watch Star Wars, and play scenes from the movies, more is needed. My bent leads me to conclude that the Reggio way of observing children, documenting their learning, providing "provocations" for more discoveries, and validating their trains of thought makes actual mature play and thererfore learning through play possible. 

Children learn through play when adults involve themselves as both actors, and behind-the scenes facilitators. Teachers take note!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Art Outside

I have written before about outdoor music, and I present workshops on this topic. I am a musician, not a visual artist. But outdoor visual art embraces so many of the values we early childhood educators hold dear. We value creative partnerships between children and teachers. We value the outdoor environment for the health and welfare of children (and teachers!). Children need nature more than many folk realize. Just digging in the dirt enhances children's immunity,  It increases feelings of well-being as well (did someone really have to study this to find out?). Whole community organizations are advancing the idea that learning outdoors is inherently crucial to the development of healthy children.  So why not do art outside? Isn't this a no-brainer?

Painting on a sheet with spray bottles is an oldie but goodie. Liquid water color works well, and children can investigate the way color sinks into or runs down fabric, provoking questions for discussion. Pumping a spray bottle brings up scientific inquiry (how does it work?). Children will most certainly come up with other techniques and ideas. Teachers need to be flexible. If a girl asks to use a brush, then those brushes must come out! Should we say no to mixing color with mud and smearing it on the fabric? No! Everything is food for thought and fun.

Using "loose parts"  is another way to include visual art outside. Use loose parts from nature, such as stones, logs,and "tree cookies". Include manufactured items such as tires. These entice children to create. It is more productive when teachers consciously prepare children with stories, pictures, and anecdotes inside the classroom. A child's imagination needs to be fed something beyond Ninja Turtles and Princesses! Feed their imaginations with stories about  outdoor creations. The work of Andy Goldsworthy inspires all ages. Alexander Calder's early life demonstrates what children can do with found objects and scraps.
Finally, taking children to see outdoor art installations that adults have created legitimatizes this work. They need to know that what they are doing isn't just something adults have them do to fill time! Children need to see that what they are asked to do is meaningful in the adult world. Investigate your community's cultural resources. Not every town has a National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, but even Marfa, Texas has outdoor art!

I hope this post has given some teachers and parents not only ideas, but reasons for doing art outside with children. I can't think of a greater gift to give.