In the studio: Free for the taking

Published by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2007 at 01:24 PM


As we discussed with clean recyclables, once you have begun to acquire items for your studio, you will develop a practiced eye.

You don't have to shop only in the arts and crafts aisle of your local department store.

Every time a piece of paper passes through your hands, think — is this something the kids could use? Tissue paper, bits of wrapping paper, cardboard inserts, the silver disc that seals your new tin of coffee.


When you open a new package, whether it's cookies or a kitchen appliance, take a second look at those pieces that hold everything inside for shipping. Whether it's hard plastic or soft foam, if it's clean with no sharp edges, if it has an interesting texture, set it aside.

In your office, think about file folders, binder clips, address labels, envelopes, tags, graph paper.

In your kitchen, think about paper plates, styrofoam bowls, plastic spoons, silver cupcake wrappers, leftover holiday napkins, empty spice tins.

In your garage, think about large flat washers, nuts, bolts, plastic garden pots, twine, empty spools.

At work, look at the things that are regularly thrown away. (Or at your friend's workplace. Or at the stores you frequent.) We've collected empty film canisters, bottle tops, cardboard squares, shredded paper, "mat middles" from the local framing place. ("Mat middles" are the squares of mat board that are left when a mat is cut — great for drawing, painting, or constructing.) We've been given plastic lids, linoleum squares, jewelry boxes, packing peanuts.


It doesn't take many helpers to get a good supply of materials coming in — a couple friends, some grandparents, and you're well on your way to a stocked studio. Once people have an idea of what you're looking for, they will delight in bringing you odd bits and treasures.

These things you gather aren't only pieces of future constructions (bird eyes, alligator tails, robot arms, race-car wheels) but also things to cut up and collage and even exciting new things to paint with or paint on.

Any type of fabric (old sheets, cut-up burlap, etc.) can be an intriguing new surface to paint on at the easel, as well as any sort of odd paper or cardboard or even wood. Old plastic kitchen tools, fake plastic credit cards that come in junk mail, old plastic coils, etc., make great painting tools. Anything with an interesting texture can be pressed into clay or playdough.

Only your imagination limits the things you can bring into the studio, and once you've limbered up those thinking muscles, you'll be surprised by how much raw creative material is sitting around, just waiting for you to pick it up.


In the studio: Advanced inventory

Published by Lori Pickert on November 21, 2007 at 02:36 PM


Most of the items on the basic inventory list are familiar enough that your children (or students) won’t get overly excited and start burning through your supplies.

If you create a special place in your home or classroom just for making art, you may find them so charmed by the idea that they are intensely interested in these old, familiar objects.

If you already have an art area or studio, you may find that simply rearranging the materials and presenting them thoughtfully (and beautifully) re-energizes their art-making.

(Have you ever tried to clean out your child’s room, with the goal of getting rid of some old toys that are no longer played with, only to find that simply by pulling them out and dusting them off, you’ve made them intensely interesting again?)

As you build your studio, you can take your children’s art making to the next level. Remember, the more variety in materials, the better their representations will be. Their choices are limited by what you have available. Everything you do to enhance their choices increases their learning opportunities.


Advanced Inventory:

oil pastels (brighter, more intense colors than crayons, blendable, can use with watercolors to make a resist)


• specialty papers (tracing paper, watercolor paper, etc.)

hole punch

Cellophane tape (warning: the average four-year-old uses 10,000 miles of cellophane tape per year, if allowed)

stapler (swim at your own risk — always supervise small children)

• acrylic paints (for painting structures) (beware: not washable — wear old clothes and smocks)

beads, plastic lacing (beads can also be strung on yarn, string, pipe cleaners, wire, etc.)

buttons et al.

cotton balls

pipe cleaners

wire (ends can be sharp and poky — always supervise)

• large selection of tapes: duct tape (in different colors including metallic), electrical tape (colors), packing tape — all of these are great for making paper and Tyvex costumes and decorating cardboard structures and models

• fabric (cut into random squares and rectangles of different sizes for dress-up/costume and model making; smaller scraps for the art studio)


There’s almost no limit to the things you can add to your studio, many of them from other areas of your home. Take a look through your garage and junk drawers for leftover bits and knobs off things that you can offer them. Found papers, odd pieces of cardboard and styrofoam, old padded envelopes, and so on — all of it can become something amazing when combined with a child’s imagination.


The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.
— Loris Malaguzzi

In the studio: Basic inventory

Published by Lori Pickert on November 21, 2007 at 02:24 AM


A reader asked

Okay, so if you had to give a list, for a mama of say, three young boys. A list of great art materials that one must have (in addition to all the great stuff you listed in your last post) What would it be? We have a few oil pastels, some chalk pastels. Some watercolor and tracing papers. Some acrylics and watercolors, a BIG chunky pad of drawing paper.

But here I am with THREE 40% off coupons from [a big-box art store], and I really want to get some good quality stuff for creating and hide it away for Christmas. Ideas?

Great question! To review, we talked here about starting the year with some basics, which you can offer in large supply:

coloredpencildraw.jpg• pencils

• pencil sharpener and white vinyl eraser

• paper (copy paper is great for everyday drawing: bright white, nice texture, and 500 sheets to a package!)

markers (various colors, thin and thick)

clipboards (one per kid, for taking drawing materials on field trips, in the car, on the couch, in the yard, etc.)

• kid scissors

• white school-type glue

• old magazines, maps, found paper, leftover gift wrap — anything collage-able

• clean recyclables (boxes, cardboard tubes, plastic lids, etc.)

popsicle sticks

• yarn (cheap stuff)

paint-1.jpg • masking tape

• natural items: leaves, twigs, pinecones, acorns, shells, etc.

• large pad of easel paper (I like the double pack they sell at Staples)

watercolors (I prefer Prang; they are more expensive but last a long time)

tempera paint (you can get by with just primary colors plus white to start)

• good drip-proof paint cups with lids (if you put a different brush in each cup it will minimize mixing/dirtying the paint — although that is inevitable, so give them a small amount to start ;o)

With these items, you've got the basics for drawing, painting, collage, and building structures.

Tomorrow I’ll give an advanced list.

In the meantime, with your 40% coupons burning a hole in your pocket, my suggestions for enhancing your studio (thinking of getting the most out of your coupon) would be:

• large set of high-quality brand colored pencils (they offer much better and more varied colors than the basic Crayola set)

• very good-quality electric pencil sharpener (when you use a lot of pencils, this is a blessing to get them all back into shape again quickly)

easel-1.jpg• set of Derwent or similar drawing pencils of different weights — excellent for observational drawing and encouraging drawing in general

easel if you don’t already have one (preferably two-sided with a shelf — i’ve found these on sale at school-supply stores and big-box stores)


• large pads of nice drawing paper

• perhaps a large pack of tempera paints, if they sell them bundled (maximizing the coupon!)

It's difficult to think of pricier items for stocking the art studio, since most things are fairly inexpensive! The above are more long-term investments. For more of a short-term thrill, check out my Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Child Artist.

Finally, one of the most important things you need for your basic art studio is a place to make art. This isn't necessarily something you can buy at a store.

You need to have a space where your children can work and you won’t be a nervous wreck about them destroying the table, the floor, the walls, etc. Maybe all you need is a plastic tablecloth to throw down under the easel, and you're fine. Or maybe you need a table where you won’t have to worry about glue or paint leaving its mark.


This problem extends to the co-op and classroom as well, where some groups have carpeted rooms (!) and no safe place to paint.

We have had great success with garage-sale wooden tables, sawing the tables off to make them the appropriate height for the children who will work there.

Plastic tablecloths can be used to protect floors but they can be slippery — I like good old-fashioned canvas dropcloths. You can buy them at any hardware store or big-box lumber or home renovation store.

Whatever your solution, it’s no use stocking up on great supplies if you’ll hesitate before saying yes, we’ll make some art today. Ideally, art supplies are always available and there’s always a place to work.


In the studio: Rationing art supplies, part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on November 15, 2007 at 12:47 PM


I want my children to have high-quality art materials. It shows my respect for their work and, in turn, they treat it more seriously.

That said, if they create 15 paintings in a row, that is a lot of watercolor paper. Can I afford this?

(Multiple by 20 for the classroom version!)

508822-1153635-thumbnail.jpgIn order for children to work with the best materials, they must learn to work with them as a real artist does. They must learn that before we do an important work, we sketch. We think about what we want to make. We plan. Then we get out the nice materials, when we are ready to do the important work.

It's okay to make mistakes and need more paper, more paint. But when we are exploring and sketching and thinking (with our brains and with our paintbrush), we want to use "regular" paper.

It's also okay to explore with nice materials -- seeing what ink can do on thick paper, how watercolor paints work differently on lovely textured paper. But we name what we are doing, and we make sure that we respect the good materials and don't waste them.

Even small children can fit several sketches onto a piece of paper, then let their teacher (or parent) know that they are ready to paint. This process respects the material, the work, and the artist.


There is a idea that some adults have about children — and it is quite persistent — that children lack control. Youth = immaturity = lack of control. In reality, children can learn to negotiate complex situations and relationships at a very young age. Rather than controlling everything, and parsimoniously eking out the good paper and the best paints, we can help children recognize the value of these things. The children can then move freely in the studio (and in the world), making good choices based on real knowledge, rather than being always at some tall person's mercy, always wishing for more buttons.

In the studio: Rationing art supplies, part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2007 at 06:57 PM


We had a lot of visitors to the TPS* and during our post-observation talks, the same questions were raised again and again. A frequent observation by visiting educators was something to the tune of "Our students couldn't handle this."

As in, they couldn't handle the wide-open spaces, they couldn't handle the number of choices, they couldn't handle the sheer amount of art materials they were allowed to choose from.

wo-shelves.jpgAnyone who has watched a preschooler glue four thousand sequins methodically to a single piece of paper understands where they're coming from.

There is a look in the eyes of a three-year-old … eyes darting back and forth … as they see a large clear container filled with buttons. The look says: "How can I get these buttons?" The look says: "How can I get ALL of these buttons?" The look says: "How can I make sure NO ONE ELSE gets MY buttons?!"

Yet our students worked cheerfully with the big container of buttons right there in front of them and didn't freak out or anything. How did we do it?

There is a certain amount of training necessary. I remember hearing some diet advice a long time ago -- that you should keep a big supply of your favorite guilty food (e.g., miniature Snickers) in the house, so you could calm down and your brain would allow you to diet without sending you freak-out "MUST BUY SNICKERS" messages.


Similarly, you must help the children realize that there are plenty of buttons for everyone. The buttons will keep on coming. There is not a single, limited supply of buttons.

When introducing a studio environment, whether at school or at home, it helps to start with a lot of less-expensive, easy-to-procure items (pencils, paper, markers, popsicle sticks, glue). I like reams of copy paper for drawing; there are 500 sheets in a ream so it's relatively inexpensive, but nice quality. A ream of legal-size copy paper shakes things up a bit.

collaging.jpgStart tearing out sheets from magazines before you recycle them, and fill a box with these, for collaging.

Get a bin and throw your clean recyclables into it, along with a few rolls of masking tape for sculptures.

Fill a basket with things from the yard — leaves, pinecones, twigs, acorns, pebbles, shells, etc. Nature's art materials.

Now you've got a nice starter studio.

We added other materials slowly … buttons, beads, lacing, cotton balls, pipe cleaners, plastic-coated wire, etc. If our students came in on the first day of school and found a completely stocked art studio, I'm sure they would have wigged out as well. Instead, they slowly grew to know it as a place where neat new things were always appearing, where there was enough for everyone.

We never doled out buttons. "Everyone gets three buttons!" That's the type of thing that makes you feel greedy and desperate. Sometimes, you just have to let them glue and glue and glue until they get past the panic stage. But once they understand you're going to keep supplying them with the good stuff, they calm down. They're able to cast their eyes over a display of materials and choose with care the thing they really need.


Continued tomorrow...

*TPS = tiny private school

Adventures in wire continue

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2007 at 07:07 AM


We are still working with wire.

The above photo is the wire heart Jack made me that spells out "m-o-m". He's also been making toys — and selling them! (Pause while he makes a paper box to hold his money. Pause again while he makes so much money the paper box won't hold up and he needs to construct a heavier one. Pause while his older brother explains business loans and offers to loan him money to buy more supplies so his business can grow. Pause while he scoffs at that idea and points out that mom already bought his materials. Pause while he makes himself a nametag that reads "Certified Product Salesman".)

The wire came out originally to make an armature for a bird sculpture. Then it became the mostly two-dimensional bird sculpture. Then more wire sculptures, toys, tools, two-dimensional pictures...

I know I'm beating a dead horse, but those wacky kids and their short attention spans.

When I'm sure he's done everything he wants to do with the wire he has and the ideas he has — good and completely done — then I want to show him this:






And this:



Another great Calder link: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

My fan mail is enormous. Everyone is under six.
Alexander Calder


A fantastic collection of Calder links

National Gallery of Art: Virtual Calder Tour

One last note on working with wire: It can be pokey and it is important to supervise its use and make sure the kids understand and respect the material. I am usually overboard on safety issues, but I don't make the boys wear safety glasses while they work with it or anything. I don't restrict them to short pieces (to lessen their chances of poking an eye, either their own or each other's). These things can happen, however, so be aware and beware. (I think I just invented a catch-phrase!)

And another note: If you know someone who works for the telephone company, they can get you the most fabulous multicolored, plastic-coated wire. If you are a teacher, you can ask very nicely for your class. They always said yes to me, but then I can really turn on the charm.

No, 'pokey' is not a real word. But you knew exactly what I meant, didn't you?

Mentoring the perfectionist child

Published by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2007 at 03:24 PM


Along with being intractable, my older son is also a perfectionist.

I had hoped to avoid this. I was a perfectionist as a child (I claim to be partly cured), and I know what it cost me. I avoided any activities that I didn't immediately excel in. (Not that there were many.) (I kid.) I wanted him to be able to relax and enjoy life more.

Alas, genetics trump intentions, and he is a perfectionist to the core.

The boy uses a lot of erasers. He crumples a lot of paper. He shows me a drawing that I think is amazing in its detail and clarity, and then he crumples it up and throws it away five minutes later. I now try to grab things from him before they get destroyed, or I beg him to give them to me instead of tossing them. He says, "No! I don't want anyone to see that!"

It is difficult to compliment a perfectionist child. You say, "That is a great drawing. You really included a lot of detail." He responds, "It isn't that good. I didn't draw the feathers right. The eyes don't look right. I really don't like it..."

We do a few different things to try to mitigate this tendency. He's homeschooled, so he can't easily compare himself to others. (Before, he was in a multi-age class in a private school, in a similar situation.) I work with him to set reasonable goals for himself. He does a lot of art and other creative pursuits, where the enjoyment is in making and there's no particular end goal.

We talk about the process, and how fun it is to simply read books about something that interests us, visit places we've never seen before, talk to new people. We stress that mistakes are necessary for learning, and if you aren't making mistakes, you aren't learning. We share our own mistakes, and try to model accepting our failures gracefully.

At the beginning of a new project, we talk about what might go wrong that we'll have to deal with, or what difficulties we should expect, emphasizing that something will always go wrong. (Perfection is not possible!)

We acknowledge his perfectionism and call him on it, and we share our own experiences with it.

Finally, we make an effort to celebrate all of his achievements, so he won't gloss right over them and head immediately for the next difficult goal.

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. — Anna Quindlen

See also:

It's not (all) about the art

Perfectionism and praise

PTA: Preventing Perfectionism in Children

Working with wire

Published by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2007 at 10:20 PM


Our wonderful friend Emily gave the boys this fantastic book this weekend: Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song. It's a wonderful addition to their bird books, and the boys absolutely love it.


Jack returned to his bird sculpture this week, but set his armature aside and, using the new book as his reference photo, made a beautiful mostly two-dimensional wire sculpture instead. Running outside to find a stick for a perch was an exciting part of the process.


Tomorrow, he says he's going to engineer a wire harness to hold the bird on its perch.


Of course, the label has fallen off the wire he used, but it is an ordinary spool of wire purchased at the hardware store, thin enough to be bendy, thick enough to be strong and hold its shape. It cuts with ordinary snub-nosed kid scissors. And the only tool he used, other than his own two hands, was a pair of jewelry pliers made to curl wire (no cutters!), and he didn't need those; they were just fun to use.


Published by Lori Pickert on October 23, 2007 at 12:10 AM


Jack said today that he wanted to work on his bird project — this is a project that has lasted for months, and every time I think it is over, he says emphatically he's not done yet. This reminds me of the preschool students who would work almost an entire year on a single topic (which, of course, they would explore to an amazing depth and breadth) then return in the fall for a new school year, cheerfully asking to resume study of the exact same topic.

These kids and their short attention spans.

Jack is so project-oriented, I think he will forever think of this continuing interest in birds as a "project" rather than, say, a hobby. On summer vacation he brought along his bird books, his bird list, and his binoculars, and asked to buy new bird books (Western states, you know) and bird identification sheets "for homeschooling". He offhandedly informs us of random bird facts and identifies birds on the wing, looking off skyward and shrugging modestly. And whenever he spots a flash of color in the yard, he dashes off for the binoculars again. It continues.

Today he said he was going to make a model of a bird, a goldfinch he believes, although he'll be making it larger than life-size, "so you can see all the details."

After some interesting discussion of possible materials he could use, he decided to try paper maché. He wanted to dive right in, but I helped him pull out a bunch of things and then suggested he make something else first. "Something else?!" But he was amenable, and proceeded to spend a good part of the morning making a "muscle man", with a lot of extra taping and giggling.

Children need some time to just mess about and play with materials before they use them purposefully. By exploring what he could do with the paper, tape, and wire I gave him, he gained a lot of knowledge about the materials and their properties, their limitations. I'll encourage him to do more free exploration tomorrow. When he feels confident manipulating the materials, then he will be able to confidently approach solving his problem of how to model the goldfinch.

Play for young children is not recreation activity... It is not leisure-time activity nor escape activity.... Play is thinking time for young children. It is language time. Problem-solving time. It is memory time, planning time, investigating time. It is organization-of-ideas time, when the young child uses his mind and body and his social skills and all his powers in response to the stimuli he has met. — James L. Hymes, Jr.

Reuse, then recycle

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2007 at 01:56 AM


Well, I managed to miss Blog Action Day (topic: environment) due to a sick child. And I've missed a couple nights of sleep as well, so I'll try not to nod off while I write this.

f-constr-guitar.JPGThe pile of trash up above isn't destined for the recycle center or even the garbage — yet. First it's going to the art studio. Actually, this pile is destined to be part of an action-figure-scale Jedi temple.

After years of building with recyclables, I can no longer throw anything away without hesitating and thinking, Would this make a good steering wheel? bird beak? rocket fin? robot brain?

All of our clean, no-sharp-edges trash gets set aside for making models during projects, sculptures, toys, artwork, etc. Actually, once you have adopted this mindset, it's hard to ever look at a plastic cookie tray or mesh fruit bag the same way again.


Not only does this save things from the garbage and the landfill, but it saves money because you buy fewer art materials, so you saved the energy to make, distribute, and sell those items as well.

Of course, there's the added benefit that your children stop clamoring for sequins and googly eyes and instead start asking for more bottle tops and spaghetti sauce lids.

And eventually, when you are all done with the model/sculpture/toy/art you made, then it can be recycled. Or better yet, go to grandma's house.