Curriculum of curiosity

Published by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2008 at 02:04 PM

Often, in educational research and theory, you find the same ideas expressed with different words, by different people, at different times.

You read about an “exciting new innovation” that, if you have been around for awhile, you realize you’ve heard before. Books are written that apply new jargon to old ideas. You explore an educator’s interesting ideas further and find out someone else was doing the same work twenty years before, in a different country.

After awhile, you begin to realize that ideas that resonate around something truthful will rise and rise again, until they are recognized by many people in many places.

After reading about education for more than a decade, I find that I am drawn again and again to the same core ideas, no matter who is talking about them — authentic art, children orchestrating their own learning, thoughtful and purposeful adults working with children, long-term projects.

Reggio educators talk about “provocations” — deliberate and thoughtful actions taken by adults to provoke or extend children’s thinking.

Unschoolers talk about “strewing” the environment.

Early childhood educators talk about “invitations.”

This shared concept recognizes that children (like all people) would rather make their own discoveries than be told what to do.

One very successful experiment we made with a group of three- and four-year-olds: We set a lovely bouquet of spring daffodils in the art studio in a beautiful vase, on a small pine table. Next to the table was an easel, a very familiar site in the studio, which had several easels. Instead of being set up with the normal selection of paints, however, there were many glass jars filled with an abundance of different shades of yellow and green. Not just one yellow, but six different subtle shades of yellow. Not just one green, but an amazing selection of greens, from light citrusy green-yellow to dark glossy green.

The juxtaposition of these things was a provocation. No one pointed them out to the children, saying “Look at this! Look at the colors!” No one asked, “Would you like to paint the daffodils?” They were simply in the studio, waiting to be discovered. The children found them, were delighted, and created beautiful paintings. They had new ideas about mixing colors; in fact, their ideas were taken to a whole new level from red + blue = purple. They understood the possibilities, and they immediately incorporated them into their thinking and began hatching new ideas of their own.

They didn’t all paint the flowers. Some of them talked about the colors. Some of them touched the flowers. But they all were excited by the offering. They painted all different kinds of pictures, and no adult came over and said, “No, no, no — don’t you want to paint the pretty flowers?” That wasn’t the point. The point was to offer something beautiful and inticing and then let the children do whatever they liked with it.

We talked about how we wanted students to interact with our classroom. We didn’t want them to come in and know every day that the block area contained this and the art studio had that. We wanted them to come in every day and not know what they might find. This, we felt, would encourage them to see their classroom as a dynamic, ever-evolving environment where anything could happen. In turn, we felt being on their toes all the time would help encourage habits of curiosity and interest.

Rather than put every material out on the first day of school, we added things throughout the year. Rather than announcing any new addition as a special treat and drawing attention to it (which creates the additional problem of 15 children wanting to use it at once), we simply added things and let them be discovered. Then the children told each other and showed each other.

When you prepare an environment in this way, you’re sending a strong message that you care about what happens in the room. You care about giving the children beautiful things to work with, and you care about the work they do with them.

At home, I still value this curriculum of curiosity. I think about how much my actions — careless or thoughtful, accidental or purposeful — affect my children’s attitudes and habits. I think about what a different reaction you elicit when you say “Look at this thing for you to do; here, this is how you do it” rather than simply creating an environment of possibility.

The difference between having an art studio and having art materials in a drawer is that the first acts as a constant provocation — the easel always beckons, the art materials call to you from their sunny shelf. Using that as inspiration, I try to make sure the rest of our home is filled with things that beckon — books, sketchbooks, journals, music, cozy nooks, science tools, field guides, binoculars. And always, always, most important — room to work. A clean table, an empty place on the floor. Not only exciting new things to find and use, but a place to use them.

Back to the daffodils ... I wonder what would have happened if we had put out the same flowers, the same paints, and then told the children that everyone would take turns painting the flowers. No wonder, no excitement of discovery, no figuring out what was there. No deciding what to do with your find, no thrill of showing another child. Instead, a defined task and 14 other people doing it, too. What habits and attitudes does that teach?

Reggio and kinesthetic learners

Published by Lori Pickert on May 6, 2008 at 01:30 PM

I got a great question in the comments to my interview at The Artful Parent, and I wanted to share it and my answer here.

Hi Lori,

What a wonderful interview! Thank you for the information. I have been doing some research on Reggio, homeschooling and other philosophies. I currently am a special education teacher in the public school system. For the most part I love my job; however, there are MANY things I don’t agree with. I have a almost 3 year old and 8 month old. I am reseraching my alternatives for them when it comes to education and I have a question for you. Everything I am reading seems to be art based, what if a child isn’t much into art? My daughter for example will paint, color, playdough, etc.f or about 10 minutes tops, but when it comes to running outside, dribbling a ball, or playing on a playground I can’t get her in! I guess I am wondering how she would fit into such models? Thank Eileen

Hi, Eileen - and thank you! While many people focus on the visual arts aspect of the Reggio approach, the Hundred Languages actually embrace kinesthetic learners - children do learn in different ways and can engage with a subject and express their knowledge by building, dancing, performing skits, dramatic play, and in many other active ways.

And while the visual arts (e.g., drawing, painting, collage) are important, an active child might be more engaged with building models, sculpting clay, creating large-scale dramatic play structures (e.g., child-size vehicles, buildings, rooms), etc.

The idea isn't to try to funnel a child toward visual arts, but rather give them a whole smorgasbord of choices - books about buildings and bridges and other structures *with* a fantastic array of blocks and other building materials, a great dress-up trunk *with* a stage to dance and perform on, an art studio with a quiet nook to draw in *and* an array of exciting things to build and scupt with. And when a child shows a particular interest, paying attention and providing them with what they need to take the work further.

If you are interested in the Reggio approach specifically, if you delve a little deeper you will find wonderful garden- and park-centered projects to read about.

Since you already know your child has a strong desire to be outside, you can meet her halfway and provide her with tools for learning outdoors - magnifying glass, binoculars, bug box, field guides, sandbox, outdoor building materials (rocks, shells, pinecones, etc.), a work area outdoors (perhaps a small table), scarves for running and dancing, a garden... We set up easels outdoors with pencils, oil pastels, and paint so that children can paint and play and draw and play - and there are so many exciting things to learn about outside!

You can read the whole interview and all of the comments here.

beautiful kid space

Published by Lori Pickert on November 5, 2007 at 03:55 PM


Mari Eriksson has some beautiful photos on her blog of her home, including some truly inspirational kid spaces.

All posts on this blog that have to do with children's spaces in home or school are tagged "environment". An explanatory quote from The Hundred Languages of Children:

A Space That Teaches

The environment is seen here as educating the child; in fact it is considered as 'the third educator' along with the team of two teachers.

In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge. All the things that surround the people in the school and that they use — the objects, the materials, and the structures — are seen not as passive elements but on the contrary as elements that condition and are conditioned by the actions of children and adults who are active in it.


In our school this translated to a classroom that was very open and flexible, with areas that could be transformed according to the children's interests and project work. An open area that had a play kitchen, table, chairs, couch, etc., during one season was transformed into a library for several months, a skating rink, a rocket ship factory.

At home, children need space to build and — I think this is key — room to keep a project out while they are working on it.

Again, we talk about children having short attention spans, but we make them clean up their projects and put them away each evening! How can they do extended work, adding layer upon layer of understanding, if they can't keep an unfinished painting? LEGO structure? block city? cardboard box building?

Children need the opportunity to work on something again and again, until they decide they are finished. One of the things I love about Mari's spaces is that they are so fresh and spacious. Empty space gives ideas room to grow.



Mirrored shelves

Published by Lori Pickert on August 25, 2007 at 08:48 PM


This week we’ll share some of our tips for making a beautiful learning space (at home or at school) without spending much money.

Our preschool classrooms, like many in America, were located in the basement of our building. Yet we still managed to have a very bright and open space, and we received a lot of compliments on its warm and welcoming feel.

One way we accomplished that goal was the right paint color — light, bright, but also warm. It was a very light yellow, and it even managed to warm up the overhead fluorescent lighting. If you can manage it, full-spectrum paint is the best (but it’s more expensive).

We bounced our available natural light around with several mirrors, making the most of our two small windows. In the picture above, you can see students choosing art materials from mirrored shelves. Mirrors not only bounce light and reflect views, but they give the illusion of extra space. Setting a mirror behind a plant gives you two plants, and so on.

These mirrored shelves were easily (and cheaply!) accomplished with inexpensive metal shelving hardware, wood planks, and five-dollar door mirrors (bought at this time of year, meant for dorm rooms) laid sideways and attached to the wall in-between the shelves.

Set out art materials in garage-sale wooden bowls and berry baskets, and you have a beautiful, affordable display.