Projects and Progettazione: An alternative to the trashy crafty tat of Christmas!

The construction of learning projects with young children is an area I have been interested in since first visiting the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia several years ago.  At the moment with the advent of Christmas, educational (???) blogs are abundant with festive craft projects for children including fablon snowmen, cotton spool christmas trees and glittery paper stockings.   For me project working offers an alternative to what I call the trashy tat of early years craft fodder!  Harsh I know, but working with projects reveals and illuminates just what young children can do when not tricked to the table of trash.

Working in this way (sometimes known as the project approach) enables the possibility for groups of children to work together exchanging ideas, opinions and constructing learning as a group facilitated by educators whom themselves are part of the group, co-constructing knowledge alongside of the children.  They are a powerful pedagogic approach that encourage the space for deep exploration of a theory or concept and the expression and realisation of ideas of children working as a collaborative group.  They challenge the idea of the learning environment as simply an arena of self chosen, self resourced and accessible materials and resources for children to choose from and provide an alternative to the make and take art and craft activity.

Projects or progettazione(as they are called in Reggio Emilia) are offered to the children and often invite engagement of families.  They are used as an opportunity to share the project and raise the profile of what is possible in early childhood education within the wider community of the school/setting.

Sharing project work in Reggio Emilia - exciting and scary!

A project far from being something that is could instead be considered as something we do, a way of working, and a pedagogical approach.  It is not something that is delivered to the children in a single lesson (with an identified objective) or given to the children over a short period of time in chunks of a topic web but rather could be seen as a space where both knowledge itself as well as the process of the project are considered as emergent and elaborative where learning is built over time.  Projects can be both short and long but will have this pattern of knowledge becoming more complex and more elaborate over time.

Engaging Families in Project Work

A challenge in the beginning of any project is how to involve families as participants in the process of the project formation.  On a recent study exchange to visit pre-schools in Stockholm I became increasingly aware of how projects were chosen based on a criteria  not only of interest to the children but also in the ability of the proposed project for family participation.  There the idea of the summer assignment or summer memory was as a UK teacher reflected upon, an important way for the school/setting/educator to establish a mutual relationship with the families that had at its heart an idea about engaging in and constructing the project together.  It was often a simple invite, to bring something in related to the project concept, for example, something that made a sound (for a project about sound) or something found in nature (for a project about the natural world) but the objects and materials gathered from families were displayed with care in a prominent place, their value clearly communicated and then worked with and upon by the children with the resulting documentation shared back.

Workshops can also be part of the project cycle that sees the participation of parents using the materials that the children are simultaneously exploring and the ideas being formed within the project.  At one of the settings I work at, they recently held a wonderful parent meeting where educators facilitated a workshop for parents to play with and invent new tints of colours (an aspect of their project about transformation).  It was an opportunity for families to involve themselves in the work and the emerging ideas of the children.

Networks and Professional Development

Projects hold the possibility for professional development especially when entered into as a group of schools/settings working together.  The project networks of teachers in Stockholm involved other interested parties from the wider context, for example people in the universities with an interest in the language or material being investigated in the project.  Before launching head long into any project there should be a pre-project phase.  This could be described as a time for finding out about the thematic concepts of the project for ourselves as educators from many different perspectives (not just education), a time of reading and research and of developing the vocabulary and language that will help us to see how the children might construct their knowledge. This pre-project phase is also a time of finding out from the children about their thoughts and first ideas.

Reading around the subject of the project is incredibly important.  In a recent project about photography, the reading from philosophical sources raised issues about the lack of plasticity of photography as a medium of expression and the potential that photography held to create images that were created without intention at all. Reading also helped us to understand the differences between an image and a picture.  This was new knowledge and helped the educator team to re-frame the project and alert us to the possibility of oversimplification of techniques and the creation of unintentional images.

Project Pointers

Here are some brief pointers taken from my 2011 journal in thinking about projects with young children.

  • Documentation should be used to reflect back and analyse the intent with children.  Documentation should not be hidden but used for reflection and discussion with children and as a tool for constructing further active contexts for dialogue.
  • Find a way and a time to decide with children where and how we’ll spend our time together.  Project work requires being part of a group and this needs organising.
  • Consider how a summer assignment/memory could act as a starting point for a project and make it visible and possible for children to continue working with the artefacts collected.  Share this documentation with families.
  • Develop parent workshops to work with the materials of the children, their ideas and their theories.
  • Consider what you want to find out as part of the project, use this as a basis for for your research questions.  A project is akin to a research methodology.
  • Dialogue with families should infect the direction of the project and not just be a one way feedback to families.
  • Alert children to the connection between their ideas, thinking and use of materials in a group context (contagion and borrowing of others competencies).  We must directly activate these important opportunities for reflection and noticing what each other does and how it connects.
  • Make ongoing project work visible – if it is visible we can use it as a visual aid for dialogue and discussion with families and children.
  • Observational work and drawing – it is not a way of making beautiful paintings or drawings but as a way of constructing meaning and looking closely at something.  In projects, drawing is an important technique for playing with and communicating ideas.

It would be really good if people reading this blog could add their ‘project pointers’ and help grow this list of things to think about.  I find it fascinating that people from all over the world are reading and sharing my little blog. We have the opportunity to create a  global multiple perspective on working with projects with children.  This is my English slant on it, so what do projects feel like and look like in Australia, America, Peru or Spain…? – or even in other parts of the UK?


Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue

Materials that are "friends' with light

Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue

I have been thinking about how we set choose, present, invite participation with materials for young children.  Partly because I have been looking back at some of my old project work in schools dating back some 15 years (gulp! where did that go!) and also in light of a recent pedagogical exchange to some fantastic pre-schools in Stockholm, Sweden.

I very much set out as an artist in residence in UK schools with a kit bag full of all the nice things that either schools couldn’t afford or didn’t know how to use.  Usually, my bag contained textile transfer paints, shimmery fabric paints, silk paints, foils, micro glitter all materials that guaranteed success no matter how they were applied.  (Really, that was my criteria!) Often I created a set of materials for schools to use post project but sadly often they were not and I would find them sitting on shelf in the art cupboard two years later, untouched, when I had been invited back into the school to do more of the same.

The trouble was, this kind of work wasn’t sustainable.  Now I know that ‘sustainability’ like ‘accountability’ are buzz words of the current economic climate but for me the sustainability wasn’t to do with the politics of the economy but instead is interwoven into the creative experience of the children themselves.  It was unsustainable as the children would not be able to ever master these materials in school because to be frank, once I shipped out of my weeklong residency, they would most probably never use them again.

After my first study tour to Reggio Emilia I began to evaluate some aspects of my practice that I wanted to change.  One major factor was the materials that I was using with children on a daily basis.  I had shied away from the traditional materials (paint, clay, drawing, and collage) and instead focused on my specialist area from my degree in textiles.   I figured that the everydayness of these materials were things that the educators I was working with were expert in.

I began to ‘look again’ at these familiar materials and set about researching how children approached them, what they did with them, and examined the perspective of the educator – what were their intentions and knowledge about the materials to hand and were they attuned and fitting to the strategies of the child?  It lead to a significant chunk of my Masters research that you can find Here.

I am not going to go into here the ins and outs of what I found out, you can read the research for that – but there were several things that during this time I found myself thinking more and more about.  They were:

  •  The qualities of the intelligence of the materials
  • The transformative potential of the materials
  • The dialogues proposed with the materials

And that these were affected by:

  • Educator knowledge of the materials and their potential
  • The organisation and presentation of the materials
  • The intentions of the educator
From a workshop in Reggio Emilia. Light, projection and video camera - materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital and multiple selves

In looking back there has been a shift in thinking in the UK about the early childhood learning environment and the materials provided within.  Fifteen years ago I found myself working in places where it was the complete norm for children to be called to a table to ‘make a spider’ because the intention was to count up to 8.  The resulting spiders would be identical because all the elements (body, eyes, legs etc) would have been pre-prepared.  And I did this too!  I also made the with children the strangest things in the name of learning and education – my favourite being dream catchers made from paper plates, string, glittery pipe cleaners, pom poms and glue.  I am ashamed!  I am glad to say, that I rarely encounter this type of activity now.

Then the discussions I was having in schools began to change, as new words were bandied about like ‘child-initiated’ ‘child’s interest’ ‘independent learning’ and creativity was the golden and most enshrined word of all.  Now it seemed we had to make sure that we were not hampering creativity and or intervening in anyway as this might ruin the creative act of the child.

Sticking and gluing? Sprinkling not thinking?

So now my portfolio of work changed again, and the spiders and dream catchers disappeared and were replaced with open baskets and containers of treasured material, all freely available to the children to choose from and use in whatever way they wanted.  I remember how in one school I took the doors off the cupboards so the children could indeed actually help themselves.  So when a young three year old made a hedgehog from clay using the best felt tips and brushes I would simply smile in the wonderful creative spirit of the moment.  Another example I recall from this time was picking up a sodden box and marvelling in creative awe and wonder in how a child had managed to use the years supply of yarn by gluing the yarn balls to cover a cornflake box that had (incidentally) become attached by 1000 metres (at least) of selotape to the drying rack.  Creativity, following children’s interest, child-initiated, independent learning? Really?  A non-interventionist pedagogy here just resulted in chaos and mounds of tangled tape.

So what I have I learnt?  For me, taking Reggio’s idea of ‘intelligent’ materials’ has made me question this non-interventionist choice.  There is no free, independent choice of materials in school because as teachers we have the responsibility to set the stage for education, we choose which materials and how they are presented, and this is a great responsibility indeed.  Materials are not neutral but are imbued with learning potential and expressive qualities.  For example, which material would suit the idea of expressing the dynamic qualities of water – large wooden blocks, clay, and paint?  One would find it hard in blocks.

To teach is a verb, it is an action and we must not fear this.  I learnt how to draw at Art College, I was taught rules on perspective, on using materials.  I was taught how to weave, use a sewing machine and methods of printing.  I was an apprentice to a master who was willing to share the methodology, however it was up to me to use those skills to express or conceptualise ideas of my own.

So yes, I think it is of absolute importance that we choose which materials and how to present them as it is precisely this critical thinking that will help young children make sense of the crazy, chaotic world around them.

KH Cuffaro (1995) reminds us all that materials are “the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed.” Therefore we have to pay close attention to these things and choose carefully which way to present the materials, which way to teach children how to use them, which ways to invite questions about the them, and to make the move to considering how will these materials enable children to give form to their thinking, their understanding of the world.

Vea Vecchi (2010) points out “We must go beyond materials and techniques to stop and look at processes of empathy and intense relations with things…” and this too is another important reminder, that it is not enough for children to be busy with hands ‘sticking and gluing’ or ‘exploring paint’ but to engage their emotional sensitivity and construct together with other children and their educators deep relationships to matter and knowledge.

Thinking about the aesthetic of natural beauty and colour

Whilst in Sweden I was honoured to be able to spend time with one of Stockholm’s pedagogical coordinators of the pre-schools and she shared with me this idea of working with materials in dialogue and with empathy.  With the teachers she works with in the network, she often asks them to arrange materials of their choosing so that children could construct and elaborate their thinking (knowledge construction) of concepts such as symmetry, contrast, measurement, identity, transformation.  Choosing specific materials with specific qualities is a skill and something we should all (including myself) think more about. The tables in the pedagogical centre were littered with familiar examples of natural (leaves, horse chestnuts, flowers, earth) and expressive materials (paper, paint, graphics) placed in dialogue to provocative thinking about the aesthetics of the materials (building an empathy with a flower for example) and the relatable connectivity of the natural world that builds directly on the work of Gregory Bateson (1979) (who they are studying) who considers aesthetics as a vehicle of making connections, of responding to the patterns that connect and the dance of interacting parts so as to avoid over simplification, and superficiality.

An example of oversimplification is the learning objective for children to ‘label the parts of plant’ often found within a key stage one lesson.   This labeling is done in a abstract way, without feeling how that plant is part of the earth, how it lives and breathes and pulsates with life, then fades, slowly back into the ground from which it came but before doing so, spreads on the gentle the breeze or in the bellies of the birds its creative seed, to start again so that another plant can reborn from the seed of another.  A plant connected to the earth, the atmosphere, the cycles of life not just of its own kind but to other kinds too, to benefit not just itself but also a wider circle of mutual and symbiotic relations.  Is it enough for children to label a bud a bud without thinking of the relationship of that bud to stem?  Vea Vecchi (2010) picks up on these ideas in her book too (reference below).

In conversation with other educators who I was with in Sweden it was precisely this ‘intentionality’ of the educator who considered carefully the placement, selection and preparation of the materials offered to the children that they were struck with.  In one school materials with the possibility and potential for creating and responding to sound and music had been prepared for the children to use with the intention that children could think about tempo, beat, rhythm and movement.  This went far beyond the pots and pans strung up on a bit of string outside for the children to bish, bash, bosh.

Variation and tonality of hues of autumnal colour.

In another school a collection of autumnal leaves had been gathered that invited thinking not just of ‘the colours of autumn, whatever they are!) but the subtle hues and variations of colours found in leaves that came from the same tree.  These leaves were fashioned later by two four year old children into a spiral of the hues of autumn -a pattern that goes from dark to light.  An exploration of colours that connect, a pattern of relationships of colour and not an abstract labeling of orange, red and brown.

So, is it enough to ‘put the paint out, top the glue up and get out the basket of maracas’?’  No, it certainly is not!  Instead we must think hard about the intelligence of materials and the possibility of materials in dialogue.


KH Cuffaro (1995) Experimenting with the World

Vea Vecchi (2010) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia

Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind and Nature: A necessary unit