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An Exploration in Action Art

The materials I use with children are carefully chosen to invite open-ended exploration. Traditional materials such as watercolor, paint, oil pastels, chalk pastels and different mediums, colors, textures, and tools are provided, and children are encouraged to put these materials to use in ways that inspire and excite them. A couple of months ago, as the Atelierista, I was pondering about how a change in their physical space would invite collaboration, creativity, and thinking.

The idea of swing painting came to mind. I hung up a swing up on a low lying branch of the pepper tree in our garden. I set up the invitation with a large canvas on the ground, paint, and brushes and waited for the children to arrive. They first wanted to sit on the swing, but I invited them to lay down on their tummy and then swing. When they were comfortable with the back and forth movement, I handed them a paintbrush...and the smiles grew! In the beginning, they reacted with lots of laughing and giggling, and many asked to be pushed, "faster and higher!" But what I found interesting, was that as the swinging momentum slowed, so did the children's energy. They seemed to become mesmerized by the back and forth motion of the strokes of their brush in the thick, wet paint. When their movement slowed enough, I would direct the swing in front of the wells of paint and let them choose their next color to add to the canvas. Then I'd pull them up into the air, wait for them to be ready, and then release them down through the air, swinging like a pendulum over the canvas.

This invitation for the children to explore spanned over two days. Some would swing just once, and others got off and ran to the back of the line to go again. I enjoyed seeing children, and teachers, slow their minds and bodies down to focus on the experience of swinging, first in a circular motion, and then as the swing slowed, into a back and forth trajectory. This art experience turned into a sensory experience as well, as the two often go hand in hand. Swinging stimulates the vestibular system, which provides input for our sense of balance and spatial orientation. To add the paint to make the movement visible and collaborative made it all the more magical!

I had set up the swing and paint provocation for the children to explore a creative process from a new perspective, and it was such a beautiful experience for both the participants and the observers! I wondered how I could continue this type of full-body creative painting exploration with the children. What other materials could I use? How would the children use unconventional and unique painting tools? What techniques would they discover? How would their friend's techniques inspire them?

A week later, when I planned to offer this exploration again, I had an idea and ran to the store before heading to school. At the store, I asked what isle their cleaning tools were on, and I grabbed the largest 'paintbrushes' they sold! I set up the same canvas that the children used to swing-paint on, large broom and mop "paintbrushes," and colors from the palette that I decided for each of the paintings. Then I stepped back and let the children investigate! It was fascinating to watch some children dive into painting without pause and some children taking a moment to consider what we were painting with and why we were using such unconventional painting objects!

It didn't take too long for the children to embrace the invitation to paint with the enormous paintbrushes! It was interesting to me that at first, they were softly and lightly painting the canvas, with the broom and mop, but then I noticed a slight shift in their actions. They found new testing ground as to where the limits of their techniques could, and would, take them.

The "process" of exploring and discovering creative techniques by using unusual objects, such as swings and enormous paintbrushes is fascinating! There are many social, cognitive and physical benefits for children in this type of environment. Giving them the opportunity of a new experience will allow them to the observe new ways of thinking, explore new boundaries of their actions, invent a new technique, and visualize the results. Oh… and produce the most magnificent art!

Thinking how else I could facilitate children and the exploration of their physical boundaries, I thought of using a trampoline. I would jump on the trampoline with my three children when they were young, and the feeling brought immediate euphoria. The weightlessness, the preplanning, and the undeniable joy is a feeling that I will never forget. I wondered how the children would react and explore with a trampoline while painting. It did not disappoint! The children quickly adapted to moving in a vertical plane while focusing on the paint and painting. Oh, and they had the most magical smiles on their faces! (I took a lot of videos and not a lot of photos, so here are some before and after shots of the canvases. Use your imagination when you look closely at the brush strokes and trust me when I say you need to offer this opportunity to children.

While reflecting on what the children had done so far, painting vertically, horizontally, and side to side rotation, I wondered what else they could do? Both pieces were nearing completion, so I needed small-scale actions. Keeping in mind about how I could focus their actions on the canvas while using acrylic paint. I thought of several ideas before I came up with the idea of using a rubber ball ramp. So I set up the ramp and the children's beautiful artwork, taking care to protect all of the area from acrylic paint. As I set up this experience for them, I was thinking about the children and how excited they would be to see their next process art exploration...and then there was a huge gust of wind and it blew the whole provocation over.

Several children joined me on the playground to help reset the rubber ramp and then test the trajectory of the rise and fall of the path. With the added element of foil, to protect the ramp from paint, the ramp was not smooth. The children would send the ball down the ramp and I would make many minor adjustments it needed to get the ball to the end. Together we all succeeded and the ball made it all the way down the ramp and rolled on the canvas. Right where the ramp ended and the canvas begins, I placed dollops of acrylic paint. Unfortunately, this adjustment did not work. I was battling the wind and the wind was winning. After a handful of attempts and using different materials, there was one final transformation of the ramp, and we ended up just using balls and rain gutters. The children and I found that the ball would run more smoothly and quickly down the rain gutter.

On our seventh exposure to these canvases, after battling the wind the last time, I invited the children to continue their process-art exploration with the ladders, wooden balls, and rain gutters. I set up the invitation for the children to add their final marks to their collaborative piece.

The children's excitement filled the air while they wondered how to navigate around giant ladder, ramp, and ball the set-up. Quickly the children assessed the invitation and figured out how to get the balls rolling, and also via trial and error, how to send multiple painted balls down the ramp and onto their canvas.

We all know that children prefer to be active, and action art incorporates the child’s need for movement with the always important need for creativity. These art experiences are based on the philosophy that children will learn from the process of creating, and that the finished product is the result of that process, not the goal.

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