Creative Learning Environment in Early Childhood
Art is a popular activity during early childhood and many preschools decorate their walls with children’s artwork. However, I often notice the same designs decorating the wall with different children’s names on them. These cookie-cutter artworks are made by children following specific instructions or templates: they are told to make an artwork that looks the same as the model. They may be pleasant decorations and promote fine motor skills, but children’s creativity may be hindered. Every child has an innate capacity to make art, and that capacity may be inhibited by an adult’s authority (Lowenfeld, as cited in Zimmerman & Zimmerman, 2000). Art lessons should be more than an opportunity to practice fine motor skills. The lessons should inspire creativity, encourage children’s imaginations, promote their curiosity, and encourage students to trust their creative instincts.
Intrinsic Motivation Promotes Creativity and Autonomy.
How can educators cultivate creativity in early childhood education? Jaquith (2011) states that intrinsic motivation from factors such as personal interest and curiosity activates creativity. Many educators have witnessed young children immersing themselves in activities that they love and even losing track of time. Many educators also have witnessed children losing attention quickly when they are not interested. Jaquith (2011) states that intrinsic motivation and students’ interests are central to finding and solving creative problems. When students are motivated, they become self-directed learners. Hunter-Doniger (2020) explains that creativity, play, and autonomy are interwoven throughout the art-making process. I look at creative learning environments that characterize three different educational methods: Forest School, the Reggio Emilia approach, and Waldorf education.
Children in Forest schools spend most of the day in nature. During their time outdoors, the children have many possibilities for in-depth contact with nature and experience different stimuli (Schäffer & Thomas, 2012). Outside play is of major importance in learning about the world during early childhood. Playing outside used to be normal, but we are now surrounded by buildings. Today, during childhood, opportunities for natural experiences and free play are rare (Malone as cited in Schäffer & Thomas, 2012). Nature and time outside need to be intentionally integrated into early childhood education. Educators in Forest schools believe that children learn through free play in nature. Educators intervene when necessary, but they mostly allow children to work through their experiences, whether those experiences are pure fun or present some challenges (Forest School Canada, 2014). Taylor (2019) defines her role as a nature elder who shares trust and a sense of wonder with the children. Wondering and curiosity become intrinsic motivators for children. Jaquith (2011) states that intrinsic motivators such as personal interest and curiosity activate creativity. When exploring nature, children often face challenges or unexpected situations. They become creative to overcome obstacles and take risks to move forward. “Uncertain times require personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, imagination, and willingness to take risks” (Peter Gray, as cited in Taylor, 2019, p. 60). When children are the ones in charge, they become self-directed learners.
While Forest schools utilize existing natural settings as learning environments, the Reggio Emilia Approach creates environments to promote child-centered education.
Reggio Emilia Approach
The Reggio Emilia approach emphasizes not only the outside environment but also the environment inside. This approach includes the environment as an educator (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). Environments are much more than their appearance; what is most important is how they feel from the child’s perspective. Strong-Wilson and Ellis (2007) argue that the environment plays a major role in how children perceive and use space to create meaning. Educators may arrange the furniture, toys, or materials in unexpected ways to spark discussion. An educator may introduce light tables so that children can bring materials to put on them and see what the materials look like when they are illuminated. Providing an environment that provokes further discussion and curiosity, the educators expect the unexpected. Reggio Emilia-inspired educators use often use negotiated curricula that invite students to be co-designers of their education. Strong-Wilson and Ellis (2007) mention that “from a child’s point of view, an environment is what the child can make of it. Children will often find uses for objects and spaces that adults do not anticipate or intend” (p. 43). The educator can assist children by creating the best environment for them to explore, learn, and create freely.
The next method, Waldorf education, not only stresses the importance of the environment but also focuses on children’s imagination.
In Waldorf education, imaginative play is encouraged; it is seen as a reservoir of creativity. The teacher’s role is to provide a natural safe place and time for children to wonder and immerse themselves in their imagination. In the daily curriculum, Waldorf preschool includes creative or imaginative playtime in which children learn to develop a rich imagination. During an interview conducted by Nordlund (2006), some graduates of Waldorf schools explained the importance of educators not drawing lines between play and learning, especially during early childhood—a time when children are developing mental stages. The Waldorf graduates described imagine-lands in Waldorf schools to which children could escape. In Waldorf schools, uninterrupted imaginary play is considered one of the most important child-centered forms of creativity; imaginary play is a state in which students can hold an image or idea in their minds and manipulate it into different scenarios (Nordlund, 2013). Imagination is the source of creativity. Also, there is always space for wondering in Waldorf schools. Nordlund (2013) explains that from Waldorf’s viewpoint, the desire to wonder is more important than knowing specific things or gaining skills. Steiner valued the development of feelings and a sense of wonder about the world. Waldorf educators try to create environments that attract students’ curiosity so that the children will be drawn to wonder. The environment is also an important element in Waldorf education. Uhrmacher (2004) explains that for Steiner, environments possessed life and stimulated thinking. Waldorf school environments emphasize more how children learn than what they learn. Waldorf education cherishes nature as a learning environment and free play as design thinking.
Environment to Promote Creativity
Common points that the Forest School, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf approaches share is that the environment plays a significant role in creative learning in childhood education, whether it is nature-based or designed. The important thing is that focus is not on how the environment looks but rather on the children and how they interact with the environment. Teachers provide an interactive environment to stimulate children’s wonder, curiosity, creativity, and autonomy. The three methods are also similar because they do not provide step-by-step instructions for children to follow. Gardner (as cited in Zimmerman & Zimmerman, 2000, p. 88) suggests that “children’s natural art abilities unfold if adults provide equipment and encouragement.” To promote children’s autonomy and encourage them to become self-directed learners, little instruction and intervention are needed. Children learn from free play; play with no adult authority; play that gives the children joy. Gardner believes that if young children are offered materials between the ages of two and five, they will engage in art activities; any adult intervention hampers the unfolding of their innate creative abilities (Zimmerman & Zimmerman, 2000). Instead of intervening in children’s work, observing, documenting, and keeping records will help educators to understand each child’s stage, help children build big ideas, and be reflective in teaching. Taylor (2019) documented what children did each day and said that she found data collection a valuable tool. Taylor (2019) reviews documentation and observations while lessons are in progress. This allows educators to see the learning process objectively and be flexible during the learning process.
What Lies Beyond Cookie Cutter Art
I conclude that preparing a detailed lesson plan may not be a necessity for encouraging creativity in young children. Instead, educators should pay close attention to children’s daily ques such as the narratives of the plays they perform, their topics of conversation, and how they react to specific matters and create learning opportunities accordingly. Massey (2017) suggests that an art educator can best cultivate children’s artistic behaviors by “becom[ing] a researcher studying those children” (p. 9). The lesson of the day should be designed to assist children in learning more about the topics that have arisen. Massey (2017) explains, “When you find the core of an interest, a big idea, you can use the curriculum to challenge children’s intellectual development and support their curiosity” (p. 9). Educators may develop a lesson plan to teach a big idea based on children’s interests, but it should be flexible so that it can be adapted as children find further interests. Not having a set lesson plan prepared in advance may be uncomfortable for some educators. Taylor (2019) mentions her fear of the unknown and communal risk-taking. However, she states that “I strive to support children’s freedom—even when that means overcoming my fears” (p. 63). As many of us teach children that making mistakes is the way to learn, art educators can be role models for facing the unknown, trying and failing, and getting up again to discover what lies beyond the wall of cookie-cutter art.
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