April 24, 2008 in City

Observation gallery: Children’s artwork on display

By The Spokesman-Review
Brian Plonka photo

Patty Shastany, a preschool teacher at the Community Building Children’s Center, admires 4-year-old Annika Hennington’s watercolor painting Monday.
(Full-size photo)

Sketching an amaryllis in ink, 4-year-old Charlotte Meenach drew water rising through the flower’s stem, even though her preschool lessons hadn’t covered how flowers are nourished.

One of Charlotte’s classmates at the Community Building Children’s Center, 5-year-old John DeForest, recently drew a battery, complete with wiring attached in a circuit, and told his teacher that’s how electricity works.

On any given day, 5-year-old Christian Osterman will dress up and play the part of a crab fisherman, a sushi chef or a ghost, depending on his mood.

These expressions, whether on pen and paper, in crayon, or through play-acting, are windows into a child’s thoughts and emotions, say their teachers at the Children’s Center in downtown Spokane. Teachers there document the artwork and activities in writing or with photographs to create a history of each child’s development.

“It’s really a learning tool and a tool to help us know what they are learning and thinking,” said Patty Shastany, a preschool teacher at the center.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, some of the kids’ artwork, accompanied by explanatory captions, will be on display at the Spokane Convention Center during the capstone event of the region’s Our Kids: Our Business campaign against child abuse and neglect. The keynote speaker is Dr. Robert Anda, a senior researcher with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Children’s Center follows an internationally acclaimed methodology born in post-World War II Italy. In 1946, in the devastated city of Reggio Emilia, parents built a school from the rubble. The resulting collaboration among parents and an innovative young teacher is now heralded worldwide as a leading approach to preschool education.

The “Reggio-inspired approach” followed by the Children’s Center views the arts as languages through which children communicate, expressing creativity, imagination and curiosity.

The Reggio approach encourages teachers to let children decide the direction of their learning and how they’ll explore a topic on a given day.

At the Reggio-inspired child care center at North Idaho College, for example, teachers noticed several children drumming with silverware at mealtimes. To channel that energy, teachers guided them to an exploration of percussion. The students began to drum in their laps, then built drums from plastic containers, then acquired chopsticks to use as drumsticks, according to the children’s center blog. They formed a band, called it The Rock People, made posters and put on a concert.

“You watch and you pay attention and you learn so much,” said Anita Morgan, director of the Children’s Center in Spokane. Morgan, who has worked in early childhood education for 35 years, added that the Reggio method says teachers are “co-learners” who learn from children while listening to and observing them.

The children’s art installation at the Convention Center will consist of seven island displays in Ballroom A, where the luncheon will be held. One piece shows basic elements of shape and includes children’s drawings of zigzags, circles and spirals. Another illustrates “observational” drawing, in which children are asked to draw only what they see. The display shows that the teacher has asked the children what the petals of a sunflower look like. Their answers: a rocket ship, a banana and horns.

“Art is play; art is learning. Art isn’t just about coloring and pictures. It’s feelings; it’s senses. It’s a process kids love, and we want to encourage parents to have fun with it,” said Kathy Thamm, who promoted the idea of a children’s art display at the luncheon.

Thrive by Five Washington, a public-private partnership that promotes early learning opportunities, is sponsoring the display.

“What we’re hoping is that businesspeople walking in there will actually stop and take a look,” Thamm said.

Paintings and drawings and wood sculptures are all displayed to help observers understand the value of these varied forms of expression. Morgan said children are often rushed into reading and writing; expression through music, dramatic play and drawing are often dismissed.

“I’m trying to give a message,” Morgan said. “I’m calling it an art and learning exhibit.”

Thamm said this display of children’s art likely will lead to more, perhaps at the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza or in shopping centers.

Thamm, who directs child-care resources and referrals for northeastern Washington through Community-Minded Enterprises, also wants to promote public displays of children’s art in rural areas.

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