Kids get fired up outside. They beg for recess. They love to look for bugs, get messy, bring the outdoors inside. They are masters at finding the ant hill, the caterpillar, the ounce of mud in an expanse of cement. It’s a joy, and it’s playful research. It connects children to the natural world, and while they get fired up in this pleasure their synapses are also firing, and they are creating a way of relating and connecting.
For over a decade we have been working in schools with children of all ages, encouraging land- and place-based ways to integrate arts and creative practices in classrooms and afterschool programs. We were invited by the Rainbow District School Board to act as ‘ateleristas’ (artists in residence) in early learning classes in schools on Manitoulin Island and in Sudbury region. 4e’s approach – although we didn’t know until about five years ago – has a great affinity with the ‘Reggio Emilia’ approach to learning, which was developed in Italy after World War Two, and has a world-wide following.
As ateleristas, our work is child-centered: we follow the interests of the child; we use natural materials and make connections to the natural world, and consider the environment to be a teacher; projects are process-based and iterative and we value research-based learning. Children work collaboratively and independently, but are always encouraged to learn together and co-teach. As the engagements are based on the children’s interests we have to be flexible and light on our feet, and be very creative so that we can create activities and introduce materials that respond to the children’s questions and curiosities. We rarely have a set workshop or activity in which all children create the same thing.
Rather than direct students to particular curricular endpoints, as artists in residence, we listen to the children and respond to their own questions about their environment in the classroom or their outdoor play areas. We respond not with “answers” but with other questions, with suggestions of art materials, or ideas about natural phenomena or related topics, that encourage them to come to their own answers in whatever way satisfies them. This approach honours each child as a researcher in her/his/their own right, with unique ways to learn and to collaborate with other students, encouraged in their natural impulse to find ways that the natural world can be a teacher.
With the support of Ontario Trillium Foundation, and with consultation from Ellen Brown (York University), an early learning researcher and seasoned workshop facilitator and expert on ‘Reggio’ documentation, 4e has developed an entire book about our early learning program, available for purchase through 4elements Living Arts. We have also been facilitating early years educator training workshops across Ontario in these inquiry-based creative ecological approaches.