Art Studio: More Than Art

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“You can’t make flow happen. All you can do is learn to remove obstacles in its way.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


I was initially taught about Art Studio time in preschool during my first year of teaching, in which my wonderful lead teacher set up an entire art studio day when her own kids were out of school so they could come help. We had the whole room set up with different art project invitations in every nook and cranny. The kids could move freely from station to station just like free choice time. There was one “adult” at each spot facilitating and helping when kids needed it.

It was one of my favorite days of the whole school year.

After that, I began working in a small “Reggio inspired” classroom. (See how I used quotes there? That’s because there was NO REGGIO INSPIRATION AT ALL. Did you know Reggio is only used to describe the actual school from which it started? Everything after that is Reggio-inspired and can mean everything following exactly how Reggio does it to nothing at all. No standardization there. So next time someone says they are “Reggio Inspired,” be sure to ask them what the hell they actually mean.) I did some research before my initial interview and was psyched about everything from the atelier to the documentation to the teacher self-reflection to the environment as a teacher. Nope. None of that was there. But I was determined to bring in some flare of my own, and immediately added in Art Studio as an everyday occurrence. I’m pretty sure my co-teacher thought I was crazy at first, but now I can’t imagine life without it.

I also feel the need to preface the rest of this post with a disclaimer: I would do art studio all day in a fully play-based environment. I believe that 100% child-led programs are the best. I also understand that not every program is on board with this yet (despite what the research suggests) so it is our job as educators to take steps in the right direction. Art studio is one of these steps.

Why Art Studio, you ask?

Well there are all sorts of studies showing the benefits of art education in other areas of learning. And there is the Reggio atelier, a studio space open to children at all times, with the intent of allowing them to express their hundred languages of children in any means they choose. Here is a list of all the reasons Art Studio is amazing:

  • Preschoolers get to express themselves freely in a no-stress, self-directed environment
  • Problem solving skills x1,000
  • Experimentation
  • Art appreciation
  • Empathy development (have you had a meaningful conversation about art with YOUR kids recently?!)
  • Social skill development
  • Science, math, literacy development
  • Fine motor and gross motor development (whoa staplers are hard.)
  • I’m gonna go ahead and say it: kindergarten readiness. This IS a naughty word to me most of the time, because it is used to push developmentally inappropriate agendas that involve tests and assessments and the shoving-of-alphabets-down-throats. But during Art Studio, kids are learning how to be creative, how to invest and take pride in their own work, how to solve problems on their own and how to ask for help when they need it. They learn that if they want to get out the glue they should just go and get out the glue. They learn that if the table is full, you can either wait for a seat or bring up another chair or bring your work somewhere nearby. Just like any other play-based environment they are learning how to be people.
  • Background jazz is the best. I highly recommend the Amazon Prime station “Jazz for Studying,” or a well curated Thelonious Monk Pandora station.  Also recently discovered the Funky Jazz Pandora genre station.

The reason I love the most though is because…it’s FUN. (Shhh, that’s supposed to be a naughty word in the teaching world. Which I think is silly, but that’s another discussion.) It’s also the time of day where I believe the most learning happens. Kids are comfortable enough with their freedom to experiment, ask questions, and process the days learning through art. I always do art studio as one of the last things each day, usually spending at least 30 minutes in “deep flow” (check out this article on Creativity and Deep Flow, its great! Also, Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play). Doing it at the end of the day allows for adequate clean up time. The kids help as much as they can, then anything big and crazy can get cleaned up by me after everyone gets picked up. Or you can go totally crazy and leave it out. Baby steps in the right direction, right?!

Art Studio: Nuts and Bolts

Ok but what is it really? It is essentially choice time, except all of the choices are art related. I have several favorite standby art stations that come out all the time. These are predictable to the kids too, so they can plan throughout the day what they’d like to do at those stations. I also ALWAYS get out any station that is specifically requested by a child. That’s what this time is for! The old standby’s are also easy to set up and easy to clean up for the most part. I spend the first month of school ONLY introducing and doing these stations so everyone knows how to “do” them independently (see how I used quotations there? There is no wrong or right way, but if you’re dumping paint on the floor or drawing on someone’s face then whoa lets talk.) The old standbys are:

  • Paint with easels
  • Watercolors
  • Coloring
  • Drawing (different than coloring!)
  • Art Journals (blank notebooks with their name. I try to write the title and date whenever I can.)
  • Playdough/clay
  • Stamps
  • Cutting
  • Glue
  • Collage (we love using interest hole punches for this!)
  • Creation Station (3d recycled art. Includes glue guns)
  • Oil pastels
  • Light table
  • Any weird combination of the activities on this list. “What happens when we paint with stamps?” etc.

This might sound like a pretty tame assortment of activities, but we quickly add variation and excitement by changing the brush types or paper size or tools or paint colors. Once you as a teacher get these stations down it’s really just a matter of getting out what the kids like and are in the mood for each day. I usually get out 5 stations each day, and aim for variety. Always something coloring/drawing, paint-related, collage/cutting related, and gross motor like playdough or pattern blocks on the light table.

I also usually have a fresh one each day that is random/new/weird. Maybe it’s a bust, but it was fun to try and there are always other things to do. This is where you get to try out all those daring pins from Pinterest, and if they don’t work WHO CARES. It’s the experience that counts. My favorites are always way weird, and usually involve flinging paint or making something strange with shaving cream. Once we made smoothies where the kids picked all the ingredients (no shaving cream involved in that one thankfully). You get the picture?

But Tiffany, this doesn’t sound child-led at all!  Here is an example from this week.  The kids have been allll about marbles lately.  They make marble runs, they squirrel them away in their pockets, they collect them for treasure, and they give them to our new pet snail.  So what did we get out at art time? Marble painting, duh!  Most of the time, the preschoolers are all about whatever stations are out.  And if they’re not?  The rest of the room is open for any play they wish.  We currently have one boy who does one very purposeful project each day, then immediately races off to the trains again.  He is never ever ever forced to do art.  It is his choice and he does it on his terms.

Creation station with added paint details. This one took a long time!
Creation station with added paint details. This one took a long time!

Oh, and did I mention I do all of this without a sink?

In order to make this a fun reality and not a washing-paint-dishes-for-hours fiasco, I have become very efficient with getting out and saving supplies. I also have a dirty dish tub where gross paint dishes and brushes can go until I have a chance to actually rinse them off. I set up the stations with room for 6 at each, assuming also that only 4 or so kids will be there at any given point in time. I also try to be very strategic about when I cover the tables with butcher paper, or put out hard plastic placemats. I also especially love these small ramekins from the dollar store! They are great for all sorts of things, and are balanced well enough that they don’t spill if bumped.

Art Studio Rules:

THE FIRST RULE OF ART STUDIO IS TRUST THE KIDS AND GIVE THEM REAL ART SUPPLIES. Yes, they need to be washable. No, don’t limit them to fat crayons. Ever watched a kid use a tiny prang watercolor set with the brush it comes with? Yeah, then watch that same kid use a real set of watercolors with fancy brushes. The artist knows when they’re being asked to use cheap crap! Also, we use grown up things like permanent markers and staplers and hot glue guns. Feeling powerful is a rare thing for young children (which it shouldn’t be, but that is another discussion too). Art Studio allows preschoolers a chance to feel powerful and respected on a level equal to their grown-up peers if done correctly.

THE SECOND RULE OF ART STUDIO IS THAT IT IS ABOUT PROCESS NOT PRODUCT. Do I need to explain this? Art not craft. (See Artful Parent and Lisa Murphy)

THE THIRD RULE IS DO NOT BE AFRAID TO MIX THINGS UP. But Tiffany, how will we ever survive if the eyeballs are mixed in with the beads are mixed in with the seeds are mixed in with the sequins?! Slap a big basket of THAT on the table, and see if the kids care. I do have an area for ME that is organized, but once supplies go out on the table they get dumped into a mystery bin for creation station (unless they magically stay separated the whole time). Don’t stress! It’s part of the process!


The Role of Teachers

I like to think that my role is merely to facilitate the kids’ wishes during Art Studio. Sometimes though, they need a little something else to get the creative juices flowing. I want to make sure that the space is set up in an inviting way, with care put into each place setting. I also want to make sure that kids have access to all the tools they need.

Part of the role of facilitator involves asking questions. Questions I like to ask:

  • Would you like to tell me about your piece?
  • Does your piece have a title?
  • What was the hardest part?
  • What part are you most proud of?

I also like to comment on their work as if I was interpreting it at a museum with phrases like, “these colors remind me of…” or “These lines make me think of…” I think it is important for empathy development for kids to realize that their artwork positively affects others on a deeper level by connecting with their art with more than a “cool” or a “wow.”

On a similar note, I once had a parent volunteer come in and do a few art projects with us. He is a real-life artist, and did a fabulous job of approaching each of the kids’ works as if they were real art in a museum. I will always always always ask kids if their “piece has a title” because of his amazing use of language. I also always write “untitled” if the answer is no. “Real” artists can do it, and we are real artists, dammit!

Another role of facilitator is sometimes actually doing art. ***GASP.*** Just like eating together builds community, I think that “arting” together builds community too. Kids like to see you taking the same risks that you are asking them to take each day. Doing real art can be risky! I especially like to join in when one station in particular isn’t taking off, or when one group of kids seems to need a little extra attention. You know what else? Sometimes, I join in at a station and realize that it is LAME and that it needs to be different next time or maybe even NEVER COME BACK. There might be a reason no one is playing there.

Clay creations.
Clay creations.  No instructions, all free play.  Kids always have the choice to save their work.  I spy a polar bear who looks like he’s lounging in a hot tub…

Extra Resources

  • This lovely book from Rachelle Doorley over at Tinkerlab outlines basically everything you could ever need to create a healthy and functioning art studio. And her pinterest board.
  • The Artful Parent pinterest board and accompanying blog. I follow her supplies recommendations to the t! This can be found here.
  • Lisa Murphy, the Ooey Gooey Lady! If it’s not messy, you’re not having enough fun 😉

Phewph!  This was a long one.  Thanks for hanging in there with me!

Your Friend,

Mrs. Preschool


One thought on “Art Studio: More Than Art

    TLA said:
    September 12, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    This is incredible, and a great resource for other teachers (of any grade level)!

    I love how you connect your choices to the outcomes you’re aiming for…I hope “outcomes” isn’t a dirty word 😉 But I think the skill of just being able to manage your own-dang-self in a room full of peers and get adult support only when you need it is so so so undervalued. Instead we tend to micromanage every moment of a kid’s day, and get mad when they do something without asking, but then we also get mad when they don’t do something on their own and always come to us for help or wait for direction.

    All the skills your students are learning now are forming the foundation of their self-management skills that they’ll use throughout their lives. I’m primarily thinking of high school algebra; If they’re in a halfway decent class, they’ll be given an opportunity to collaborate on challenging problems where they’re not sure how to start. Regardless of levels of “content knowledge,” those who know how to manage their time and space and resources are much better equipped to do that kind of rigorous work.


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