Thrills Found in the Unexpected


So much of what we do as early childhood educators is provide provocations using some interesting materials in an inviting setting, and step back and observe. No pre-conceived notions; no goals; no expectations. We just provide some open-ended materials that children can interact with using their own ideas to discover and to create. Hopefully, with a little bit of scaffolding on our part (or not) new learning and a greater understanding or appreciation of such things as nature, physics, or math will occur.  I literally hold my breath when a child approaches a table presented with such things as a lump of clay and some seed pods or drawing materials and a magnifying glass near something interesting such as our resident monarch caterpillars and chrysalides.


Sometimes the expected happens, as when clay was presented last spring and the children designed sculptures using the seed pods. But then the extraordinary happened! After I had explained to the children how slip is used (liquidized clay used as a “glue” to hold pieces of clay together) they started picking up leaves off the ground and painting them with the slip! The results were stunning! Totally unexpected and their discovery inspired me to make these leaves into a permanent art installation. You can see the finished piece in The Garden Classroom on the back fence near the Mud Kitchen.


The new school year has begun with new materials being presented and old materials presented in new ways. Last year’s newly created Science Lab, this year’s addition of the Mud Kitchen, the Art Cottage and Outdoor Atelier continue to engage and delight the children.


While I continue to create what I think are inviting provocations, not all are initially observed or get positive reviews There have been two wonderful exceptions (So far!) that have left me feeling really excited. I see lots of potential for artistic endeavors, creative thinking and problem solving.


From the moment I spotted the little holes in the leaves of our milkweed plants, I knew that a marvelous journey was beginning and all of us at Hanna would be have a grandstand view of the life cycle of one of earth’s most amazing creatures – the monarch butterfly. We have not been disappointed! Most of the children knew that the caterpillars would turn into butterflies, and knew the basic biology of how that happens. Good grief!  These kids were raised on Eric Carle’s great children’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar! No need to dwell on this concept. What I was looking and hoping for was a “how” or a “why” to explain and explore the process. The response I got was MUCH different and so lovely. Actually, I was enchanted.“L.” is 4 years-old and attends our 5 Day program.  After drawing a newly discovered monarch chrysalis or “cocoon” as she called it, I asked her about her drawing and this is what she shared with me, without any other prompting.

“It’s a cocoon! Maybe tomorrow it’s going to get into a butterfly.

We need to make a room for it for it to live. There are all kinds of things caterpillars need when they wake up.

A leaf for their bed. There’s a nest where they poo and pee, There’s food. They can have food in a little cup.”

How profound!

This brought out all kinds of warm, fuzzy feelings in me. First of all, she pretty much summed up what Abraham Maslow described as the basic, biological and physiological needs of people, not only to survive but which must be met before they can be motivated to achieve the next level of needs.


Second, I was so taken with L’s feelings of compassion that she expressed through her list of “needs” for this tiny, little creature. She had formed a relationship with the chrysalis, which although quite beautiful, also appears quite lifeless. L saw the potential and appreciated the future of this little green package. I’m not sure that L’s proposal of a “room” for the chrysalis/caterpillar will be very practical, but I was very excited and filled with anticipation as I approached L several days later to get more details from her.


She was eager to draw out a plan for the room. Choosing oil pastels, L began by drawing a few rainbow hued, rectangles and enclosed them in with a square box. Besides the rainbow, it features a large window. So far, the most significant part of the window is a “rug” just like the one that covers up the window in her bedroom that she “rolls it up and down so I don’t get scared like in the middle, middle dark night.” Oh my!  We’ll talk more on Monday. I’m hoping that another naturalist and artist, B (who is also in the 5 Day program) who was representing the life cycle of the monarchs with oil pastels while L was drawing her room, will join the discussion. I wonder where this investigation will go next! It’s all pretty amazing!


The second discovery is more serendipitous and took place in a center I created over the summer and expanded this fall. This is actually my favorite part of the Garden Classroom. It features an old-fashioned, maple, colonial style coffee table that you are more likely to find in your grandmother’s living room than in an outdoor classroom. It is now hosting a variety of natural materials such as stones, sticks, seed pods and pinecones. (I received some of them as gifts from my friends C and H in the 3 Day program.) It is also where last year’s leaf creation is being displayed.


It was here, in this setting against the far back fence where I created what I hope was an opportunity to create without an additional enticement of glue, or clay or even play-dough.  No instructions, just a sheet of black paper behind a matting. I did provide a bit of inspiration by propping up a large format book featuring the art of environmentalist artist Andy Goldsworthy.  The cover features rocks placed in a spiral. I was just hoping that a child would discover the items and appreciate their beauty and see the potential.

 “J” from the 3 Day PM class found these items on his first day of school. I watched from afar as he placed first one stone and then another down on the black construction paper. He framed the stones with some sticks and then added a few more sticks. He was very focused and engaged and working very intentionally. None of the placements was random. Then he walked away.

I went up and admired his work and took several pictures of it as a way to create a permanent record of his lovely art. And then I walked away. 


An hour or so later, I started to remove J’s arrangement and made a discovery. The center had lost its shade and the paper had been exposed to the sun’s rays. The sun had faded the paper around  the arrangement and created an actual memory of where J had placed the stones and sticks! Now, besides having a digitalized recording, there is an actual piece of art to share with J! J and his family have been on vacation and I have not had a chance to share his new, permanent piece of art with him. I have shared it with some other children and they have created new pieces of faded art. (For lack of a better name or at least until a name is decided by the children.) While not quite as serendipitous as J’s piece, it is still an intriguing art form. I am hoping to gather a group of children to discover their hypothesis as to how this is happening and what else is possible. I’m trying to formulate some questions to get this investigation started. Any ideas?!!!


This is the type of work that thrills me: provoking a child’s curiosity, to get them thinking creatively and being inspired to go beyond the unexpected! 

With Joy!



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