Sunday, August 19, 2018

Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration


When I was in high school there was a poster on the door of my art classroom that displayed the then-ubiquitous 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmatic) along with a 4th: aRt. I think Mrs Sunday never knew how much that poster influenced my life. In grade twelve I spent nearly every lunch hour in the corner of the art room, using up her acrylic supply for finger-painting, and paint-squirting. To her enormous credit, she let me do it. I still do it, and I encourage everyone to do it - to get as messy and unexpectedly creative as possible with whatever supplies they're given.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about explorative wilderness play, but am often asked about "real" art supplies, and what kinds of simple art projects are good for various situations, and I feel like it's time I give a nice solid answer to that.

First, let me be clear: The best way to learn art is by exploration. Art is also a wonderful explorative activity for learning everything else. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2012) states the following:
"The benefits of play are recognized by the scientific community. There is now evidence that neural pathways in children’s brains are influenced and advanced in their development through exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression that occur during play.

"Research also demonstrates that play-based learning leads to greater social, emotional, and academic success. Based on such evidence, ministers of education endorse a sustainable pedagogy for the future that does not separate play from learning but brings them together to promote creativity in future generations. In fact, play is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."
So all those wonderful prescriptive art projects where you know the outcome before you begin, and the process of creation means following instructions? Those awesome craft kits that come with the pictures of what it will look like when you're done? They're junk. Throw them away. Or at the very least, get rid of the packaging and present the included materials with no expectations or directions and let the kids do whatever they want with them. Yes little ones might eat the crayons. So make sure they're non-toxic. Older kids might also melt them to make candles or wax prints or just to see how cool the melted colours are when pouring them around. Awesome! All of these things are actually done by professional artists all the time, so it's not even a stretch of the imagination to see their value. In fact, a stretch of the imagination is exactly where the value is to be found - because that is where the learning is. When I apply for an art grant for my own artistic practice, it always includes funding for "research"... which in the art world means experimentation and playing with material, form, and method.

It's important to think about how the presentation of the materials influences the way we use them. My father used to own a toy store, and supplied the Waldorf school in North Vancouver with the wonderful beeswax block crayons they use. He always had a lot of blacks left over, because they don't use those in their program. How does a child's thought-process change if they are never presented with the option to colour with black? We can't know for sure, but I am positive there are some interesting associations, there. I give me children all the colours. But do I always present them in rainbow-gradient? No. And amazingly, the kids end up sorting them themselves, into a myriad of different patterns, either because the sorting itself is fun, or because it's useful for whatever they're doing with the crayons. This, too, is an important part of their learning. It's how they familiarize themselves with the materials they're using, and with the colours they're working with.

Now for some material suggestions. I'm going to go most often with the cheapest alternatives, because we live in a disastrously consumerist society, and none of us needs to be buying new materials when they're not essential. Even on a tight budget you can get a load of materials at huge stores, but you don't need to. Going with unexpected chance finds from the local thrift shop, recycling depot, or other people's refuse not only saves money but also opens all sorts of new avenues for experimentation and problem-solving that will teach your kids more than a pristine new package from a store will.

Art-making space: Whatever your circumstances, just make sure you provide a large area where mess-making is acceptable and clean-up is easy. A large table is great but if you don't have one, or don't have suitable chairs, a corner of washable floor can be great too. Outside, a sheet of plywood on the ground suffices. I've done this often. Cover the space with a heavy paper that can be used for mess-making, drawing, or notes, and replaced when necessary. You can also cover it with a heavy plastic table-cloth, but glues and acrylics will eventually make the plastic lumpy, so I still recommend the paper-cover on top to make cleanup easier. 

But... don't keep art confined to this space. Take it to the kitchen. Bake cookies and cakes and decorate those; fill the sink with water and drip paints in or use the surface for oil-resist prints. Take art outside. Do tie-dyeing or papier mache there. Paint the lawn; paint your car or bicycle or front door. My uncle once gave his young children house paints and had them hand- and foot-print the front entry room. Decades later, their beautiful creative creation is still the welcome that guests first receive. Make everywhere art space.

An Easel: Not only does it give a new perspective to have your workspace upright, but dripping paint is wonderful, and should be encouraged. However, you don't have to go get an expensive easel. A stable propped board will do, as will an old sandwich board on a table. The best accessory for your easel, though, is a pair (or more) of large bulldog clips to hold paper in place.

Storage: If you want to have a beautiful art corner, you still can, even if it's not colour-coordinated or tidy. A bunch of large bins and a very few smaller ones will do well, or similarly a chest of drawers. We do have a great art-storage carousel that has been in use in our house for many years, holding an assortment of whatever the currently-most-used supplies are. This makes a greater number of supplies more easily accessible to various people seated at a table, and a handy place to put them away quickly. But it's not essential. A bunch of materials rolling around the table can actually inspire new ideas.

Some kind of drying rack is a great idea. We never had space for one, but the end of our dining room table was usually used for drying. Still, if you have space, old oven racks or baking racks can be a great thing to have in your art area. A permanent set of wire-rack shelves is amazing.

Paper: It really doesn't matter what you have - just have some. Preferably lots. We commonly have whatever papers people have passed on to us, including old letterheads, those old perforated printer-papers, construction and manila papers, some old used sketchbooks that people threw away with 80% of their pages still unused, and various types of white and coloured printer papers. I also supply my kids with the seemingly endless supply of graph-paper which they love. No papers have specific intentions. It's OK with me if fancy sketchbook papers get used for note-taking or construction or torn-up little shreds of I-don't-know-what, or even crumpling into balls and called 'cat toys'. Getting the paper second-hand helps me let go of my own hang-ups about 'intended use' and 'value', which gives the kids a broader explorative environment, and greater learning opportunities.

Cardboard: You could go all out and have some gigantic boxes for construction experimentation (my kids have built cars, rocket-ships, stores and villages, and most recently, as teens, a vending machine which they took into public for entertainment). But at the very least you should have some old boxes or scraps around in case construction starts happening. I hope it does!

Cutting Devices: Good scissors, appropriately sized for the people using them. An exacto knife. Obviously not for young ones, but you might have one handy to help out with big cuts. And a serrated bread knife! This has been very helpful to us for cutting cardboard, especially. Also never underestimate the usefulness of a good hole-pucher, and things like skewers for poking holes in cardboard.

String, ribbon, and other tying materials: Especially for constructing with cardboard, but also comes in handy for making books and all manner of other things. You never know when this will be just the thing you need in the moment!

If you're going to get a stapler, get a fabulous one like this that can reach into very big projects. 
And take a look at this Stockmar box from my childhood. The box has been replenished piece by piece over the years, and the crayons have been chewed and used by multiple generations.

Mark-Making: It's important not to narrow our kids' ideas of what constitutes a proper mark. So much is lost to a narrow mind! So provide lots of different options, and let the kids mix them up. You might want to keep some expensive felt-pens out of the acrylics, just to keep them in working condition, but experimental mixing of media in general is a highly educational activity, so do it! You don't need all of these but at least have many.
  • chisel-tipped pens - for older kids sharpies are awesome.
  • a great assortment of colourful felt-pens. Those cute stubby pens are a huge waste of plastic, though, since they run out frustratingly quickly and have to be thrown away. Tip: Store felt and ink pens tip-down, which means they last longer before drying out.
  • pencil crayons (as they are worn down they make many different types of marks)
  • wax crayons. Lots - and be prepared to see them very, very broken.
  • those Stockmar beeswax block crayons I mentioned earlier.
  • paint pucks that fit into a plastic tray - when you don't have time to get out the bottled paints, or just for watery experimentation, these are a wonderful thing to have available.
  • bottles of tempera or acrylic paints that you can squirt out small amounts of for open-ended free painting (tempera is great for younger kids who might ingest it, but acrylic is great for the ability to paint on many surfaces).
  • brushes! The best in my experience are natural stiff-bristle brushes, flat or chisel-shaped, because they give more opportunity for a variety of marks than round ones do, but others can be fun too.
  • pencils, erasers, and fine black markers. 
  • something smudgy like chalk or oil pastels. Sidewalk chalk can be used inside and chalkboard chalk can be used outside.
Glue sticks: Glue gets two sections because you need both. We always have a few glue sticks around, as they're the best way to stick papers together without soaking or wrinkling them. I recommend acid-free strong-hold glue-sticks. Don't bother with those silly school-glue types. They often don't hold.

White glue: While basic white glue will work for many applications, such as stiffening fabrics, gluing together cardboards, fabrics and layers of paper, we keep a bottle of Weldbond universal adhesive around because it glues almost everything! That's a great advantage when you're mixing up sometimes unexpected materials.

Fabric scraps and found materials: Without getting into the wonderful worlds of sewing and yarn arts, fabric itself is indispensable as an explorative material. With a bin of such materials for free creativity and exploration, you can create costumes, forts, decorations for those cardboard constructions, head-dresses, jewelry, dolls, doll-clothes, and really an endless list of delights. Have a bin of scrap fabric! And to this add found materials like plastic, corks, sticks, wires, etc. You never know what random things will be fabulous. Discarded CD's and cutlery for example. You just never know.

Something to squish and build with: A great block of clay and a big clay board to work on is awesome. That would be my favourite, although to be honest I didn't often have it on hand for my kids. We mostly used natural clay from the creek outside, and mud. Of course there are plenty of polymer clays available and while they're fun for building with, I don't personally like the environmental burden they bear (wanton use of plastics that end up in the garbage). I'm not really suggesting slime, either, because while slime-making and playing is a fine explorative activity, and fun, I think we get so much more mileage out of materials that stay put when shaped. A biodegradable glue mixed with sawdust or ground/shredded newspaper, by the way, is a pretty cool modelling material. So is salt dough, and gingerbread, if you want to eat your creation. One brand name product my kids did love and use for a long time was Stockmar modelling beeswax (no I'm not paid by Stockmar; they just make a few really fabulous products!).


So you see, the main thing is to have a fabulously free space and some stuff to play with there. Get messy. Play with the kids (or teens or adults!). They will learn a huge amount from watching what you do, so make sure you're exploring and have no idea what your outcome will be. This will help them learn to do the same, and together you'll make wonderful discoveries.

Talking about Periods with Daughters and Sons

Yay! It's time to talk about periods! 
Or, depending on your situation, it may have been time a loooong, long while ago. It seems I made an (unusual) good parenting call and dealt with this topic years before it was needed, because the kids were much more interested in such things when they weren't eminently personal to them. Now that they're actually teens, the conversations seem to be more needs-based. And things don't always go my way. Like that incident I had with the really fancy expensive teen puberty book that I handed over with misty eyes and a loving smile, but was thrown in the garbage without ever being read. Gulp. Lesson learned.

Talking to your daughter: First, remember that periods are a big hairy scary deal, and approach it with the understanding that you might not succeed in reaching her. I don't remember much about my own journey into puberty, except for the event of my first period. It happened while I was visiting my Grandma, and I secretly rummaged in her bathroom drawers to find pads. When my mother picked me up from the ferry the next day, I broke down in tears of shame as I confessed that I'd "got my period". She reassured me, and congratulated me, and took me to a department store to buy jeans. JEANS!!! To the 80's girl who had been mostly stuck in cords and other unfashionable pants until that point, the prospect of brand new jeans was a dream come true! I remember that my first cramps descended on me between the tables of Calvin Klein, Guess, and B.U.M. Equipment, and I doubled over in agony, unable to take my choices into the changing room. We left without any jeans, and at home my Mum made me tea and advised me to take a hot bath. While I was in the bath, my father came home and, on hearing the happy news (ack), came to congratulate me. He declared that we would have a traditional First Period Party to celebrate!!! Of course I was mortified, and his humour fell rather flat. That's all I remember. So as far as going off my own experience, I couldn't, and as a parent I've been flying blind the whole way.

Fortunately or not, your daughter's experience may not be anything like your own. The way her body works may be entirely different; she may menstruate at different times, and she may require an entirely different set of supplies and arrangements to effectively manage her cycle. So it's a good idea to listen to your daughter's advice and questions at least as much as you share your own. A couple of years ago, my daughter suggested we make our own pads, and I was fascinated that it had never occurred to me before! We did a lot of research and experimenting with various materials, and concluded that we couldn't easily make anything as leak-proof as the store-bought (cloth) variety. Imagine us at the dining room table, pouring water onto various materials and testing "wet feeling" and leakage on blue paper towels. It reminded me of a very bad maxi pad commercial from my childhood. And we failed. So we gave up. But it was a wonderful bonding opportunity that never would have happened if I had suggested it. And now I wear cloth pads... something that reminds me every month how proud and grateful I am to have listened to my daughter's advice!

Talking to your son: Sons need to talk about these things too! I will never forget my father telling me that he knew nothing about menstruation until he lived with my mother. Can you imagine going through life as a little boy and later teen, wondering forever about the mysterious toilet behaviours of your mother and later school-mates, and never feeling able to ask? No wonder there's so much fear of women! Explain these things to your sons. Let them in on the convoluted systems you have in place to manage your period (and everything else about life) in this sometimes unforgiving world. They'll grow up with a deeper understanding, a greater compassion, and a greater respect for women.

Keep talking, be askable, and be willing to go outside of your comfort zone to discuss or research whatever comes up. I googled beachtails with my kids today. Ew. Luckily for me, they thought so too! 

Now for the products. We've been experimenting with these, in our house, and I thought I'd give some reviews of some of the more popular options available to us. What works for you depends on the shape of your body as well as your daily activities and circumstances. Girls just starting puberty will likely try many options before settling on what works for them individually. At 43, I'm still trying out new options and my needs are always changing!

Home-made cloth pads: If you have lots of time and a good assortment of fabric options, go for it! It's a great project, although from our experience will involve a lot of trial and error. Maybe in the early stages of this experimental process, stick to some tried-and-true options for school and other public outings.

Aisle (previously called Lunapads): Lunapads was our main brand, because they were (and still are) Canadian, and offered free shipping to Canada, as well as being cotton. I can't recommend them anymore because, although they've become wonderfully body-positive, they have begun including a huge amount of polyester in their products, and have discontinued many of the best products. Also, the period panties NEVER had enough coverage, at the front. I wrote to them on a couple of occasions to ask them to create a panty with more coverage at the front, and they actually answered that that was a common request but they had no intention of doing it! This was before they brought out the all-new boxer style, which also has a short and narrow front coverage. Really sorry to see such a great company lose all their quality standards.

Thinx: Thinx period panties are actually pretty great! The liner coverage on some of them far outpaces Aisle, and for those of us who don't like that weird shiny slippery fabric, they now offer organic cotton styles, too. The fit is a little bit smaller than Aisle panties, so check their sizing chart carefully. The major drawback is the fact that they're not Canadian, and the cost. At nearly $50/pair (and calculating that you need quite a few pairs to get through a cycle), they're really not accessible to many people.

Menstrual Cup: Diva Cup. Fleurcup. Lena Cup. Kind of daunting for new menstruators, but if you can handle a tampon, you can handle a menstrual cup... and they keep things very tidy, which is appealing to some of us! We use them with a light pad or period panties in case of leaks, but to be honest, I've never had a leak! And of course which brand and size you buy depends on your vagina: smaller for girls and women who haven't yet birthed babies, and larger for those who have.

Natural disposable pads: We use Natracare, and sometimes Organyc. They're great, but don't offer any super heavy protection for us perimenopausal types. For anything less, though, they do offer a range of styles and sizes, they look fresh and clean, and are quieter to open in public washrooms, which is a big plus for girls who are still worried about being heard while changing pads. You can also pre-tear the sides of the pad wrappers to avoid some of the ripping sounds in public washrooms.

Unnatural disposable pads: They can be handy for very heavy flow days, or in social/public situations where rinsing a pad in a sink is not an option (or there's no privacy to do so). Some brands (like Stayfree) simply reek, and basically announce to the world that you're menstruating (and that you use Stayfree... weird advertising gimmick?) Others, like Always and Exact, are blissfully unscented, but can cause a lot of sweat or sometimes rashes due to their lack of natural fibres. But if your skin can handle them, they're definitely an option.

Tampons: due to concerns about toxic shock and cervical cancer, we don't use these. If you really do want them, go for the unbleached type sold by companies like Natracare, Organyc, and Seventh Generation.

Free Bleeding: Yeah... this is not popular among young teens. But an interesting topic to talk about!

So that's it - talk to your kids and keep your mind open to all the great options we have for menstruating. Really this topic doesn't need to be treated any differently than the topic of a runny nose, flu-care, immunity and handkerchief or tissue options. It's just a part of our bodies' function, and through talking to our kids, we can let go of some our own inhibitions and grow a stronger, wiser community.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Unschooling Burning Stuff: Forging

The other day my son wandered past where I was working, and said in passing, "I made a little alloy". I admit I wasn't fully attending, so he tried a little harder: "Mama. I made a little alloy of tin, zinc and bismuth."

I still wasn't really paying attention. "Oh that's cool."


I realized I needed to be more present, and tried to get there: "So how did you do it?"

"I melted them together."

"Oh yeah. That's cool."

This kind of thing isn't unusual for him, and my mind was on whatever I was doing at the time. So my daughter piped in - loudly: "Mama he used his blow-torch!"

"Wait---WHAT!? There's a fire-ban!!!"

"Oh no, it's OK", he said. "I did it in my bedroom."


This announcement, during the hottest week of the year, when our whole province is plagued by forest fires and evacuations and SMOKE to blot out the blazing sun... oh yeah... and a complete FIRE BAN... was followed with: "it was very safe. My blow-torch is small. It's the one I found at the recycling depot."

Welcome to my life, unschooling a kid who likes to burn stuff.

Unschooling has always been a struggle for me. I believe whole-heartedly that experimentation and exploration are the key to development in every aspect of our lives, but to just sit back and blithely watch as my kids make choices that terrify me? This is not my strong suit. There are times I have left the house because I can't bear to watch anymore. There are days I get none of my own work done because I'm constantly running around checking that nobody needs medical attention. And yet - most of the accidents and injuries we've experienced came from the most innocuous-seeming activities. I'm trying to remember that. So here, in forest fire season, I'm posting a little celebration of my kid's penchant for burning stuff. In the past couple of years this has leaned towards forging.

He began with materials he could find around the house and yard: First the fire pit, then some cinder blocks to create a hotter fire, and eventually his father's ventilator fan, re-purposed with a metal dryer vent to feed air into the fire. He ended up covering the fire with a fine mesh screen to keep sparks from flying out, and eventually he upgraded from burning wood to burning store-bought briquettes. He used his father's little anvil, and some hammers from around the house, until he decided that the anvil was bouncing around too much, taking most of the force into the ground instead of into flattening his metal. Then he found a much heavier salvaged piece of railroad and began using that, instead.

For blanks he initially used nails, and created a series of hooks and other useful things, but as his ability to burn hotter grew, so did the size of the metal he worked with. Eventually he moved on to huge nails, using them to make a chisel and then a small knife, and then further onto pieces of rebar. Recently he found a bunch of discarded files, and has begun experimenting with various cutting and shaping techniques, including the saw-blade you can see on the bottom knife in this photo.

I am coming around to this whole thing, as I see his safety precautions developing. I told him he had to stop forging this summer, as our poor province is up in flames again, so he revamped his fire-pit forge and sent photos to the local fire-chief, asking for permission to proceed. And he got it! I figure if he has the wherewithal to create a forge out of salvaged materials and get official permission to use it during a fire-ban, I can probably stop worrying, now.

Here's a video he created about some of his process:

Forge ahead, young man! Or forge a head. Or something. (Ha ha ha.)