At the Child Study Center at East Tennessee State University in Jonesboro, infants begin painting when they are capable of lying on their tummies and holding their heads up with support of their elbows. Some parents at the center are surprised "that we will paint with the children as early as we do," notes Tina Lunsford, master teacher in the center's infant program.
But this activity is well suited for what's going on developmentally with infants, explains Beverly Wiginton, center director. "Babies learn about their world through their senses. And so playing in paint and experiencing the different textures and how cold it is or how warm it might be, they learn about their world and how to develop different concepts," she explains.
Developmentally Appropriate Practices
What early childhood educators call "developmentally appropriate" practices-activities based on what is known about how young children learn and how their brains develop-are central to the philosophy of the center, a child care facility for ages 3 months to 5 years as well as a university laboratory environment in which students fulfill class, practicum, and observation requirements. The environment is set up to give children choices about what they want to do, and hands-on, active involvement is stressed. "We want the children to approach whatever activity or experience they are involved in with open-endedness. We want them to be as creative as possible. We want them to be able to express themselves in a way that they are comfortable with and that works for them," Wiginton explains.
Children learn through experience and exploration. For example, areas are set up on the floor for infants who are not yet able to stand, so that they can paint with their hands, as well as on low tables for those who are mobile and can stand. In the segment seen in Art to Heart, the tables were covered with bubble wrap and heavy-duty aluminum foil, so that the children could also explore textures like bumpy and smooth. The tinfoil also makes a sound. Sometimes a scent other than paint scent is added to the paint. And as the infants explore, "Teachers are talking to them, and the teachers are describing what they're seeing or what they're experiencing," explains teacher Darrellen E. Lodien. The teacher might say, "Oooh, that feels cold ands sticky," "What does it feel like when you make a circle with your hand?," or "Look, it's on your hands. It was on the paper and now it's on your hand," so that "the describing is a big part of the activity."
Describing and asking open-ended questions are important, Lodien says. "Whether the child can respond or not, the brain is going through the process of figuring it out. It provides the children opportunities to gain vocabulary, build on that vocabulary, to hear new words and ideas."
As They Grow
The emphasis on developmentally appropriate practice and open-ended creative activities continues throughout a child's experience at the center, Lodien explains. For example, as children's fine motor skills develop, they begin painting with brushes. Or they may paint on objects. On the day of the Art to Heart visit, children in the preschool program were painting at easels. One child found an old paper towel roll and painted on it, then rolled it up and down the easel, discovering different kinds of color and texture changes in the process. "And it became something another child picked up on and added to. They put string around the roll and rolled that up and down their painting. On the other side of the easel, another child used a sponge roller to see if that would look different from the paper towel roll. She peeked around to see the other child's paper towel effect. Conversations between the children were supported by a teacher who asked open-ended questions like, 'Well, why is Susie's painting looking different from yours?' 'How is the sponge different from the paper towel?' So teachers were providing opportunities for the kids to think about what they're doing," Lodien says. "They may or may not get a response, but the children have heard the words, and their brains are going through the process. So that happens with the babies, and it happens with the toddler, and then it's built on in the preschool program."