The Seed of an Idea

When long-time Kindergarten teacher Christiane Karamanoukian from Pinewood Elementary (SWLSB) approached me with an idea for alternative ways to do Science in the Kindergarten class, it was an invitation that was too good to be refused. She explained: “You know how the kitchen center can become so many different things when you start adding different materials? You can influence the direction of the children’s interests and play. I’d like to see if we can create a ‘Science Play Center’ in the same spirit. I don’t want to do pre-designed science activities anymore. I want to get out of those one-off basis activities like ‘What floats?’, ‘What slides?’, ‘Make seeds grow’ “. 

A team grew around that idea. Teachers Loretta Cianci (Pinewood Elementary. SWLSB) and Natalie Losier (Saint-Adèle Elementary, SWLSB) joined us as well as Sheryl Smith-Gilman, Faculty lecturer, Faculty of Education, McGill University. LEARN supported it with teacher release time, resources and materials as well as great lunches!

The team met 5 times over a period of 8 months (November 2018 to June 2019) to discuss, plan, and reflect. Between meetings, we stayed in touch via email, shared materials on Google Drive and Google Photo, and met on-line through LEARN’s virtual classroom platform, Zen-Live.

Then the Idea Grew!

From the start, the original idea was expanded from Science to STEAM.

As part of the Vision and Mission Statement - (Download ) our Goals and Challenges became:

1- DESIGN                         

Design an STEAM approach that is compatible with a developmental view rather than an instructional concept/skills-based view of learning in K.


Document and refine it by experimenting activities with students.


Disseminate it creatively in the preschool education community through a variety of channels.

In this vision, learning through play and hands-on learning are to be at the center of children’s learning activities. The children will have opportunities to investigate what they find interesting, set their own goals, pursue their own answers and take pleasure in their achievements.  The hands-on approach has to provide the children opportunities to act with purpose, to show their understanding through doing, to verbalise and articulate their knowledge.

Beginning the Journey

Even before the first meeting took place, the three teachers were already in contact with one another and, as happens often, the discussion revolved around the activities or projects they were currently doing. Natalie, the art lover, told them of a project that was taking shape in her class with themes of nature, fall and Kandinsky art.  Christiane and Loretta loved the idea, and jumped in at their end, planning something along those lines too. The result is that we were able to document a base line of how they generally envision, plan and implement classroom activities.

As the initiator of this activity, Natalie had given a very broad scope to it from the onset, weeks before discussing it with Christiane and Loretta. She had started with an exploration of trees, through an in-school field trip as well as going to a local park to observe trees. The children made rubbings, measured circumference, gathered leaves, etc. There were discussions and activities around tree questions: What do trees give us? Who lives in trees? What things do we make from trees? They made recycled paper in class.  Parallel to that, they had been working on and with 2D and 3D shapes. At one point they read “The Dot” by Peter Reynolds - Go to site. Then, through images and videos, they learned about some aspects of Kandinsky’s art, specifically his concentric circles. (Please note that this simple enumeration does not do justice to the creativity behind all the activities involved.)

From that point on, the three teachers planned similar art-related activities:

Exploration phase: exploring circles with a variety of mediums on paper


Creating Kandinsky-like circles with a variety of mediums


Final production: Creating a Kandinsky fall-coloured tree

When Things Get Turned on Their Head

The teachers shared their project-related pictures through Google Drive and Google Photos.  During our first ZenLive virtual meeting, they referred to these as they shared their planning, their process and their observations. What emerged is that they had created a structured process in which they chose activities and planned their sequence to move towards a common pre-determined final production, i.e. a Kandinsky-circle fall tree. Within this process, they observed the children, interacted with them, provided materials and resources needed. They were sensitive to the children’s reactions and interests and responded by adjusting the process as well as the goal they had set.


The seed of the next step in our team’s discussion and learning process was provided by Natalie’s use of an “Exploration table” on which she presented a variety of round-shaped materials and Christiane’s “Observation table” table on which she presented a variety of natural materials. Those two tables came from two different perspectives and intentions.

Natalie's Exploration Table

Christiane's Observation Table


In Natalies’s words:

"I put it out there, and thought ‘Let’s see what happens’. I’ll just change it.  Have them create some kind of images with shapes. They have had experience before [with art work that is ephemeral]. It’s really hard for them [not to keep their creation]. But they’re so good. They just create, have fun, and if they want me to take a picture, I can take a picture and put in their portfolio binder. But [I tell them] ‘Don’t make it permanent’. And they do that. They respect that. And they respect putting everything back in its own place. It’s kind of fun actually [that they enjoy sorting things back into their containers]. Usually this is my plasticine/play dough table, but I’m looking forward to changing it up and see what else they can create with the stuff I’m just going to put there: my Exploration Table."

Natalie compares it to building sand castles on the beach.
“You create and play, and the next day it’s no longer there so you can start over again.”

Christiane’s intentions with the natural materials were quite different. As she explains it, to pique the children’s interest, she typically hides materials in a bag, tells them she discovered something and asks whether they would like to see what she found. In this instance, she had collected a variety of bark samples. She engaged a discussion during which she drew their attention to their properties: lines, colour, textures, etc. These and other natural materials were then left on the table for the children to observe more closely during their art creation. So when they painted, they tried to recreate the texture of a tree. As a result she observed the children attempting to recreate the lines on the barks in a variety of ways and with different size paintbrushes. 

Natalie’s Exploration Table highlighted the potential of free play/exploration with materials;
Observation Table provided natural materials which served as models to inspire art work.


As we discussed these two approaches the teachers had intuitively implemented, they reflected deeply on their practice and articulated a number of key insights:

1. Their project was still too focused on the creation of a final product. As a result, learning steps had been chosen and scaffolded to enable attaining the product end-goal.

2. Children’s play in their classes is mostly outcome based. Many children have become helpless when faced with exploration play: they await instructions on what to do. They have been trained to produce rather than explore and tinker.

3. When children explore freely, they make non-permanent creations. There are no mistakes in this type of free exploration. They become engrossed, involved, and they enjoy it. They want to go back, re-create, add-on or copy what someone else did. It gives them opportunity to go back, try again, make no mistakes and just have fun, which is how children learn!

4. Rather than guiding the activities to an “artificial” outcome (i.e. draw/paint a tree with Kandinsky circles), they could have provided a variety of materials to let the children explore in an open-ended setting over several days. Then art could have been a way for the children to communicate their ideas not just making pretty pictures or demonstrating art techniques. Art can become one of the languages of children’s expression.

Exploration of Materials

When they returned to their classes, they carried these ideas with them, Christiane and Loretta revisited the art project; Natalie applied them in the clay art exploration she was beginning.    

Christiane and Loretta provided a great variety of natural materials the children could use in any way they wanted. The results were surprising and inspiring.



The materials presented were well organised, accessible, natural or man-made, intriguing, beautiful.



Materials became invitations that don’t focus immediately on the creation of products but instead support the children’s building relationships with those materials and later with tools and processes associated with them.

Telling Changes

This change in perspective had an “immediate” impact on the teachers’ approaches which was made evident through how and what they documented.  Whereas the pictures they took in the first weeks were almost entirely of children’s productions collectively or of individual children showcasing their production in this phase, now they showed children in the process of playing with the materials. As a result, they were able to observe their natural propensity to create order and beauty with the materials provided: to sort, to order, to build and organise.

They discovered the importance and pleasure of exploring the medium prior to working with it to create. Most K children have little experience with the variety of materials used in class: the variety of paints and brushes, pastels, etc.

Presenting a variety of materials the children could use and doing it in a visually appealing way changed how the children reacted to the context: they were enabled, they now had opportunities to choose, to imagine and decide what to do and how. They took ownership of the “buffet” of choices. With materials beautifully presented and sorted, the children played creatively --“creative-mess”--, and, in the end, took pleasure in sorting all the objects back into their containers.

The teachers observed that, when given enough time for this type of non-permanent exploration over a period of days or weeks, the children learned to become more selective and more intentional in their use of the materials as well as more creative: their play became more refined, they observed what others were doing around them, they exchanged and learned from each other because, in the teachers words, “they knew we were not going to take it away”.

Playful exploration of materials took root and allowed the teachers to observe and engage with the children in new ways.  On the one hand, they saw how focused the children were, how they tried new things, how they created and problem-solved. On the other, they began to reflect on which types of interactions, questions, and comments support the children’s explorations and thinking and which take away from their experience and diminishes it.

They shared examples of what they became aware of and were attempting to change. For example:

Sometimes they would qualify an activity when presenting it. To motivate the children to try their best, they might say, “This is really hard”; to make them feel confident, they might say “This is really easy”.  But they came to realise that with a qualifying introduction, a child who isn’t able to succeed will feel incompetent and might just stop trying.

They had a tendency to praise the outcome: “Good job”, “That’s beautiful”, etc. They discussed changing their tactics by changing their questions as well as their responses. They might ask the child to “Tell me about ….” and respond with “Thank you for sharing”.

These and other examples led to deepening the teacher’s reflection on questioning and interacting with the children to find the types of questions that move exploration and understanding forward. Over time, they created a series of Question Cards  (Download ) they could consult for inspiration.

A year later ...

From the very beginning of the year, a Creativity Table took root in the classroom. The children were given time to explore, touch, feel and let the materials lead their creativity with no particular outcome, product or set steps in mind. The invitation to create is open-ended and not time-restrained.

Their beautiful creations are ephemeral: they learn to enjoy making them and then letting them go, though they can live on in the pictures that they take of them.

The materials were mostly natural as well as beautifully presented and organized. This type of presentation naturally invites the children to put them back in the same way when they are finished.



Sea-Themed Creativity Table



Fall-Themed Creativity Table


When the children were asked what their creations made them think of (not "What did you make"!) this is just a sampling of what they answered.

It makes me think of ...


a snowstorm

the heart of the tree for a ladybug

a flower


There was also: a nest, a snowman, a Bonhomme, a leaf creation, a beautiful garden, and a tree. All their creations were beautiful. But even more beautiful is what the children SAW in them. That is both creative AND poetic!

References and Resources

(1) Vision and Mission statement - Download

(2) Peter Reynolds. (2008) The Dot, Walker Books Ltd - Go to site

Video version - Go to site

(3) Question cards - Download


Related resources

Artful Tinkering in Kindergarten: the Creativity Table - Go to site

Enter K - Exit Play? Go to site


Follow this link to continue on to the next case study: Clay - Building Relationships with Materials, Tools, and Processes - Go to page