Monday, June 15, 2009

Marshmallow Sculptures

The head of my school entered my classroom concerned that something may be wrong. "It was so quiet down here that I had to come and check that everything was alright, Miss Dyer. But, I can see now that the children are simply busy."

I had placed two pieces of black construction paper, a bowl of miniature marshmallows and a bowl of toothpicks on every table while the children were outside on the playground. When they came in several children immediately said, "Oh, we did this last year. I love this work!"

I asked them to be patient and let me give an all class lesson for first year students. I had a captivated audience. Everyone watched me construct a simple structure and then they went to work.

I informed them that they were to raise their hands if they needed their bowls refilled with marshmallows and toothpicks. It was amazing how quiet and patiently they did this. More amazing were the sculptures and structures that they carefully constructed. Some of the pieces were abstract. Others were specific things like a house or a temple.

One of my young five year olds, who is very detail oriented in all of her work, made (with absolutely no adult help) an amazing butterfly and a spider (with eight legs) hanging from its web.

Not all children complete work or complete work at the same time as their peers:

Two children couldn't finish their projects because they were overwhelmed by what they had decided they wanted to make and unable to abandon that first idea. Their work collapsed. First I suggested that they stop building and get paper to sketch out their ideas but that didn't appeal to them and was quickly rejected. Next, I tried to redirect one of the students with suggestions for alternative constructions. (ex. a bird house, a jewelry box) The child looked at me and said, "I want to make the Great Wall of China. Don't worry Miss Dyer, I can do it."

The second child who was having difficulty making anything said, "I just don't know what I want to make." She stuck toothpicks into marshmallows and then pulled them out, over and over again.

An older student used a process that I have seen her use to start and finish work before. Before she started constructing something, although most of the children had begun, she got up from her table and walked around the room. I politely inquired what she was doing and she answered, "I have a lot of ideas so before I pick one I want to walk around the classroom and just see what the others are making. I get ideas by looking at other people's work."

A few minutes later she was back at her table committed to a structure. When I stopped by she told me, "I wanted to build a temple like the one I go to, but at first I couldn't figure out how to do it. But I saw Jack put squares and triangles together to make his house and so now I know how." Some children need to visualize the process before they can began.

The two girls who were struggling to complete their structures are the youngest in their kindergarten class. This exercise, at the end of the year, reveals that they are in a place writers often find themselves. They have many ideas but do not have all the tools that they need to bring those ideas to fruition.

Writers often have great story lines running through their heads but get caught in developing the plot and not the characters or the opposite. They spend months writing short drafts that often get deleted or thrown in the trash. A successful writer sees their work as a craft that requires both imagination and structure. Writing a story outline or sketching a story board are two of my most effective means of writing and finishing a story.

Also, letting go of an idea (trying to make the Great Wall of China) can be an enormous challenge for some people. Years ago, I read an article in one of my yoga magazines about how all ideas are not great ideas. My favorite line in the article was, "Don't be a slave to an idea."

When the day was over the unfinished work by these two girls remained on their tables. The following morning the girl who wanted to make the Great Wall of China was out sick. But, the student who didn't know what she wanted to make sat down and spent the entire morning making a structure which she said was her house. "Yesterday, I forgot what I wanted to make," she explained.

This student works best alone. When all of the other students had moved on to other work and it was only her working on the marshmallow project she excelled. She is not a think tank or group project kinda of student. The truth is some children simply need their own time frame in which to be successful. That student worked all morning on her house. It was a great house!


Amber said...

How wonderful! I particularly liked the black paper to set off the white of the marshmallows. My question is... were many eaten?!! I would love to do this with my boys but they might go Marshmallow crazy & aet them all!

Susan Y. Dyer said...

Yes! Absolutely some were eaten. I said that they could eat 3. Once they started seeing their constructions grow they wanted to make sure they had enough marshmallows to finish their work and lost interest in eating them. I popped a couple in my mouth too.

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet

Anonymous said...

Susan, this is wonderful work, and your observations of your children are so insightful. I really found the insights comparing the children's work to writing very helpful. I am looking forward to reading your posts in the next few days, I learn so much from you, thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Children's House said...

Susan, I love this simple idea. It has value...for the students and the teacher, who by observing learns SO MUCH about her students. Maybe a good October project, for learning more about the children...maybe even to be repeated in May, for the children to learn about themselves?

stefanie said...

Hi Susan,
I recently bumped into your enlighting site and got hooked to read for a long time. Shortly before that I had signed my son up to attend a Montessori school for the start of the new school year(after a lot of research in books, online and in the actual school) and I am very excited about it. The insight and reflection you give on the children's approach is fantastic. I know you are unique but I do hope we have some copycats in our school!

Teaching Heart Mom said...

What a great idea... I will be doing this with my 6 and 3 year old... Thanks for the ideas.

Kathy said...

Great Ideas...
come visit me
I am impressed with your
creative ideas!

Evenspor said...

The two girls who were struggling remind me of a series of posts on an artist friend's blog about the creative process and how creative people are really just those who gather many ideas and are then able to narrow them down to what they really want:

I am not sure how this concept could be taught to preschoolers, but if anyone could figure it out, it would be you.

Making of a Montessori Mum said...

Wow! Wow! Wow! This looks fabulous! Thanks for sharing.