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Why "Together Art"

Author: Suzanne Axelsson

I have always liked collaborative art... of working together...

I find that often the focus is on the individual, which is an essential part of working as an educator... to see each individual child and to enable them to reach their potential... but individuals live, work and play in groups, so they need to work out how to be themselves in not just one group, but in a variety of groups and social situations.

Together art gives children the opportunity to express themselves and interact with others. It is not a form of art that is conflict free - it can require a great deal of scaffolding at times - but it does give the children time and space to practice those social skills while doing something enjoyable. They learn how to take turns, to make space for each other, or take space from others (as there are children who take up a lot of social space and children who take up too little social space... they both need to learn how to allow an equality in the social space): they learn how to be inspired by each other... sharing techniques, learning from mistakes etc etc etc...

I also felt there was a lot of "mine" happening, so by making art together we were creating "ours". It is not that we were making only together art, but that there was a mix of many options of big group art, small group art, working in pairs and working individually... and that all of these ways felt natural for the children to partake in.

Lots of scaffolding in the early days, allowed me to take more and more steps back as the children would scaffold each other more and more.

Also by allowing together paintings to happen across the ages the older children got the chance to realise just how competent the younger children are... and stopped referring to them as babies... (often the word babies means "can't do")

In this post I have selected a whole load of different together art for you to see and think about... (under there are photos and more information)

when working with one year olds I introduced together painting in a different way... not so much that they were all there the first time, but in ones and twos so that it was not overwhelming. In this image just off-screen were three children watching... two of them had shown us that they did not like getting messy in previous art opportunities. There was so much joy when this child painted that both the children who did not like getting messy wanted to try... and this is the beauty of together painting that children can inspire each other. Both those two only painted for a very short time... but they had tried something that they had avoided passionately before hand.

sometimes a together artwork is not about art AT ALL. This piece was a morning meeting, it was about supporting the group to take turns, supporting the group to take the time to think and reflect and to support the group to help each other... it was not about being creative and expressing themselves through art. The idea was that each child selected three squares of tissue paper... the colours on offer were the same colours found on Elmer the Elephant by David McKee - the children needed to glue their three squares onto the elephant in order and also to make sure that the same colour square did not touch each other (although corners were allowed). This was a lot of thinking for eleven 2-3 year olds It required patience to wait your turn (each child had several turns), but being an active adviser also helped with that. It also meant that children could not just select their favourite colour but had to explore other colours too. At the end the elephant was cut out and used as part of storytelling. The children also got the opportunity to draw their own elephants and glue on pieces as they wished - but then the focus was more on painting with the glue rather than fixing pieces of paper onto their art.

this was another artwork.. making leaves for a tree which was more about supporting the children with understanding boundaries than it was about being creative. What happens if you paint out of the lines and into someone else's area, how could we resolve conflicts, how could we use self-regulation to avoid conflicts... can someone paint over the lines by accident, or is it always on purpose? Lots of ideas for the children to explore.

and yet another artwork about turn taking. patience, thinking about colours, self regulating, concentrating... this was again not an art session per se, but a morning meeting/circle time/philosophy session. And was connected to Kandinsky... not only because the Olympics were about to be held in Russia, but also because we had a child from Russia in the group.

This was the first "Together painting" in the sense that it was labelled a together painting before we started... I wrote "TILLSAMMANS" on the paper in big letters which is Swedish for "TOGETHER". It was a part of a project called Together on the Square where we were exploring collaboration, empathy and the local area through the children's interests. In the beginning I needed to have a list - a turn taking list, as there was so much disagreements about who should paint and when. There were two pots of paint, one black and one white. The idea being that the children needed to talk to each other about swapping colours... giving them the chance to learn how to ask respectfully, how to say no respectfully, to be aware that others are waiting (and if you don't like to wait, maybe they don't) and also to learn how to wait (if you don't like having to change colours to quickly, maybe others don't). This was a way for the children to learn how to socially interact with each other. It was not conflict free, but I was there to support them if needed. After a week the children did not need a turn-taking list any more, they were able to do this themselves (no longer waiting a few cm away saying "is it my turn yet?" on repeat) - they learned that there was time to paint, that they could play and return to the together painting repeatedly and have several turns during the day. The children had to learn that there was time... and everything did not need to happen now... other could be first sometimes.

the together painting was active for different length of time - sometimes a week, sometimes much longer... with different layers being added. There were many discussions about was it OK to paint over someone's work or not, and what happened to that image, was it still there. A lot of photographs were taken at the children's request, as they soon learned they could document their process and keep their artwork that way too. This was a great way for the children to understand how photography could be used as a memory and also as a form of documentation.

eventually more and more children could paint at the same time as the children became more socially competent at the easel. Learning how to share the paint pots and how to communicate their desire for colour change and also their desire to not swap... they learned to do this in a respectful way... although some scaffolding still was needed on occasion. And when there were many children at the painting at the same time then space was a premium and finding space for your own creativity could be tricky... but this was all part of the skill package... conflict resolution. I always chose the colours in the sense that they would offer the children experiences of new colours being formed when mixed... and not for it always to turn brown...(although brown happened on occasion too)

it also became a place to test writing skills... and this inspired other children... so it was a great way for literacy to spread through play across the ages.

The together paintings often became a wonderful sensory experience for many of the children... one child would start painting their arms an others would follow.

it was also a place where we tested new techniques... like putting tape across and then peeling it off when the paint was dry...

or dipping straws into paint and blowing it onto the paper

or gluing bits of paper onto the paper using glitter filled glue... this was to create a hedge of thorns and flowers as part of a sleep beauty project the children were exploring.

sometimes we decided BEFOREHAND how to collaborate... here the children made rainbow - each child with their own colour and taking it in turns to make a series of rainbows across the paper... They really had to check each rainbow to see which one was the next for them to paint, so that the colours would come in the "right order" - the children helped each other out.

sometimes instead of pots I would put a tray of colour out for them to use - often the tray itself would become the artwork - and there could be intense dialogues between the children when one wanted the colours separate and the others were mixing on the tray... these were great opportunities to learn.

Together painting can be taken outside... this is plastic stretched between trees... the same idea of different colour pots with a brush in each and for the children to enter a dialogue with each other to change colour. This was part of the International Fairy Tea Party celebrations that are held every year in September...

more outside collaborative art - it does not always have to be paint...

sometimes it is using what the children find

and they can sometimes find all sorts of junk to create with...

some collaborative artworks have been done very differently... in the sense that they did not work on them at the same time... we had 11 children and 6 pieces of art... half the group went outside to play while half worked on the first stage of creating a magic forest...

layer by layer...

and then a few months later the children decided that the forest were no longer correct... winter had arrived and we needed to change the look of the forest... so we took them down from the wall, lined them up on the table and then on another table at the other side of the room I put lots of white tissue paper for the children to rip up, make balls with etc and glue onto the forest images... all 11 children on the 6 forest artworks - it was an interesting dynamic watching the children negotiate the movement in the room and interacting with each other to ensure each forest picture became wintery.

This idea of a communal paint centre I have used many times... this was part of a rainforest painting... each child painted a rainforest using flowers and leaves... the first session was leaves, the background, using a variety of greens... the children came to a central table to dip leaves and then print on their own paper... the idea being there is movement and the need to take turns with the paints... and not just to paint their own creation in isolation.

it was also about sharing materials, and inspiring each other.

I have done several spaghetti/string painting over the years, in a variety of ways too... but this way of doing it in small groups and collaborating is the way I have enjoyed most... as I see the interactions between the children have been at the best. A pile of string or spaghetti, dip in the paints and then let the noodle/string dance on the paper in a variety of ways - some children have told stories together as they create the art, some have sang together, once I saw a group do this in total silence.

the art is then done over time in a series of small groups... adding more and more depth to the artwork.

sometimes artwork can take a long time to get going - like this one did... I was sweaty at the end of this due to having to work so hard at the scaffolding and trying to keep my cool... I was getting frustrated by the children's total lack of listening to each other. It was a new group to me, and after working for four years with the same group and really working on the group dynamic and how to listen to each other, it came as a shock to work with a group that could not. But just because it was not easy is not reason enough not to do it... maybe it is more reason to do it... to expose the children to an opportunity to learn about the needs of others and how to make sure their own needs are met too.

more outside art collaboration... this time using coloured ice on fabric

Together painting on the square.The water source was two spray bottles that the children needed to collaborate together with to ensure they could all paint... as well as changing the colour pucks with each other.

some outdoor art is more science than art... this is where the children painted on the slide (well paper on the slide) we also used the swings to create art too together. There was no outdoor space at this setting, but if you are determined you can make it happen, by taking everything with you to a play space

the swing art became the background for the fairy portraits... the children drew each other, added wings and then cut them out. A video of the swing art can be seen on my facebook page

taking turns mixing the spices.

this is part of making a background for a Moroccan inspired fairy land... one of the children came from a Moroccan family.

it was also about self regulation... can I put paint on all of my friends backs? Will they like it? Should I ask first, is it ok to say no?

and this is the sky for that fairy land... some made the trees, some made the sky etc... all the children do not all have to do the same thing... we can all contribute in different ways. This session was designed to help the children with pronunciation difficulties to train their mouths through blowing the paint through the straws... Paint on sugar solution.

I have done a lot of light table painting with children... in pairs and in groups... as well as individually. The small space adds a challenge, but that is a part of the process. Again a lot of story telling, singing and dancing usually happens.

and it has seldom been a negative experience as there is just so much wonder and joy. det har sällan varit en negativ upplevelse eftersom det finns så mycket glädje och beundran

some together paintings have been a meta dialogue... a reaction to a philosophy session... here the children has explained that to play magical powers (what we had discussed in our philosophy session) there was a need to dance on a rainbow. So together we created a big rainbow to dance on... with our feet... and the children cheering each other on...

big painting on the floor... working out together how to make brown... testing theories and then finding a solution. This was part of making a gingerbread house as we explored Hansel and Gretel. The candies for the house was made with paint scented with peppermint, lemon etc...

individual portraits brought together. Individuals make up a group.

here we needed a big artwork in the dining area, not to just cheer up the room but also to act as a sound absorber... so we painted on fabric. The whole preschool was involved. The younger children first, printing with vegetables and fruit, and also dancing with coloured feet and hands... fabric is great for this as it is not slippery.

then the older children finished off the artwork by using black paint to draw fruit, vegetables and other foods.

this is a similar artwork... where the younger children made the background and the older children painted spring images on top... a way for ALL the children to be a part of the process.

some together paintings need a lot of collaboration... here the children are egg rolling... too steep and the egg breaks, not steep enough and the egg won't roll. We did many kinds of collaborative work with balls, magnets, and poles with paintbrushes dangling down.

together painting as risk taking... here the children painted directly onto the floor (as the wanted to play Cinderella, so we painted so that they could clean), which made it slippery. They needed to take care of each other as well as themselves.

back to turn taking and risk taking... this is just on a table to add flower prints to a big spring background... there have been artworks where children have taken it in turns to climb a step ladder and drop paint from up high... the children supporting and encouraging each other, as well as making sure that they are safe.

So, as you see, there are VERY many ways that children can collaborate and paint together... and I have felt that the benefits are so worth the trouble. Yes, this style of working can get messy... both with paint everywhere, but also socially, as we are putting the children together in close proximity to experience new things... but what I observed is that the more the children were exposed to working together the better they got at it... and the easier it was to use these skills they learned in other play and social situations...

This does not touch the collaborative nature of loose parts, or construction and other areas of learning... the focus of this post was on art.

Author: Suzanne Axelsson

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