For young makers, making is more than learning how to use a particular tool or a technique. It’s experiencing the power of a material, technology, or tool as a language of self expression. It’s PLAYING with different languages and experiencing the magic of connections that is made when what you have made makes someone laugh, cry, or wonder.
One powerful combination of materials we use a lot in Maker Scouts is clay , wire, and stop motion. We have noticed that playing with clay with the whole body provides a therapeutic experience for many young children with developing neurological processes. The proprioceptive input that they get from rolling, jumping, punching, and kneading clay relaxes their body’s need to move constantly and gives them the opportunity to focus on a project. For some, it’s the first time they have control over their body and that discovery is so powerful for the child, parent, and educator. Wire provides fine motor exercises that help children work with small tools and really learn about twisting. Stop motion animation enables the youngest child to have the ability to tell a story using the simplest of tasks–especially for those who struggle to use words – spoken or written. As directors of their own experience, with one click and with each movement of the clay “actor,” we get a glimpse of their inner soul.
This week, I purchased eight blocks of 50 lb. clay blocks and just laid them out on a painter’s cloth on the grass. As scouts came in, we didn’t say anything and just let them experience the clay in its raw form. Some scouts jumped on the blocks, others rolled, others pulled pieces off and threw then down to experience the sound, temperature and consistency of the clay. They came to their own understanding of how to work with clay – that kneading it, with hands or knees results in softer clay, that throwing a smaller piece onto an another had an unexpected result.
Armed with that experience, they were then invited to a table where they had smaller blocks of the same clay and a series of clay working tools awaiting them. Here they were able to experiment with different tools that could be used to cut, smooth, subtract, add and a whole lot more. Some decided that they wanted to see how stop motion worked, so, they went over to the stop motion stations and used a blog of clay to tell a story. We had stop motion software installed on PC’s, Mac’s. Ipad’s, and iPhones. It was out hope that parents could see that whatever piece of technology they had, that they could provide this story-telling medium for as little as 99 cents.
Some scouts moved over to the wire armature table once they had a design of a character and a good understanding of how the stop motion works. They were introduced to wire tools and how to build the skeleton of their character. Wire is a very interesting material to work with. Twisting along many different axes is a learned skill and one that takes quite a bit of practice. The tension of the wire also makes a difference as to whether arms stay on the body and whether feet and hands do what the artist wants them to do. It was amazing to see the patience with which the scouts worked with their unfamiliar tools and material.
Once they had an armature, they then moved over to another clay table where they used non-drying modeling clay to “skin” their armatures. This is a great exercise for fine motor skill muscles as they add small 1 inch x 1 inch squares of clay and use their thumbs to smooth the connections. It can be a very regulating and mindful activity as they sit for about an hour layering clay piece upon clay piece. And parents are always amazed at how long young children will devote to this type of activity.
Once they were happy with the clay and the connections, they took their creation to the stop motion station and made their movies. Two hours really isn’t enough to formulate a developed story, but we were amazed at what these young children were able to create in such a short time. What was equally exciting was to notice the level of detail that had been building while they were playing with the clay and wire. Some scouts had a background song already in mind, other’s had a comedy skit all ready to go, and others had a full blown three-part play.
In the upcoming badge sessions, we will have a series of guild meetings that will introduce the tools of storytelling and I can’t wait to see what the scouts will make when they have 12-16 hours as opposed to 1.5.
Finally, I need to share a story about an 8 year old boy who has been identified with all kinds of challenges and whose ticks are kept under control by medication. Because of his challenges, he struggles to use verbal and written words to communicate. When he works with clay, the world disappears and his ticks are no more as both his hands are busy. When we invited him to make a stop motion animation, what he made in about 15 minutes blew us all away. Working with the clay had enabled him to slow his mind and body down to develop an idea and the animation he produced, gave us so much insight into how his mind works and his great sense of humor.
One of the greatest rewards of being a mentor if finding that one material or medium that speaks to a child and facilitates for them, the ability to show the world who they are.
Jean Kaneko, founder and chief tinkerer at The Exploratory, is documenting a session of the Maker Scouts’ successes and failures for MAKE and celebrating both as learning opportunities.