Musings about the importance and impact of art and art education in the 21st century.

Musings about the importance of art and art education

New Art Centers

♠ Posted by ArtMuse in at 7:30 AM

Every year when I order the following years supplies, I always try to order a handful of new items that I think would be good to add to my center repertoire. Over the past 3 years of trial and error, I've found a few guidelines are helpful when thinking about whether a center item will be successful or not.  Here's what I've come up with: 

1.  Can the children easily set it up and put it away?  Things that require a lot of directions, steps, or guidance from me are a NO GO. The whole point of centers is self-directed, open ended exploration...if they need me every 5 seconds, it's not a successful center. Tied into this, is the level of mess it makes.  If there's an opportunity for the children to get really dirty, chances are it will be fun, but chances also are that you'll have to watch that group like a hawk for misbehavior or a little too much "exploration".  Again, if it doesn't run smoothly and with minimal teacher interruption, I'd say skip it.

2 Is it open-ended and exploratory?  If the activity is too structured and the product-based, chances are, the kids won't have time to complete it, and will be bored in the process. Also, if there are too many "right" or "wrong" steps they're guaranteed to get confused and discouraged (see also, # 1). 

3. Would it work for grades k-5, or at least grades k-2 or 3-5 If the activity is too centered on one specific age or ability level it won't work in the majority of situations.  Flexibility and adaptability are the name of the game in center activities, so if it doesn't suit a broad grade range, skip it.  

4. Does it keep the children engaged for a decent amount of time In a typical 40 minute are period I usually have the class switch centers 1 time.  The breakdown goes something like this: Five minute for reviewing center rules. Five minutes for setup,  transitions, and cleanup, and 30 minutes for center time. So, any more than 2 switches and the kids really don't have the time to explore the center. This means it's got to keep them engaged for at least 15 minutes. 

5.  Is it individual based or does it have opportunities for collaboration?  I will try a center activity that is based on solo work, but I particularly like the activities that give the kids the opportunity to create something as a group if they so choose.  Most of what I do, and from what I've seen, other art teachers do, is individual work, and so it's nice if the children get the chance to work together on something.

6. Will the materials hold up?  Delicate, quickly used, and/or easily breakable materials may make for a fun activity but if you have hundreds of students like I do (almost 600 to be exact) the materials aren't going to be worth the investment if they don't make it through a school year. Granted, I don't do centers that often, but I still want things to last, preferably for a few years.  So anything flimsy might prove to be a short-live budget buster. 

7. Lastly, and most important.  Are the students flexing their creative muscles?  For instance, kids love color by numbers, picture searches, word searches etc.  But you have to ask yourself, is this activity even worth it?  Now, some may argue the educational value of centers in and of themselves.  If you do a center day once in a while don't expect that the kids are going to learn a wealth of knowledge from a 15 minute session of exploratory play. But in my opinion, a little open-ended exploration and creativity is a great thing, especially in this day and age.  That being said, if the activity doesn't foster some modicum of creativity, leave it out.  Busy work has no place in center time!

Here are a few new center ideas I've tried this year: 

Dry Erase Boards with Dry Erase Crayons

I've found the early childhood grades smash the perfectly new marker tips into oblivion, so I figured I'd try crayons.  
Final Verdict: They're so-so.  They draw well, but are really hard to erase! The typical dry erasers don't really work on them. You need the rags that come with the crayon, and even then, the crayons are particularly persnickety to wipe away.

Magnetic Architecture Boards

A magnetic set comprised of a variety of pieces to create difference "buildings". 
Final Verdict: Great for grades 2-5.  The pieces are tiny and may be too small and difficult for kinders and first graders to manipulate. One set has enough magnets for 4 kids but you need to buy 3 extra magnetic white boards to go with the center because the original set only comes with one magnetic board.  I got mine from school specialty. Wonderboard also makes a magnetic bug makers set I'm going to try next year. 

Project Bricks 

 I think I thought these had a variety of shapes when I purchased them, but they only have the rectangle shapes unless they are cut. 
Final Verdict:  Underwhelming at first but surprisingly creative when given a chance.  My second graders took one look at these and gave a unanimous sigh of "underwhelmingness", but once they worked together and started to build with them, they got surprisingly into it. Something like this would be light years better if it came in color.  (Although, they would make a pretty good sculpture material for a real project) 

If you are still interested in my explorations into the land of art centers, click on 'Centers and Games' on the link to the right or  use the direct links below to  read previous center posts I've written: 

Art Centers

Art Centers-Take 1 

Art Centers-Take 2 

Art Centers-Take 3