The mapping of an art adventure: a preschoolers’ journey of colors and landmarks

I tell this story over and over. It's one of my favorites. They way Oren and Tom played their way through materials and narratives that morning brings me back to the ideas of playful art I also found in George Szekely's book I reviewed a few weeks ago. And, in a way, it connects them to ideas on lesson planning and artistic development I have been discussing with my graduate students. And hey, the story involves paint, a mad king, and a magic elevator - can't really go wrong with that...

Adventures may happen in unexpected moments – as may art. When Oren, Tom, and I hopped and skipped our way from the preschool room to the art studio that morning, we had no idea of the great adventure ahead of us. Wearing our eye protection for wood shop work, we discovered that our colorful goggles could offer much more than protection against flying splinters and nails: they let us find all sorts of secret passages, doors and paths that no one had ever known to be there.

And that was exactly what happened that morning, as we sat at the studio table with our wood and our tools, ready to work. As he put his red goggles on, Oren looked up and spotted a secret passage on the top shelf of the paint cabinet. That cabinet had always been there in our art studio, but only that day did Oren notice the secret passage, almost invisible, hidden behind its door. With deep determination, he clambered onto a chair to reach up and open this secret, imaginary passage. It appeared that there was a tornado threat every time he tried to pull it open, a wind so strong that it forced us to keep the cabinet shut for a while to allow the danger to pass. But with effort and determination Oren and Tom finally managed to go through. Following the secret passageway, they found a big cardboard box. It that turned out to be an elevator that would take them through another secret door; but, alas, this other secret door to the elevator was shut tight…and so they would have to open it with scissors – scissors from the secret door! The pretend scissors weren’t working all that well on the very real cardboard box, and Tom quickly reached into my smock’s pocket to get the pair he knows I usually carry around. “This is real life!” Owen exclaimed with excitement, “real scissors!” They worked their way into the elevator with the two pairs of “real-life” and “adventure” scissors.

As engaged as we were in our adventure, we still noticed loud noises coming from the hallway. Really loud noises. We were all curious, but the boys were too busy to go take a look and wouldn’t be interrupted at any cost. Leadership was needed, and Tom stepped up to the job: “We take care of this,” he said “you go to the door, Marta. Go see what that noise is.” Obediently, I peeked out the door, saw a facilities person working with some kind of power tool, and reported back to the boys. We had a short discussion about drills, blades, and other power tools, as they kept working on the elevator’s door with their scissors. As we discussed tools, Oren and Tom finally managed to cut the cardboard elevator doors open, and celebrated their feat with a bit of jumping around. As they looked inside the box-turned-elevator, they found a crumpled piece of paper lying there – a map! The map! It was the map that would lead them to a secret place, they decided. With urgency, they climbed into the box, rode the box elevator all the way down, and emerged from the box as they arrived at the destination indicated on the map. The boys claimed to have no idea where they were headed, but they knew the map was leading them out of the art studio and along the school’s hallway – and they followed it. It was not an easy road to travel – they faced several obstacles and opponents, fought the Mad King, crawled under “real life” carts and sensory tables, confronted dangerous monsters, and made it through swamps. But even as they faced such obstacles, Oren reminded us with resolve, “this is not easy, but it will do us good.”

As it turned out, the secret path lead us all the way back to the preschool room. After a brief visit to the classroom, the boys took the path back and went through and under all the obstacles again – but this time knowing what they were to face. Back where we started, they got back into the box/elevator and Oren moved over to make room for me, asking me to take a seat next to him. I lay on the floor with them until the elevator brought us back to the art studio, where we resumed our work. Oren returned to his woodwork, while Tom decided to actually paint the path they took on the paper of the imaginary map they had followed, talking me through the full course of the adventure:

Tom:          “We started right here and went all the way there…”

Oren:             “And we found a few monsters on the way!”

Oren got excited about the map and decided to help Tom by painting what he said were the landmarks, or “the things we saw on the way.” They documented the places and characters they encountered on their journey (as well as some new ones that came up as they painted), and talked me through their adventure in a rich, detailed verbal and visual narrative. The boys were bringing together their knowledge of paint and their experiences on that journey to create something, to transform what had been scrap paper found inside a random cardboard box into a personal and meaningful map of their own adventure. Oren painted the swamp and the Mad King “with all the crazy colors” he was mixing. Tom painted a big red monster who, he explained, was growing bigger and bigger every time he moved his brush. I smiled, listened, and celebrated with them, and I made sure they had all the materials they needed to keep exploring. But time goes by – even in art adventures – and very soon we would have to join the other preschoolers for morning meeting. “We are just putting the final touches,” Oren reassured me, as he kept working. “The really final, final touches,” he added a few minutes later. “There,” he finally declared, “it’s done.” As we cleaned up our brushes and tools, we chatted about our morning.

Oren:             “This was a big adventure today!”

Marta:             “It was! Thank you for taking me with you in this adventure, guys.”

Oren:             “Our pleasure, Marta!”

Back in the classroom, Oren called me to “please, quickly” come to the bathroom, where he was looking in the mirror while washing his hands. He had noticed something on his face, a red mark. “There is a little bit of blood here, from my fight with the king. But that’s okay, Marta, I’m okay,” he reassured me. It could be argued that that red mark was just a bit of red paint, but that reasoning wasn’t anywhere in our thoughts - blood from Oren’s fight with the king was the only plausible explanation we could think of. I agreed, and made sure the wound was not too bad, and that Oren was fine and ready to join the preschoolers for meeting. He would have a lot to share with his friends that morning. And so would I.