Each Summer, Winter and Spring breaks, St. Michaels University School runs camps for kids and teens through their Education Extension Program. I have been working for these camps for a few years now, and this past Spring Break I lead an art camp for a group of 26 students ranging from Kindergarten to grade 6. Initially, I thought that engaging such a large number of kids all day long with art would be a huge challenge and I was a little daunted by the prospect. But as soon as I gathered enough supplies for 4 full days of art and wrote up a day by day schedule of fun art projects and activities, I became extremely excited and couldn’t wait for it to begin.

We began the week making Shrinky-dink key-chains, beaded bracelets and necklaces, and sculpting dough. I baked the dough to harden it during lunch, and in the afternoon the bright and beautiful acrylic paint came out, and the kids got busy painting their sculptures and kites. With many different projects on the go at once, and allowing students to move between them as they desired, not once did I hear an “I’m bored” or “I’m tired”. Having such a large group with quite a range in ages, I think that is quite a success.

In the midst of all the chaos of creation, I was aware of how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to be surrounded by the energy of ideas bouncing around. Busy hands, buzzing voices, and focused minds immersed in creation reveal that there is actually a lot going on when children are creating art together: idea sharing, story telling, problem solving, encouragement, laughter, discovery, learning. Day two we ventured to the beach in search of inspiring driftwood that we could paint and bring to life the animals, creatures, and other things we saw in the shape and contours of the wood. Most kids picked small and easily portable pieces, but 3 boys and one girl each found huge logs and a gnarly stump that were a challenge to carry back to the school but just couldn’t be passed up. The painting of the driftwood revealed many wonderful products of the imagination.

The next day we made more sculptures, but this time out of wood scraps from my dad’s woodshop. This is a project I had wanted to do with a group of kids for a long time, and was really happy to be able to do it. I wanted to see how kids reacted to the odd shapes and sizes of wood, and what kinds of things they would be inspired to build. With a couple of the older kids helping with the hot glue, everybody was able to make something wonderful. At one point, one student was trying to approach making a Pikachu shape with popsicle sticks, but didn’t quite know how to make it all work with the materials she had, so she soon decided to make a modern architectural building design instead, and was even more excited about her new idea. Another student working alongside her had also adopted the challenge of trying to construct a Pikachu, but persisted to make hers work. I was happy to assist her when it came time to glue the shape together. Both girls were deeply immersed in their work, and I went around the room and saw several children involved in the same sort of problem solving, evolution of ideas, and persistence to make things work.

Another thing I noticed throughout the week, which related to developing skills in specific domains, was that while all this imaginative chatter was taking place, the students were getting used to how the dough behaved, how different sizes and shapes of wood fit together, and they were all learning from it. Consciously or not, they were evolving in their craft, and through that learning, they were clarifying their visions and developing their artistic selves.

When students finished building and painting, they had the option of colouring with markers, making more jewelry, or making creatures out of pom-poms, pinecones, feathers and googly eyes. Some students made huge families of puff-ball creatures, and some spent their free time diligently working on intricate colouring pages. Each student demonstrated originality, and yet it was clear that their ideas were inspiring each other. We spent the final day glazing and embellishing the sculptures, setting up for the art show, and heading out to Gyro Park to fly our kites.

By the end of the week, I was completely exhausted, and over-the-moon proud of all that the kids made and accomplished. I asked them at the end what was their favourite part and some of the answers I got were “Everything!!!” “I liked the driftwood sculptures!” “Shrinky dink!!” “My favourite part was that you didn’t tell us what to make, you just let us use the materials how we wanted to.” That observation meant a lot to me, because it speaks to my whole philosophy of teaching art. For me, it’s about encouraging children to use their imaginations, and to provide the materials and assistance they need to see their visions through to a final product that they can be proud of.

The more I work with children in this capacity, I notice how important it is to provide a comfortable and inspiring environment in which they feel relaxed and un-intimidated by their surroundings and materials, and where my primary role is to provide inspiration and to respond to the child’s ideas and to help them follow the direction of their imaginations. The children definitely enjoyed themselves on many different levels, and I personally think that knowing how to enjoy the process of creation is the secret to a lasting relationship with art. Art is as much about discovery and innovation as it is skills and aesthetics and when children are fully engaging their artistic selves, they are exercising creativity, imagination, story building, and idea shaping. This is just like the experience of play, isn’t it? -Natural and necessary for childhood development.