Having taught Fine Arts for decades in New York City public school middle and lower grades, I was delighted to be invited to visit a Lower East Side Settlement House with the prospect of presenting an early childhood Reggio-inspired art program for their Early Head Start.
Excited, hopeful, filled with plans and ideas of collaboration and artistic outreach to the community of my childhood—where my father, as a young boy, played on sports teams and my mother worked as a Settlement House secretary—brought tears of nostalgic joy.
I studied Reggio concepts at Bank Street College, visited many Reggio-inspired nurseries, read countless books on beautiful objects, concepts, and methods for incorporating Reggio into American schools. I attended workshops and programs throughout New York City on Reggio philosophies.
I was assigned two classes of older two-year-olds and met with each class for close to 1 hour once a week. Gaining their engagement, awareness, and reception to my program was not an easy task, as the teachers were quite set in their ways.
Yet, I forged ahead to introduce a newer, more creative approach.
My focus was on nature—the changing of the seasons, color, shapes, textures, incorporating awareness by seeing, talking, touching. We looked at the trees, the patterns on the leaves, and the natural world around us. As we transitioned from summer to fall, we looked at the light, the sun, shadows, and colors. I decided to transform the rooms through color and translucency by using tracing paper and opaque papers with collage and painting.
Over the weeks, the children began to create wonderful panels that were placed on the windows. We created paper trees with leaves and crunched up tissue paper in orange, green, and red hues.
We observed the branches of trees outside our room dancing in the shadows of our window shades and made crowns of leaves for our hair. Our winter trees became snowy and bare. The blues, whites, silvers, and greys of winter were dramatic on the windows. Panels of cotton ball snow and ice were created with paint and mobiles attached to twigs. Spring heralded soft greens and pinks, yellow and lavender-blue colors in paint and collage.
Our spring exploded in tissue paper blossoms and birds in nests, eggs, and flowers on our spring tree.
We made fairy head pieces for our hair and looked at the trees in blossom. We also explored with clay and created stabiles referencing Alexander Calder’s works using our own pipe cleaners, tissue paper, and found objects.
I encouraged the teachers to follow through with documenting techniques of inquiry as the children had much to say and discuss.
As my program winds down, I am hopeful that the staff will continue with the efforts I proposed and developed. The families and children were greatly inspirational and the need to explore and express ideas enriches and expands the capabilities of the children.
Working at the Settlement House was a great experience for me on many levels, and I appreciate the opportunity to connect as a teacher and artist—especially with the educational changes imposed by testing and the rigidity in learning.
Creativity is vital, and children need to emerge and flourish through exploration and hands-on experiences.
Art is a necessity for such development.
Today, many Reggio programs are based in private nurseries and learning facilities in inner cities, which is of benefit to children and families. Still, many families of very young children lack access to this exceptional teaching and learning method, which has the potential to support and nourish creativity within individuals, families and entire communities.
Ms. Adele Phyllis Unterberg is an Art Teacher in New York City and has both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from New York University in Fine Arts Education.