I met Lella Gandini in 1996 when my husband and I were visiting Rome and staying at the American Academy . At the time, her husband, Lester Little, was the director of the Academy. On the plane trip I was reading The Hundred Languages of Children and I was so surprised when we reached the main desk of the Academy to check in and I saw Lella’s photo on a bulletin board above the receptionist’s desk. We have remained correspondents since that visit.
Amazingly, I had a second surprise visit connected with Lella. This one included Cathy. When my daughter was having a concert in Worchester, Massachusetts, I was introduced to the publisher, Wyatt Wade. He invited me, along with my daughter and son-in-law, to visit his newly restored office. When we arrived, Lella and Cathy were there waiting for me! After a tour of the office, we all went to Wyatt’s home for dinner. It was a visit that I’ll always remember.
When I came up with the idea for this new series of conversations, I immediately thought of these two inspiring women. I crossed my fingers when I invited them to participate and to my utter delight, they immediately accepted the invitation.
Lella serves as Reggio Emilia Liason in the United States for Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach. The Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach include:
a deep respect for the ideas of children and teachers.
a belief that knowledge is constructed through social interchange.
the value of using materials and media to express and communicate feelings, thoughts and understandings.
the desire to document children’s and teacher’s processes to preserve memories and sustain in-depth work.
the joy and growth that comes from collaborating with other teachers and with children in the search for knowledge and understanding of relationships.
Cathy Topal and Lella Gandini took some time the morning of November 17, 2020 to talk about Beautiful Stuff and the Gift of Discovery.
Here is a very apropros and entertaining video of how the artist Hanoch Piven uses beautiful stuff in his art. You might want to share this with your children. They will love it! https://youtu.be/f7bZWbzuW_I
This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.
Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!
I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.
The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materialsby Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.”
I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.
Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.
Something unusual occurred in Dana Roth’s kindergarten class at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, New York. They were in the midst of the Beautiful Stuff project. At their centers, during Choice Time, children created Beautiful Stuff Color Cities, Beautiful Stuff inventions and Beautiful Stuff games. Then one child came up with a new idea. “Let’s have a Beautiful Stuff newspaper!” Dana, who was always interested in picking up on children’s interests, facilitated a discussion to find out what children knew about newspapers. At the class meeting they decided to open up a newspaper center. Children took on different roles – writers, reporters, illustrators and photographers. Here are some of the pages from their Beautiful Stuff Telling Newspaper:
Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:
Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!
One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”
I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.