Children benefit from learning about a concept through many lenses and approaches, because everyone learns in different ways. Knowledge is interdependent. Our world is not segmented, everything is connected. When children learn subjects in silos, they cannot see these connections. But when we integrate areas of knowledge, we are truly teaching students, not subjects. Meaningful connections help children see knowledge as a way to learn rather than a useless piece of information. Deeper learning relates new knowledge to previous knowledge, correlates ideas to one another, and connects concepts to everyday experiences. Children transfer their knowledge from one situation to the next, scaffolding their growth.
Educational institutions are not set up for integrated learning, and until a complete educational revolution takes place, it is up to us, parents, caregivers and educators, to facilitate the holistic thinking children need to grow as individual thinkers and thrive as enthusiastic learners.
I often relate art ideas, history and techniques to other concepts that students are learning. Art is a physical way of learning, and the doing, the creating, is different and therefore memorable, cementing the concept in our brain.
My Pre-K classes were learning to write their names and began by focusing on their first initial. Watching them concentrate on making the lines gave me the idea of relating initials to illuminated letters, those giant first letters in old manuscripts and fairytales. The children reminded me of medieval monks leaning over their carefully hand done scrolls!
When they came to art class, the children wrote their first initial as large as they could on a piece of copy paper. Then we worked with polymer clay to make coils (this is the “art term” for snakes). I used Fimo Soft brand, but all polymer clay is fairly firm, so it needs to be conditioned, or smooshed with our fingers, to soften it up. This motion is fabulous for building finger strength, which in these electronic days, many children really need. After conditioning the clay, we chose the colors we liked, sometimes combining several colors, rolled them out in coils, laid them on top of the lines of our written letter, and pinched them together to make a large initial. Some children added dots and lines in their clay with clay tools. The act of making the lines of their letter with clay is very different than doing so with a pencil, and this helped many children internalize the letterforms.
The next day we examined prints of illuminated letters. We talked about the lines and shapes we saw – swirls, curls, wavy lines, patterns of circles and triangles, flowers, leaves, some straight lines and zigzags too. I left these prints out for our reference while we created our own illuminated backgrounds with sharpies, markers and gold paint. As we worked I related some vocabulary, explaining that gold is bright and shiny, and the word illuminate means to brighten. I also imparted some history, discussing how wealthy patrons collected these expensive books of gold.
After I baked the polymer clay, the students glued their initials onto their illuminated backgrounds and wow, do these look amazing! The children are so proud of their hard work!
I extended the learning even further the following day by asking the children to recall the types of lines and shapes from their background work without looking at a reference. They drew those lines and shapes onto large popsicle sticks and painted them with watercolors. Everyone made their own initial with their colorful sticks, then I called out letters and they had fun working to make those.
The process of integrated learning and arts integration in particular serves our children well, allowing them to “connect the dots”, understanding concepts and ideas in a deeper way, becoming enthused and engaged learners. This is what art should do.