Early Childhood Today: Lauren, how do you introduce art and writing materials to the children in your program?

Lauren Lawson: The University of Vermont Campus Children's Center educates and cares for children from 6 weeks through age 5. I believe that children need to be introduced to symbolic ways of communicating at an early age. They need experiences that help them understand how materials work and what possibilities these materials offer them, so that by the time they reach preschool age, they can use them to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

In our school, children begin exploring materials such as clay, paint, ink, and blocks in the infant room. Babies, wearing only diapers, are offered big blocks of clay or containers of paint placed on top of craft paper on the floor. Over time, setups move to tables and become more elaborate. We offer additional tools that challenge children to explore how they can be used to support their play and their efforts to communicate and construct symbols.

We make open-ended, symbolic materials available to children all the time because their need and desire to make messages in conventional and non-conventional ways never ceases. These materials are fixtures of our environment. Ultimately, all our children gravitate toward writing because it is such a powerful and efficient way to communicate.

ECT: Are there certain materials you've found to be more effective than others in helping children communicate?

Lawson: I think it's essential to have many different kinds of materials and choices available to children. Children's early success in literacy hinges on the opportunities they have to discover what materials work for them. In my classroom, many children have identified their areas of expertise. We have block builders, storytellers, printers, illustrators, sculptors, potters, collage artists, dramatic-script writers, and so on. A 3-year-old boy in my classroom was at the gym recently, observing the UVM hockey rink. He wanted to make a plan for constructing a replica rink to play with in the classroom. His mom had offered him a marker and a clipboard so that he could record his ideas. The child sat motionless for a moment and then responded, "I think I can do it better with clay." His response was so insightful because he is, indeed, a big-bodied, three-dimensional guy. When we got back to our classroom, he began "sketching" his ideas in clay, a material that supports his best efforts to be articulate.

ECT: What new insights have you gained about the children in your program through their artwork and writing?

Lawson: By closely observing children's art and writing, I have learned to have more trust in children's strong intrinsic desire to communicate. Direct instruction (such as teaching phonemic awareness) certainly has a place in the education of young children. However, I find that most of their literacy learning occurs naturally-in the context of play, symbol making, and message making. Children's literacy work reminds me of the courage young children have to take risks, to fill in the blanks with smart guesses, to find help in resourceful ways, and to be unselfconscious. They are like little spies, attempting to crack the code of their print-rich world to gain access to more stories and information. Children want to be seen and heard and understood. They want to belong. Writing and communicating through art enables children to achieve these critical goals.

Through the children's writing, I've noticed their great capacity for love, compassion, and friendship. I've observed how reading supports their desire to mentor and be mentored by their peers. Over and over again, I see certain symbols appear and reappear, such as rainbows, hearts, and stars. I have learned not to dismiss these elements as merely cute but to consider the deeper meaning of these representations as signs of hope, beauty, freedom, love, family, safety, kindness, and peace. Through children's art and writing, the people in our communities can begin to understand the essential values of children, and perhaps evolve our culture into one that more deeply values children themselves.

ECT: How do you display children's work and share it with families?

Lawson: We have developed various ways in the past several years to make children's literacy work public for families, other teachers, students, people in the community. We have a daily journal that often features stories and images of children's literacy work in our classroom. We post this above our parent mailboxes and try to stay current with an entry a day. Each child also has a portfolio that houses their two-dimensional representational work. Children are free to revisit these and continue with unfinished work. In fact, we ask children to take responsibility for keeping their portfolios current by adding their important pieces to them regularly.

Another system for preserving and sharing children's work in literacy is our collection of writing journals. On a special shelf we have a blank book for each preschooler, with his or her photograph and signature. These books are a place for children to write in their own way. We invite children to use any strategy to make meaning on paper through narrating stories, scribble writing, picture writing, or invented spelling. Then we ask children to "Please read me your story." We record their words and ideas as well as the date. Our hope is that these books will serve as a chronological record of children's writing. These books can go home to be worked on and then returned. I believe these experiences inspire their love of writing as well as their understanding of themselves as competent writers.