Early Childhood Today: Patricia, what part does art play in your school's curriculum?

Patricia Casey: The visual arts are interwoven throughout all areas of our curriculum. As a project develops in the classroom, we are constantly researching and planning visual art experiences for the children. We know that these experiences will enhance their understanding of the concepts being explored.

ECT: What did you learn when you visited Reggio Emilia about how art can inspire the curriculum?

Casey: I learned that the final product of an art experience is only part of the picture. The inspiration also comes from the early conversations between the teacher and the children. It is also sparked by the discussions teachers have as they decide where to go based on their observations.

When the artwork is displayed, again it's the conversations that provide inspiration for the teachers and children to continue to explore concepts children are interested in.

ECT: What specific things did you learn from Reggio that makes your art program what it is today?

Casey: Visiting the schools in Reggio gave me an understanding of the importance of aesthetic beauty in the classroom environment. I also observed how carefully and intentionally materials were selected and presented to the children. These ideals of thoughtfulness and respect have become the backbone of our approach to curriculum planning.

Our program made a commitment to create a studio space based on the Reggio model, a goal that we achieved last year. This space allows for small group and one-on-one work, experiences that bring the work of the children and teachers to a higher level. The children are able to receive lots of individualized attention. And it gives us an opportunity to make close observations that lead to exciting curriculum planning based on the children's individual insights and interests.

ECT: Can you tell us how keeping art portfolios or using children's artwork as a way of documenting progress works in your program?

Casey: We build the children's portfolios by choosing visual art pieces that represent developmental milestones. We also use digital photos to create documentation pieces that show a child's exploration and understanding of a concept. Portfolio design and development is a process that we will continue to work on and research.

ECT: Mow do you link art to other curriculum areas?

Casey: In the development of classroom projects, visual arts experiences are used to expand the children's knowledge and to build concepts in all curriculum areas. Bookmaking, creating collages out of natural materials after a nature walk, making handmade paper, and building with clay all help the children gain important skills and knowledge. The children grow in areas of social interactions, problem solving, and spatial awareness, as well as technical skills.

ECT: Are there things you've noticed about children as they create their artwork that surprise you? Can you describe what you see as children work and create?

Casey: I am both surprised and in awe at the level of competence children exhibit when they're working and creating. When children are focused on a task, whether it's painting at the easel or constructing with found materials, I see them using and developing all of those important social skills: problem solving, decision making, and communication, along with the strengthening of their fine-motor skills.

During the course of the Portrait Project, in which children follow a series of steps to create detailed self-portraits, I heard squeals of delight as the children began to recognize themselves on the paper. I also saw their little faces beaming with pride as they heard the words of congratulations from their teachers, peers, and parents for their amazing work. After working on the Portrait Project for almost one year, I see that the power of the project is not only in the reactions to the beautiful self-portraits of the children, but also in the children's social growth and development. The children begin to see themselves as contributing members of their community. For them, this is a powerful experience.

Patricia Casey has been a teacher in the Mary Johnson Center, Middlebury, VT, for 10 years. The Mary Johnson Center offers programming for 76 children age 18 months to 6 years.