My absolute favorite thing about quality Reggio programs is the use of what we call legitimate materials - real items and materials that invite care, questioning, open-mindedness, and promote eventual expertise. We use them everywhere: from real cooking utensils in the dramatic area to breakable plates and real cutlery at mealtime, we believe that thinking of children as competent and capable necessitates opportunities for them to prove that that’s the case. With art, quality toddler programs should be no different.
Toddlers are in the exploration stage of almost everything - building, creating, even with manipulating their own bodies - and therefore the kind of learning opportunities we provide are going to differ starkly from what is offered in preschool programs. In good toddler programs, teachers must first and foremost facilitate familiarity with new materials and provide time and space for children to practice their skills. It may seem sometimes like we are regurgitating the same learning opportunities week after week, but from the perspective of a toddler who is not yet comfortable with paints or clay, we are providing her precious time to grow accustomed to a new material and to see what she can do with it. For example, when introducing tempera paints to toddlers, we might try the following progression over one or two weeks:
- Introduce two primary colours on a baking tray to finger paint
- Introduce another two primary colours
- Introduce the last pair of primary colours
- Offer white to lighten the mixtures
- Offer black to darken
- Provide a brush
- Provide paper
- Leave out paints and paper so that children can administer them themselves
Progressions like this provide space for toddlers to focus on just one occurrence at a time without having to focus on multiple competing concepts. Finger painting on baking trays allows them to focus on the sensory experience of painting without simultaneously focusing on how to hold a brush and create lines. Using only two primary colours at once allows them to pay attention to colour relationships without muddying the mixture with another colour. Mastering these building blocks first leads to a deeper understanding of the elements and principles of art while not sacrificing enjoyment of the process it took to get there.
Paint isn’t just colour; paint has smell, texture, viscosity, opacity, and changes consistency when it dries. The opportunities for exploration and inquiry are vast and the possibilities endless - and I am hard-pressed to think up better ways for my toddlers to spend their time.