Helping children ‘maintain that feeling of wonder and possibility’
By Alison Rooney
A group of eight young children were asked, “If you were only 1 inch tall, what kind of house would you build for yourself?” and the answers jumped all over the place: a beehive, a cave with a river and lava, a golden nest, a castle for fairies, a tree house, and a two-story place with an upstairs “party room.”
These resulted from a recent session at Beacon Craft Workshop, run by educator Ilana Friedman at a couple of Beacon locations, including Howland Cultural Center and the Chocolate Studio. Classes take place year-round, some in multipart series; others, like this one, are available singly or in two-class combinations.
Regardless of the theme of the class, Friedman has collaboration in mind. As her website states, “Working together, students ask questions, solve problems, and find even more joy in the process of making things.” This was evident throughout the hour of the “tiny house” workshop, as Friedman lobbed questions at the attentive young artists, all designed to get them thinking about the whys and hows of their creation: “Have you thought about doors and windows, so your princess can enter the castle?” “I see you have bees; have you considered making the trunk out of bark?” “Think about what materials we have to make your home look just right. Maybe it could be twigs and moss, or a piece of fabric.”
There was never any direct, ordered instruction. “I want them to build independence. They can make choices, as artists as in life. They can explore it, test it out, find out what works,” explained Friedman, who holds a master’s in elementary education from Brown University.
Her years of experience as a third-grade teacher, at a school that “really supported learning through inquiry as a fundamental,” shaped her. “I practice that a lot. There are certain technical skills and procedures that can be important to certain projects, and I do teach those, but in terms of exploring concepts, it’s most important for children to maintain that feeling of wonder and possibility.”
Beacon Craft Workshop was first birthed as Brooklyn Craft Workshop, four years ago. Friedman and her husband moved to Beacon two years ago, right around the time of the birth of their daughter. “We just felt we needed to be closer to nature. We’ve found such a strong community of families here,” she said. “It’s clear there’s interest in creative education — making sure that children get to play — and parents support each other.”
In watching Friedman oversee the class, it’s obvious that she redirects many of their questions back to them, and also facilitates their sharing ideas and supplies. A simple, “Where are the scissors?” generates a call to the others around the table to have a look for them and pass them along rather than a knee-jerk “over there.” There are suggestions to children to go over and choose materials of their choice, prompted by reasoning: “I’m just going to show you the options; think about who’s living here and what they’ll need. Have you thought about using hinges? Can I help you make a hinge?
“Everyone, walk around the table and look closely. You might get an idea from someone else.”
All of this asking, not telling, turns out to be intentional. Friedman said: “With these classes there’s a sense of togetherness that we all feel when we’re working in proximity to each other. When I was a classroom teacher I taught all subjects, and when thinking about what my strong point was I felt like my biggest concern was social-emotional learning and that feeling of being in a group. For children to be aware of each other’s needs and that they can take care of those needs together is important.”
As the workshop progressed, the children were emphatic about their designs. One girl explained, “My fairies don’t have a place to live right now, so I’m making it for them,” while a boy was giving himself a bit of wiggle room: “I’m making a cave-ish place where a dragon-like creature lives.”
At a second session, later that week, the focus was on furnishing the mini-house, with class notes posing these questions: “How can we transform a cork into a couch? How can an empty matchbox become a canopy bed? … We’ll study scale, and we’ll consider comfort, as we design and build for living small.”
Beacon Craft Workshop offers classes oriented to children at different ages, generally divided into preschool, early elementary and older elementary. There are classes offered for homeschooled children, during school hours. They also have birthday party workshops available. This fall’s offerings include various six-week-long Clay Explorations workshops; a Woodland Book Arts bookbinding series, which asks: “How do you make a tree into a book?”; an exploration of tree life for the youngest group; and Stamp and Stitch for the oldest, which joins carving stamps out of linoleum-like material, printing them on fabric and then sewing those fabrics into pillows, bags, etc.
Photos by A. Rooney