Listening, Observing, Documenting: A Preschool Map-Making Project

By Melanie Akins, M.A., Atelierista/Studio Teacher, Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool

Children used watercolors to paint their memorial garden experience and then drew on a transparency over the watercolors using  Sharpie pens or India Ink to create layers and dimensions.

Editor’s Note: AzAEYC continues to elevate early childhood professionals through our “Stories from the Field” initiative. In celebration of National Child Care Provider Day on May 6, 2022, we’ve curated stories from the voices of early childhood educators who are leading innovative work in their programs and communities and who are advancing equitable, quality early care and education. Interested in sharing your story? 

It all began with observing two boys in the atelier, which is what we call our art studio, at Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool (PPP). As an atelierista, or a studio teacher, my role is to contribute my artist skills and knowledge about materials and techniques to support preschoolers’ representations and theories about the world and help teachers reflect on their documentation of children’s work and words with an artist lens. Together at the beginning of the year, we thoughtfully set up our environments with interesting materials and provocations to support many possibilities to happen in the atelier as well as the classrooms. 

As we collected documentation of children working with materials and playing, we found that the idea of map-making came up quite often. Specifically, two boys caught our attention. These boys would get clipboards every day, day after day. They would take the clipboards, go around the room, and draw maps because they “were on a treasure hunt”. It sparked a lot of curiosity in me and the other teachers. 

A visitor in the classroom may have overlooked these actions as unimportant. But, as teachers, we are always seeking to understand children’s interests and ideas. That’s why we decided to pay close attention to how they were taking clipboards, walking around, marking lines, and indicating an ‘X’ where they determined there was treasure. My colleagues and I followed this lead and showed the children that what they were doing was interesting and inspiring. 

At PPP, we will often see young children identify their line drawings and paintings as maps. Most often, the young cartographers are in search of “buried treasure”. This year, we decided to follow an interest in map making more closely in our Tortoise Class (ages 3-4). What unfolded was this in-depth, wonderful work that involved everyone in their class.

We scaffolded this interest in map-making, finding, and hiding treasure and tried to see all the different ways and all the different materials we could offer to explore the concept of maps and making maps.

Exploring Ideas, Making Marks, and Working Together

Children look at the world with the freshest eyes. Their lens is unique. I’m inspired by their creativity for my own work as an artist. I learn about bravery from them. They have this courage when it comes to working with materials or expressing who they are and what they are interested in. They are not afraid to communicate that and share that with others. They are not afraid to share their ideas, and they are researchers. That inspires me! They research in such unique ways, too.

In her book, The Map as Art, author Katherine Harmon points out that, “Cartographers have long known that deploying artistic skills and techniques can enhance a map’s effect, and have to varying degrees used visual creativity to make their maps more compelling” (2009, p. 5).

The children in the Tortoise Class took us on an extensive journey exploring the creative aspects of the language of cartography. We learned more about the children’s perspective and thinking through their maps as they documented landmarks of interest and importance to them.

We discovered mapping has the potential to help us with spatial awareness and develop excellent researcher skills. As we mapped out different spaces together, we got more acquainted with these areas. Creating a map can help us become more attune with a physical place and the memory of the experience there – the feelings and emotions attached to the space. Mapping helps us form stronger relationships. It connects us to our environment, materials, and to each other.

We used lots of mark-making materials, painting and drawing and going out on little adventures. We offer multiple opportunities for children to explore the desert nearby our program as well as other outdoor spaces like the playground. We venture out beyond our fence and explore the beautiful Sonoran desert and memorial cactus gardens that are available to us through our connection with Pinnacle Presbyterian and the church grounds.

Throughout this project, the children told in-depth stories when they were creating their maps and drawings. We had gone out to this memorial garden, which is a wonderful place I love to visit with children. It has an artificial stream running through it with lots of cacti. These children are 3 and 4 years old, so it was incredible what they were able to tell us and the images they were drawing.

Opening Creative Avenues

We worked on individual maps as well as collaborative maps. At one point, we did a large map all together. The teachers and children went out on the playground, and that’s a familiar space to them. So, they mapped out the playground dimensionally as well as in paintings and drawings. We mapped out the atelier, another space they love and are very familiar with. We got to know more about their interests and what really mattered to them through this experience including emotions, feelings, and the relationships that we have with each other and the environment.

The works created through the map-making project were featured at our 2021 annual atelier exhibition. We ended up with a variety of different perspectives from similar experiences – some of them drew a map of how to get to the memorial garden while others described what it was like to be in the memorial garden. Children are capable of so many different ideas.

Listening, Observing, and Documenting as Teaching Tools

We studied the documentation together as a teaching team. We reflected on photos, videos, and children’s work like their maps. When we study in a more collaborative way, we can make those decisions that honor more than one perspective. The ideas about what the children are thinking and doing do not just come from me but also from my colleagues. The decision we made to look at this documentation collaboratively honors and values the child’s perspective and their voice.

Atelierista Vea Vecchi says it so beautifully in her book, Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, “Those wishing to make the journey should be aware of how difficult it is to let children be the authors of each phase of the design and creation of a piece of work”  (2010, p. 156). And that extends to everything. Not only can we support children to take the lead in creating art or doing something in the atelier, but we can also support children to be the protagonists of their own learning through their play and through the many different languages in which they tell us their stories and ideas.

Part of listening to children is documenting their work – taking photographs of them doing their work to see how their processes are unfolding and what strategies they are using to get where they want to go and create what they want to create. If you can take video, that helps, too. I encourage other educators to walk around with a notebook and write down children’s words. Observe and document. Then, talk about it with other teachers. Sometimes we can dismiss some really beautiful moments with children that mean a lot actually because we are so busy in the day-to-day work. But, that day-to-day work is where those interesting journeys develop and grow.

About the author:

In addition to her work as Atelierista/Studio Teacher at Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool in Scottsdale, Melanie Akins is an artist and part-time pedagogical coordinator and instructor at Paradise Valley Community College. Melanie has been in the early childhood education field for 16 years.

About Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool: Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool is nestled in the Sonoran Desert in the northern part of Scottsdale, Arizona. Pinnacle serves 140 children across 125 families with programs offered for children from age 18 months through Pre-K.  Established in 1995, Pinnacle is accredited by NAEYC and has been committed to studying the Reggio Emilia Approach since 1998.