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Problem Solving & Creativity

Learning Experiences

Investigating Prehistoric Art

Kat Lai and Jen Brady Collins

The Cave of Lascaux

The children became more interested in the caves than in the bears they’d studied every year since they were infants.

We began to construct a massive “bear cave” in the dramatic play area. The children brought items from all over the room to create their cave. They wanted a way to close off the area like a cave and eventually determined that a sheet would do the trick. They painted pictures to represent the natural surroundings of a cave. They were excited by the experience.


The Cave of Preschool 3

While researching caves by looking at the photographs and bear books, the children became interested in prehistoric art. Through a combination of their questions, our questions, their knowledge, our knowledge, and our research, we talked about how humans didn't always have paint, plastic, paintbrushes or even paper. This was surprising to our artists!

We discussed how humans didn't have letters so we couldn’t communicate with writing the way we do now. (This was also surprising to these children, who adore books!) We talked about the importance and joy of art. We discussed how humans sometimes need to share information with people who aren't there and how art can be a way to communicate our thoughts and ideas with people who are not nearby.

The children became curious about how prehistoric humans created art without paint, crayons, paper, or other technologically based materials. They wondered what people could have done to make art when they didn't have paper, pens, crayons, or any of the art supplies that are so familiar to
us. An investigation was born!

Over the course of several days, one center choice consisted of the creation of artistic tools and paint materials. Children:

  • Created “paintbrushes” by figuring out ways to secure pine needles, hay, grass, sticks, and leaves;
  • Experimented with the best ways to bang rocks together to make
  • Explored clay from a local baseball field (Please note: it’s possible the collection of said clay is inappropriate. We didn't know any better!);
  • Investigated methods to grind, squish, and smash flowers and grasses;
  • Cut and smashed raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, and spinach to a juicy pulp.

The kids LOVED using plastic knives and forks, hammers, rocks, and other heavy objects to cut, squish and smash them to a pulp. (Honestly, the teachers enjoyed it, too! Really, you haven’t lived until you beat berries with a rock in a Tupperware container. Very satisfying…and incredibly messy. Seriously, wear a smock!)

The children were excited to try their “paints!" But…they discovered that the powder and even the wet pulp they made did not make great paint. They had to use some great thinking and problem-solving! We asked the children, “How could you solve the problem of the powders not acting like paint?” The kids had some great ideas! Some highlights:

  • “We need some oil to hold it together!”
  • “Water. We HAVE to mix it with water!”
  • “Well, what about milk? Like when we did those shiny milk paintings.”
  • “It needs to be sticky!” (The teachers asked, “How could we make that happen?”) The children suggested,“What about glue?!”
  • “Maybe orange juice. They probably had orange juice, right?”

So, after gathering some supplies, the children investigated mixing the powders and pulp with water, glue, milk, oil, and other things to create paint.

The children used the paintbrushes they made with the sticks and grasses to test the results of their experiments. As they did, they made many more discoveries. Some mixtures were successful and some were not. Some were lumpy, some didn't spread well at all, and some were thin and runny.

The children worked hard to investigate solutions to the problems they encountered. Teachers encouraged them to think of ways they could find out what worked and what didn't, invent solutions to the problems, make guesses, and investigate.

As the children investigated ways to make the colors and mix the paints, they used a combination of the paintbrushes they made, their hands, and other tools to create these beautiful images:

Look at the texture!: Berry pulp, clay, rock "dust", water, glue, flour

“This is the bear and this is the buffalo”: Berries, clay, rock "dust", grass, water, flour, cornstarch

Creative Story telling through Art: “Bear cave, where the mom gets lost and the baby swings”: Grass, dirt, water

Someday these budding scientists might ask, “How can we cure cancer?” The engineers will wonder, “The bridge is buckling; what materials will be the best and least expensive way to fix it?” The inventors will find solutions to problems we don’t even know exist yet. Experiences like this where children get to come up with ideas, experiment with them, make discoveries, have new wonders, and make more discoveries, build their brains so they can become those scientists, engineers, inventors and innovators of our future!

In many ways, problem-solving is the driving force for engaging in STEAM. Activities like this give children opportunities to engage in problem-solving creatively while having immense amounts of fun.

The children expressed themselves, made discoveries about viscosity (the thickness of a liquid), how various substances combine to create new substances (chemistry!), how colors mix together, and the properties of rocks, grass, berries, and other natural objects. They made scientific observations like, “Orange juice is really sticky when it dries!”

Most importantly, they got excited about STEAM. They enhanced their curiosity, discovered how to find answers to their own questions, extended their confidence as learners, and built a strong foundation for everything they will learn. They discovered that investigating and thinking like scientists is exciting and fun! What a WONDERful time we had!


Sewing STEAM


Sewing may not scream, “science!” to you, but if you think about it, quite a lot of scientific thinking and learning can happen while using a needle and thread.

Perhaps the most obvious connection of sewing to STEAM is the use of a needle and thread by surgeons.  Extensive research, knowledge, trial and error, and practice has gone into perfecting the stitches of every surgeon.

However, there are less obvious connections as well. The sewist must employ a significant amount of thought, problem-solving, planning, and creativity.

There are many ways to offer children opportunities to sew.

You can get large, child-safe, plastic needles and plastic cross-stitch pieces at any craft store.

We like to go a little bigger.

Our sewing table is basically a large embroidery hoop with a fabric insert. Children sew whatever they like. Because it’s a large sewing area, both the process and the product are collaborative efforts.

Young girl learning to sew on our sewing table
Close up view of the sewing table

Problem Solving - Spider Maze

Children develop problem-solving skills through experience. We do not have to manufacture problems for children to solve.  We don’t have to make problems unpleasant for children to develop these skills.

Play provides many opportunities to notice problems, think about them, develop solutions, test those solutions, and revise approaches to solving problems. We can give children opportunities to plan a course of action, encounter obstacles, and overcome them with giant smiles on their faces – which makes learning more meaningful, more engaging, and more permanent.

Here, we‘ve taken poles and strung rope through them to create a 3-dimensional, gross motor maze for children to navigate. A similar spider maze can be created in different ways, but we selected this set-up because it’s sturdy and can handle many children taking turns problem-solving their way through the maze.

Problem-solving skills are essential in the STEM fields. Knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math is important. However, it is the application of that knowledge as a tool that we use to solve problems. To make science and math valuable, then, we need to have strong problem-solving skills. We can help children build these skills through fun and engaging learning opportunities that make them smile as much as they make children think.

A young girl going through the three dimensional maze


A little girl navigating through our spider maze

Tinkering, Concentration, Persistence and Joy

Codi faced a lot of challenges trying to figure out how to get the straw arms and legs of her “robot” to stick to the wooden body. She tried many things, finally settling on tape. She wasn't happy with the look of the tape, though, so she tried coloring it with a marker. That made a bit of a mess, so she switched to crayons.  All the time, that tongue of concentration stuck out and she persisted.

We’ve talked about the importance of noticing when children are making the “Woah Face.” This face, the “Concentration Face,” is also phenomenal!  Keep your eyes out for this one. If you’re not seeing it, try offering tinkering learning experiences to encourage your children to become deeply engaged and to develop their innovation and creativity.

One of the beautiful things about tinkering is the freedom it gives to children.  When children are allowed to decide for themselves what materials they use, what they create, and how they create, some deep and powerful things happen.  One of the most important is that children are intrinsically motivated to solve problems and to be successful (their motivations come from inside of them, not from an outside source like pleasing a teacher).  That motivation allows them to want to learn and to figure out solutions.  They develop frustration tolerance as they experience and overcome setbacks.  To succeed (as they are intrinsically motivated to do), they must persevere.  They, like all of the engineers in the world, make a plan, test their ideas, and then modify their plans when things don’t go as expected.

Tools are an important aspect of tinkering and its impact on perseverance.  It can be tough for adults to watch children struggle with anything, particularly with using tools.  We are often quick to jump in and “help” them – by which, we really mean “rescue.”

“Here, let me help you,” the adult says while taking the scissors, pencil, glue stick, or screwdriver from the child and doing the task for the child.

Have faith in the child. Be near.  Be aware.  Be ready…but don’t rescue. Because when you don’t, the concentration face comes out.  The child’s intrinsic motivation screams, “Try and try and try again!"

A little girl learning to use scissors
A little girl learning to cut through wire

She had to work so hard to cut the wire. She was frustrated, but kept trying. She got it eventually and the PRIDE face came out!  I really wish I had the picture of that one, but I was too busy smiling and en-joying her joy to take one.

Tinkering gives children the freedom to express themselves, think, create, invent, and innovate.  It develops children’s ability to persevere in the face of frustrations because their desire to succeed comes from within.  There is little in this world more exciting than watching a child move from the frustrated face to the concentration face to the JOY face!

Give it try.  Tell us what you discover!

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