Four-year-old Nikole Paszko doesn't know she's getting a lesson in fine motor skills that soon will help her learn to write.
The student in Ami Saar's studio art class at Owens Community College's Child Care Center has been told she's in possession of a "magic stick." Young Nikole and her classmates are crouched over brightly colored paper, covered with a black film. One dash with a magic stick - crayon-shaped pieces of wood - reveals colorful paper beneath.
"It's green!" Nikole exclaims, pleased with her rudimentary sketches. She goes on to inscribe a series of waves - "A big, big W."
Learning is a tactile pursuit at the child care center, where about 100 children of faculty, students, and the general community spend their days.
Center staff is committed to the Reggio Emilia philosophy in early childhood education, a school of thought - originated in an Italian village by the same name - stressing learning through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing, and hearing.
Creative expression is an important part of that process. Ms. Saar's students spend as many as four hours per week in her classes.
But in accord with a Reggio Emilia principle that children should be free to guide their learning experiences, Ms. Saar's students are welcome to excuse themselves from art class whenever they're ready.
Ms. Saar does her best to keep things interesting. The art teacher's most-storied project involved an experiment with "exploding paint," combining Alka Seltzer cold medicine with water colors, sealed in a film canister - fireworks on paper.
"I'm not afraid to get messy," Ms. Saar said. "I'm not afraid to experiment and do the crazy stuff."
Ms. Saar believes in exposing children to artistic mediums early, starting them with paints and clay when they are as young as eight months. With the youngest artists, class is mostly one-on-one, and always all nontoxic.
"I call that exploration art," she said. "Basically, you just give them the materials and let them muck with it."
She theorizes that by the time her youngest proteges are out of diapers and into sneakers, they'll be comfortable with the materials and ready to begin the real business of art.
It's a satisfactory arrangement for pre-kindergartner Luci Wilgus, 4. Her favorite thing about art class is "that you have to make whatever you want."
Beginning tomorrow, Ms. Saar and her students will be showing off their finest creations at Owens' third annual Children's Art Show. At least one piece from each of the center's pupils, be it papier-mache fish, hard clay globs, or magic paper drawings, will remain on display through April 17 at the college's Math/Science Galleria.
The college will kick off the show with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. tomorrow. The event will be an important time for students and their families to reflect on their progress and accomplishments, child center manager Maribeth Tercha said.
"A lot of people think it's strange," Mrs. Tercha said. "But it is really beautiful art."
Contact Angie Schmitt at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6104.