What MaryAnn F. Kohl Can Teach Us About Fostering Literacy Through Art

Today I’m excited to be joined by the ever-inspiring children’s art book author, MaryAnn F. Kohl. MaryAnn’s books helped me prepare lessons in my teaching days and have since become dog-eared favorites in my life as a parent. I now own eight of her books and constantly turn to them for ideas. Because MaryAnn is so prolific (full list here, on Amazon), we thought it might be fun to spotlight one of her books as an introduction to her work.

And…it happens to be MaryAnn’s birthday today! Happy Birthday, MaryAnn!

RACHELLE: Welcome, MaryAnn! As you know, I’m a huge fan and your book, First Art for Toddlers and Twos: Open-ended Art Experiences, was the first place I looked for inspiration when my older daughter was old enough to draw. We’ve been having fun trying different activities from your book, Storybook Art. A lot of the books are traditional favorites, while some are new to me. How did you choose the books that are included in this book?

MARYANN: Storybook Art was a joy for me to research and write. Choosing books was at the same time both easy and challenging, because I knew which books would have great art connections for kids, but how to choose 100 or less? As I sorted and chose, I was looking for a wide mix of art styles created by the illustrators, as well as a variety of art experiences for the children. I wanted to be sure I had a good mix of paint, crayon, sculpture, photography, and so on. And of course I had my favorites that I simply could not leave out, like Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day and Leo Lionni’s Fish is Fish. Everyone who knew I was working on the book had a favorite and begged me to include each one! Definitely challenging.  When all was said and done, I arrived at 100 books and their illustrators selected in four categories (the four chapters): Paint, Draw, Cut & Collage, and Craft & Construction. I was pleased with the balance and only had to omit a few of my very favorites, but perhaps another book one day? I spent hours and hours in our public children’s library so I could see the real books up close. One of my favorite parts of writing the book was interviewing illustrators and getting quotes from them about why art is important.

RACHELLE: It’s evident that a lot of time and research went into gathering biographies and details about the illustrators’ artistic processes. How do you hope parents or teachers will use this book?

MARYANN: I offer the details in Storybook Art to parents so they may choose how much their children may be interested in knowing, and how much to share with them. Some children will be fascinated by the quotes and lives of various illustrators, and others will be more interested in just getting on with the art. Parents often introduce a little tidbit of information at one reading, and maybe a few more details at another reading. Whatever is comfortable each parent and child is what works best. I hope that parents will find picture books that their children enjoy, then explore the art project that relates to that book, and then, most important of all, re-read the book again (and again). Parents will find that after their children explore the art projects, they will be more interested and more finely tuned to the details of the illustrations and the story when read a second and third and fourth and however many times.

RACHELLE: How can the process of following up a story with an art project contribute to a child’s language skills? (Sharing some photos of our experience with Watercolor Snow Collage: Ezra Jack Keats).

MARYANN: Picture books rely heavily on their illustrations, their art, if you will. Connecting picture book art with children’s own art connects children to their books. When a child has a personal connection (in this case, through hands-on art experiences) to a book, that book becomes more deeply appreciated, the story more deeply comprehended, the language more readily remembered, the illustrations more finely noticed. So much of learning to read is hearing a story and finding a personal connection. If art is a connection, it’s just one more way for children to become attached to their books in a personal way, with all the benefits that go with it.

A few are:

  • When we surround our children with books, and therefore with words and language, we are giving them meaningful vocabulary they will add to their use and understanding.
  • The conversations we have with out kids about books increase their listening and communication skills.
  • Including body language like facial expressions and clapping or other movements, helps get the words into the children’s bodies, and therefore will be remembered.
  • Children will often retell stories, or make up new stories inspired by their favorite books.
  • We’ve all seen kids who memorize a book word for word, or at the very least know which words are next in the sentence before you read the words … all this long before they can actually read. This is a sign of a budding great reader!
All these are amazing language skills that will launch a child into reading when he is ready.

A little story: I remember at one point in my teaching career, I was talking to my kindergarten class about all the details of forest animals, just talking and talking, and this little boy raised his hand as he threw up his hands in the air with an exasperated look on his face, “….and rain makes applesauce!” He was referring to the chant from the book “Rain Makes Applesauce” that we had read in class, and letting me know I was just going on far too long with far too many details about forest animals. That one made me laugh! Kids will transfer phrases and words from their books into their lives, a connection transfer that makes those brain synapses just snap and sparkle! When this happens, you know that language has taken root in your child’s mind and heart, and will expand his creative thinking as he grows.

RACHELLE: What are your favorite illustrators and activities from the book?

MARYANN: My favorites vary from day to day, and from child to child. Whenever a child is inspired and excited about a project, then I become equally excited, so my favorites change often! There are some projects in Storybook Art that are sure winners for just about every child. For example, most kids really enjoy “Cat & Mouse Prints” that go with Wanda Gag’s classic “Millions of Cats”. They enjoy making “millions of prints”! another one young children love is Robert McCloskey’s “Blueberries for Sal” followed up with “Blue Fingerdots, which is simply making a painting with a finger dipped in blue paint, or better yet, blue dots art made with actual blueberries.

One of the biggest surprises to me was a book that I added at the very end of the writing process because my daughter, Megan, requested it: Dare Wright’s “The Lonely Doll” with the project “Portraiture”. In this activity, children set up toys in various poses and scenes, and then photograph them, just as Ms. Wright did with her doll Edith and Edith’s companion Mr. Bear. Kids tell me this is one of their most favorite projects of all, and it’s fascinating to see the stories they put together through their photographs and scenes. I had no idea until I started doing portraiture with kids of all ages of the depth of creativity and concentration that would unfold. What a joyful discovery!

RACHELLE: I’d love to hear about your writing path. Can you tell us what influenced you to begin writing books and what you’re working on now?

MARYANN: When I was a little girl, my dad owned a bookstore and brought home a Little Golden Book or other storybook for me weekly. My parents read to me every night, and during the day I read and re-red those books, often incorporating the stories into my make-believe and pretend play with my dolls or into my crayon drawings.

When I was a little older, my dad managed a huge printing and book bindery, and I would spend a Saturday morning with him at his “office”. He would send me off to wander the shelves in the warehouse and find any books that interested me to bring home. His bindery did library bindings for every publisher in the USA, so the choices were magnificent! Little House on the Prairie was one of my best discoveries. It was pure luck that I found the series because no one had ever shared these books with me — not my teachers or the town librarian — and I loved the stories. Books were one of my most important activities as a child, along with my crayons and scissors, and my bike. Books remain important to me, and were clearly important in how I raised my children.

I mention this, because growing up with books the way I did made me want to be an author. I always knew I would be one some day. I was in no hurry. I knew it would come about at some point. And here I am, 20 books later, with plans to write fiction for children who love “chapter books”. Right now I’m working on another activity book called “Great Composers for Kids” with my musical theatre writing daughter, Hannah. We’re coming up with some wonderful projects to help kids connect to the classical composers and their lives and music. It’s very exciting!

When my kids started school, I decided to use the time when they were in school to write a book of art activities. I’d noticed that at the time no books existed, so I gathered my favorite “independent art ideas for kids” in a book called “Scribble Cookies”, now called “Scribble Art”. I self-published it with no clear idea of how to really do that, 27 years later, here I am! Scribble Art became an immediate best seller, and it’s still my favorite book of all the ones I have written.

RACHELLE: You shared that your own girls are all grown up and have turned out to be amazing grown-ups. I’m so curious to know what your own home was like when you raised your children. 

MARYANN: My home was not unlike the ways yours looks and what you do with your children, though perhaps mine was not quite as magnificent in scope. I wanted my kids to have an imaginative childhood, so we always had art projects going on in our kitchen, lots of make-believe and storytelling, acting and pretending galore, costumes, dance, and singing. Making up songs was a big part of what we did together — just something that we enjoyed. My two daughters loved“Little House on the Prairie” on television and rarely missed an episode. They loved Broadway musicals like Annie and Fiddler on the Roof and great classic fairy tales to listen to like The Little Mermaid (not Disney) and Snow White and Rose Red. Much of their creative play was based on these stories and shows.

And now, my oldest daughter, Hannah Kohl, is living in New York and working on Broadway as a musical theatre writer and producer. Her first professional children’s musical opens in January at the The Chicago Children’s Theatre based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Houdini Box. (Yes, I’ll be there for opening night!) Selznick is the author of the Caldecott Award winning book, Hugo Cabret, now an amazing beautiful movie called Hugo. I’m sure our love of books and fairy tales, etc. paved the way for her to seek theatre as a career.

My younger daughter, Megan Kohl, does serious theatre performance in Chicago, and to our delight, was recently seen as the K-Mart witch in their national Halloween commercial. The most fun she’s had commercially was taping a travel DVD for Disney Resorts where she walks through the parks giving hints to parents about how best to enjoy the various Disney experiences. You can order the DVDs for free from Disney Resorts. Sing up here: http://www.disneyvacations.com/dv/en_US/VacationPlanningDVD/index   Watch for Megan!

RACHELLE: What books and blogs inspire you?

MARYANN: I follow many amazing blogs, and of course TinkerLab is one of tip top favorites! If I were to list several, they would not surprise anyone because I’m sure your readers follow them too: The Imagination Tree, NurtureStore, Chocolate Muffin Tree, Pink and Green Mama, Crafty Crow, Childhood 101, and The Artful Parent are some of the best that come immediately to mind. I am inspired and amazed at what young mothers are doing with their blogs and their fabulous photographs of kids in action and their wonderful artworks and adorable crafts. I am sure I would have been a mommy blogger if that technology had been available to me when I was raising my kids.As far as books that inspire me, I have shelves full of activity books and love them all for different reasons. I continue to especially enjoy Kim Solga’s“Paint!” and “Draw!”, books filled with open-ended art ideas and great illustrations and photos. I also like the more focused books put out by Chicago Review Press, like “Monet and the Impressionists for Kids”. All the DK books are beautiful! A little series I like for young children in board book format is called “Mini Masters” by Chronicle books. If you look for these, check out “Quiet Time With Cassatt” by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober.

RACHELLE: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

MARYANN: I invite your readers to join my mailing list at www.brightring.com. I’ll send out a short newsletter, the ArtsyKidsNEWS, once a month with a great art activity and other bits of news. Also, I encourage your readers to visit the Barnes and Noble website where 15 national experts have been selected to write articles about various parenting and child related issues from infancy on up. My current articles there are all about art and child development, and perhaps will be of interest. My specific articles are here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/maryann-kohl-importance-of-art/379002442/ My blog might be of interest too, at:  http:www.maryannfkohl.typepad.com/blog/

Lastly, I’d like to remind everyone that art for kids doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive or fabulous every day. If you give kids blank paper and crayons, you have given them the best possible. Did you know kids who draw frequently uninterrupted by adults do better in academic subjects? It’s true! The important thing is to allow kids to create in their own ways. Relax and enjoy art with kids. The benefits are tenfold.

RACHELLE: Thank you for joining me today, MaryAnn! Talking with you is always such a pleasure!

What are your favorite storybooks? How have you been inspired to spin books into art project?



MaryAnn has graciously offered to share a copy of Storybook Art with one lucky readerReaders who leave a comment by Monday, January 30, 2012 at 9 pm PST will be entered to win. Winner will be chosen by random number generator. Only open to U.S. addresses. The winner has been selected. Thank you to everyone who entered!!


Self-serve Valentines for Kids

I’m working on a project with the San Francisco Children’s Creativity Museum, and one of the ideas we’re playing with is to create a buffet-style selection of materials for children to choose from in our DIY art zone. I’ll share some of our activities with you soon, but in the meantime I thought you might like to see how this strategy has manifested itself in my own home.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner and a love for all-things-holiday in our house, I set up a smorgasbord of hearts, flowers, silk flower petals, shiny wrapping paper, doilies, stickers, and glue. Each clear container is filled with a thoughtfully-selected material as an invitation to make, play, and create. Oh, and invitations can be accepted or ignored. I always try to pay attention to how these things play out because, of course, I want my invitations to be accepted!!

I barely captured any photos of my 3 year old making art because I was busy cutting paper and helping Baby R. But she made a Valentine for her sister and one for me. She draws her “M’s” upside down, so my name is spelled “WOW”… isn’t that great!? N stuffed the Valentines into her light-up Hello Kitty mailbox (the hand-made Valentine box we threw together last week truly couldn’t compete with this one!) and we opened our little parcels of love up at dinner.

All in all it was a success, and I look forward to sharing more of these invitations with you soon.


Join the Next Creative Challenge

One year ago I started this series of Creative Challenges with a toilet paper/loo roll challenge. The series began on a small scale and has grown along with my blog to include a generous sponser [Kiwi Crate] and a host of talented bloggers and non-blogging friends who focus on process-oriented projects with their children or students. The challenges are bi-monthly, and we have some exciting materials to look forward to playing with.

Upcoming Challenges – Mark your Calendar!

  • February 6 – Paper Bags {Next Challenge!}
  • April 2 – Egg Cartons
  • June 4 – Flowers
  • August 6 –  Milk Jugs or Cartons
  • October 1 – Dried Beans or Seeds

How to Join

    • Make: Projects should be child-directed, but grown-ups are welcome to join in the fun if the mood strikes! Use at least one paper bag, along with any other materials of your choice. See the last challenge, Magazines, for inspiration.
    • Share: Come back to Tinkerlab on or after February 6, 2012 and attach a link to your blog or a photo from your experience, along with a description of what you and/or your child/ren did, in the comment section of the challengeIf you have a blog, you can also add your project to the linky party. The challenge opens up on February 6, and will remain open indefinitely
    • Pinterest: After you submit your post or photo/s, we will add you to a Paper Bag Creative Challenge Pinterest Board, where it can serve as inspiration for others.
    • WIN!!: The Pinterest Post with the most “reposts” by 9 pm PST February 29, 2012 (leap year — yay!) will win a $100 VISA gift card and three-month subscription to Kiwi Crate, courtesy of Kiwi Crate (subscription is only available to U.S. participants). Participants are welcome to encourage friends and readers to “repost” their links.
    • Are you a blogger? Let your fans know about the challenge and grab our cute lil’ button to share it on your blog.


Are you Ready to Join Me?

  • Start thinking about Paper Bags. Collect them from your market, raid your lunch sacks, and show your kids pictures of upcycled paper bags and see what they’re excited about.
  • February 6 is two and a half weeks from now, which should give us all plenty of time to tinker, play, and then share.
  • Tell your friends about the challenge. Host a creative paper bag play group. Share a link to the challenge on your Facebook wall.
  • Show up on February 6 with your documentation! I can’t wait to see you then!!
Special thanks to our sponsor:

Toddler Art: Glue Dots and Buttons

“Art is skill, that is the first meaning of the word.” – Eric Gill

Since she was 15 months old, gluing small objects to paper has been one of Baby Rainbow’s favorite activities (second to climbing into a big bin of cloud dough…sigh). We’ve also done this with sequins, feathers, and pom-poms, but I find that she gets frustrated when the sequins start sticking to her fingers. And when my older daughter was a little older than two, she spent weeks gluing beans, beans, and beans to any paper in sight [see this post]. 

To set this up for a baby or toddler who’s working on fine motor skills, I recommend using a non-white sheet of paper that white glue will show up against. Add big dots of glue to the paper and provide your child with buttons, pebbles, beans, pom-poms or other small objects of uniform shape.

As she gets older, I’ll fill a small bowl with glue and give her a q-tip to apply it to the paper herself. Shortly thereafter she’ll learn how to use a glue bottle on her own, but for now I add the glue and she’s fine with that.

And while she didn’t seem to care if she glued a pink button or black button, as time goes on she’ll refine her choices and a personal aesthetic will develop.

In their early days of art making, children begin with sensory experiences and skill building — in this case, developing fine motor skills and gaining an understanding of glue’s property as an adhesive. When my older child was this age I found that MaryAnn Kohl’s First Art : Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos was an indispensable, dog-eared resource.

I would love to know — What are some of your children’s earliest art-making experiences and art-making skills?

More Art Projects for Toddlers

12 Simple Art Projects for Toddlers | TinkerLab.com
For more toddler art projects, you may enjoy the easy-to-set-up activities that use mainly everyday materials in 12 Simple Art Projects for Toddlers.

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In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

Join our community and you’ll learn:

  • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
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  • Easy, actionable ways to raise creative kids

Organizing Art Supplies: Day One

This is the first in a new series where I’ll expose my messy spaces to share my process of creating a more beautiful, accesible, and relaxing space for creating. I hit the friend jackpot, and have a new friend, Jillian, who happens to also be a professional organizer! You’ll hear more about her soon! She’s amazing, and has been coming over to my house once a week to help me purge, organize, and rethink how I’m using the spaces of my home. I usually share all the goodness of my home, not the messy hidey-holes, so — BIG BREATH — here we go…


Look at that mess! Rolls of contact paper, shaving cream, reams of paper, stamps we never use because they’re hidden away…

After she left my house yesterday I was inspired to tackle a half-baked idea I once had to store art supplies in the kitchen. It made sense at the time — we have these huge sheets of drawing paper that fit perfectly on this wide, deep shelf, but then more art materials joined the paper. And before I knew it the shelves were a mish-mash of supplies. A junky catch-all that I never opened, except to pull paper out of on an almost daily basis. So, during Baby R’s nap, N and I tackled the shelves. She loved pulling everything out, I loved pitching things we barely used, and when Baby R woke up, she enjoyed discovering a world of new toys and art supplies in the excavated stash.

I moved the paper to other places, cleared a whole shelf off for kitchen stuff that filled up my almost non-existent counter-tops, and stored the whittled down art supplies on the bottom shelf. I’m sure that Jillian will eventually help me move them out of the kitchen, but for now I’m loving this cleaner, easy-to-navigate space. 

I’m fascinated by the various ways people sort and organize their homes. If you are too, I have a few Pinterest boards that might interest you:

You might also like to check out this new series of interviews on Tinkering Spaces:

How do you organize your materials?

Are you challenged by space limitations? Do you struggle with having too much stuff? Have you succeeded at paring things down, and have a space that inspires you?