Tinkering Spaces: Interview with Meri Cherry of Kol Tikvah

Kol Tikvah Tinkering Space Interview on TinkerLab.com

Today I’m joined by Meri Cherry, educator and atelierista at Kol Tikvah Early Childhood Education Center, for a peek into her school’s Tinkering Space. This interview is part of Tinkering Spaces, an informative series of interviews that center on designing kid-friendly creativity spaces. If you’re scratching your head because you can’t figure out where to put your children’s art materials, hatching a plan to turn your laundry room into an art room,  or shifting furniture to make room for a new easel, these interviews are sure to give you food for thought.


Meri Cherry Family | TinkerLab.comWelcome, Meri! I’ve been a fan of your inspiring website and blog, Meri Cherry, for some time, and I’m excited about your new journey as an atelierista at Kol Tikvah Early Childhood Education Center in Los Angeles, CA. A few of the the things that stand out about your work are the cheerful colors that you infuse your space with, the intriguing materials that you offer children, and how willing you are to encourage messy, whole-body art with little makers. I’m so glad that you’re here to share your newest adventure with us today!

RACHELLE: Can you tell us about your tinkering space?

MERI: I’d love to! I work at Kol Tikvah Early Childhood Center.  It’s a Reggio inspired reform Jewish preschool in Los Angeles.  I am the atelierista there and work in the art studio, called the atelier.  It’s my dream space, filled with gorgeous light, all kinds of paint, clay, other art materials and tools.  Just walking into the space brings a sense of calm and engagement.  I feel really blessed to work there and so excited for the children who get to explore the space everyday.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I get to work in such a gorgeous environment.

Meri Cherry's inspiring Tinkering Space in Los Angeles | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: For those of us who are new to ateliers, can you explain why your space is called an atelier and how this influences your curriculum?

MERI: About two years ago, after 15 years of teaching art and craft in a traditional art environment, I decided to do a one on one atelierista training at a Reggio school in Southern California.  When I got to the school I was speechless over it’s beauty and commitment to the experience of the child.  Then I entered their atelier and was moved to tears.  At first I was a little embarrassed crying in front of this woman I had never met before, but then she gently excused herself for a few minutes and I knew she understood what I was experiencing.  Something in my heart opened in a way it never opened before.  It was a feeling of coming home.

I know that’s a strange way to answer this question, but I find the experience fitting in explaining an atelier.  An atelier is a space of innovation, discovery and empathy.  It provides children the opportunity to engage in long term projects, often in small groups, while exploring different types of materials and techniques.  The atelier environment is a curriculum in itself, offering invitations to create, take risks and problem solve throughout the day.

Tinker Tray in the Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: I imagine that your classes are so much fun! Can you walk us through what a typical class session might look like?

MERI: A typical day is pretty fascinating in our atelier.  Children are invited into the studio in small groups of 4-6.   Prior to their arrival different invitations to explore, or provocations are provided by the teacher (yours truly) to stimulate learning and exploration.  I usually set up three tables with provocations including clay, a tinker tray, (see above) and maybe an apple with paper and drawing materials.

In addition, there are supplies that are kept accessible to all the children so they can gather tools necessary for any projects they are working on or any ideas they wish to fulfill.  On any given day you might see two children cutting yarn and “knitting” a dress with popsicle sticks, or five children painting and coloring little “fizzy drink bottles for Shabbat”, or one child in deep concentration while he sorts coloring materials.  These are true examples of recent experiences.

The groups tend to stay anywhere from 40 minutes to a little over an hour.  We have the luxury of being flexible with the atelier space.  When one group feels finished, we invite the next group to come in.  Some days can be pretty crazy, with tons of paint and clay in heavy use throughout the studio.  Other days feel more serene and calm, with kids focusing on one or two activities throughout the day.

One thing for sure, we always have music setting the tone in the background.  It’s a must for me and adds so much to the experience of the studio.  The classical relaxation station on Pandora is a favorite.

Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: Every space has its own unique qualities that make it shine. If you had to be selective, what three things do you love most about your space?

MERI: Ooh, that’s a fun question.

My first love is our ribbon wall.  I set it up after someone in the community donated an insane amount of ribbon.  It adds great color and interest to the room, but more than anything it’s highly functional.  The kids know where the scissors are and can walk freely over to the wall and get any colors or textures they need.

Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

There are also two containers, one a little rocking baby bed, and another a wood case, filled with gorgeous yarns that were also a donation.  I admit they’ve gotten a bit unruly quickly, but, we still love every last strand.  The kids come up with fascinating ways to work the yarn into their ideas and the skeins of yarn are so gorgeous to look at and feel.  We have all kinds of cashmere and angora.  It’s pretty incredible.  It isn’t unusual to find a little one stretched out happily in the yarn bed.

Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

My third pick is a toss up between the incredible light that comes in through our full wall of windows, or our art wall filled with tons of little pictures the kids work on daily and clip to a plastic grid.  It’s so happy and alive.

Tinkering tray in the Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: Do you have any tips for those of us who want to set up an atelier in a school?

MERI: Yes, go for it! An atelier is a magical experience to offer a child.  It’s a place to dream and to dream big.  Now that I am working in an atelier, I see it’s importance on a daily basis and it something I want for every child.  If you decide to go for it, start with the basics and see what happens.

Set up a shelf with drawing materials organized by color, a few natural materials like sticks and rocks and pebbles, some glue and maybe some string and you’re on your way. You can get some great inspiration from my atelier inspiration pinterest board.

Art carts are really great if you don’t have room for a whole atelier.  Tinkerlab knows a lot about those!   Whether it’s a small space in your classroom or a whole atelier, take it slow and see what emerges.  Let the children guide you.  That’s where the real magic happens.  You can ask them what materials they want to always have accessible.

Meri Cherry's top 5 supplies | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE:: I would have a field day with all of the gorgeous materials in your space! What five supplies are indispensable to you and your children at this moment?

MERI: Wire! Definitely wire.  I can’t get enough of the stuff.  It’s so engaging for kids and there are so many possibilities with wire.  We’ve just started working with it and I can’t wait to see emerges.

Glue.  Why is it I can never keep enough white glue around?

Sharpies. Sharpies are seriously the best.  So important and grown up feeling and they come in every color under the sun.  I especially love the neons personally, but of course you can’t go wrong with straight up black for starters.

Translucent plastic anything pretty much.  We were gifted a whole tub of cassette tape cases and they are so much fun.  We’ve Sharpied them to death, put some little light bright pegs in them, which for some reason I have about a million of, and now they are turning into the coolest towers, mountains and sculptures on the light table.

Pencil sharpeners are HUGE in our atelier also.  We have the little handheld kind, the one you crank, and of course, the favorite electric one.  It’s funny, when I taught in elementary school, teachers always seemed so irritated when kids wanted to use the sharpener.  It’s nice to be in a place where the sharpeners are actually set up as an invitation to play.

Meri Cherry Jar Organization | TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: When I first saw it, I fell in love with your backyard art space and how well organized it is. Can you share a favorite tip for organizing this space or for cleaning up after a creative session?

MERI: For organization I recommend jars, jars, jars.  I’m slightly obsessed with jars, which you’ll see when I share my backyard art studio.   I use recycled jars and mason jars from the dollar store or online for just about everything.  Stones, crystals, clothespins, paints, watercolors, buttons, you name it.  Put it in a clear jar so you can see it right away.  If you can’t see it, chances are you won’t use it.

Meri Cherry Clean Up Tips | TinkerLab.com

For easy clean up, we use tarps or drop clothes for everything.  We cover all the tables and it makes clean up a breeze.  I also keep a tub of water out in the same spot so kids can give their paint brushes “a bath” at the end of their time in the studio.  No hard paintbrushes for us this year!

Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

RACHELLE: What do you wish for your children to take away from their experiences in your atelier?

MERI: This question makes me smile and sit up a little straighter in my chair as I type this.  The children!  They are what this is all about right?  I hope that the atelier is a place the children feel safe to take risks, think outside the box and feel confident to explore their ideas.  I hope they leave problem solvers that have a thirst for invention, creativity and wonder.  If that happens, I’d say we are on the right track.

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

MERI: Yes! Thank you Tinkerlab! There are so many little things educators can do to bring a taste of the atelier into the lives of their students.  I hope I’ve inspired some new ideas here.  It’s been a pleasure reflecting on our experience at Kol Tikvah.  If anyone lives in the Los Angeles area, please come check us out.  We’d love to hear from you.

Tinkering Jars in the Reggio Art Classroom | Meri Cherry on TinkerLab.com

More from Meri Cherry

If you’re as inspired by Meri Cherry (yes, that’s her real name!) as I am, you can find more of her work in these places:

  • The colorful blog, MeriCherry.com: Sharing Arts, Crafts, and Family
  • Meri Cherry on Facebook
  • Meri Cherry on Instagram (my favorite spot to get doses of visual inspiration)
  • Meri Cherry on Twitter

And…stay tuned because Meri has ALSO agreed to give us an inside look at her backyard studio that has Southern California sunshine written all over it. You won’t want to miss it.

Do you have an inspiring tinkering space to share?

If you have an art studio, maker space, or tinkering garage that you think our readers would be inspired by, we would love to hear about it! You can fill out this short form and we’ll be in touch.


Project ::Deconstruct Monitor

My mom was cleaning out her basement and came across my husband’s ancient computer monitor, and for some crazy reason she didn’t want it. So she asked my sister to deliver it to my house…which is over 300 miles away!! What a good sister. But guess what? We didn’t want it either!

So, this big ol’ dusty tan hunk of Apple history became the perfect toy to deconstruct…with grown-up help because it turns out that monitors have tricky pockets full of icky stuff that can be deadly if messed around with in the wrong way. Lucky for us, my more-tech-savvy-than-me husband was up for the challenge!

Capacitors are Dangerous

Capacitors are dangerous. This you need to know. Our monitor was in storage, inactive, for about ten years so there was very little chance of being shocked by a charged capacitor. However, you have to be smart and can read more about it the truth of cathode ray tubes (CRT’s) and shock danger here if you’re interested in carrying forward in your own similar take-apart project.

If you decide to try this at home, with kids or adults, there are some warnings you should heed.

See the end of this post for a list of suggested items for take-apart tinkering.

After reading up on the dangers of endeavor, we decided that we’d only take Project Deconstruct Monitor so far before it would find itself at the town recycling center.

I’m not an advocate for anyone getting hurt, so use your best judgement and do your research, folks.

Tips for taking apart machines

  • unplug your machine
  • stay away from CRT’s (I know, we didn’t follow that advice — be smart)
  • wear goggles (again — be smarter than we were!)

Before the monitor met its fate, we brought out some tinkering tools to explore with: scissors, screwdriver, and flashlight. And N loved it! She got her hands right into the wires and asked loads of good questions. It was really fun for all of us to see exactly what was inside a monitor.

N got her flashlight out to get a closer look at the circuit boards, wires, and metal housing pieces.

And she even got to give the screwdriver a spin or two.

After this, my husband carted the whole thing off to be recycled by professionals, and suggested that next time we take apart a simple keyboard or mechanical clock. Agreed!

Aside from being on edge about safety, this was a great project for matching my child’s interests (she’s taken note of other deconstructed computers lately), supporting curiosity, encouraging exploration of the unknown, and giving her a more intimate understanding of the inner-workings of our computers. Who knows, she may be a computer scientist one of these days!

Good objects to take apart

  • sewing machine
  • clocks
  • bicycle
  • toys
  • toaster
  • old fashioned telephone
  • typewriter
  • fax machine

Tinkering with KidsIf you or your child likes to take things apart, check out this book, Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics. Bonus: The table of contents contains an inspiring list of take-apart objects to get the ideas rolling.


Idea Roundup: Tinkering

Do you think children should learn how to use hammers and nails? Power tools? Glue guns? And how do you feel about open-ended exploration of art materials? This week’s roundup brings you some big ideas on tinkering, creating opportunities for child-directed art, and free exploration at the art table. And as a bonus, I found an inspiring journaling idea that I think you’ll love.

Co-op nursery school teacher and blogger extraordinaire Teacher Tom writes countless thoughtful articles on play-based learning and childhood exploration. And I believe he’s a philosopher at heart. I love this post: Let them teach themselves

In a similar spirit, often the best activities are those with the least amount of direction. Kindergarten teacher Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust Teaching documented a day at the invention table in her class: Creation Station
Early childhood educator Jenny at Let The Children Play invited her kids to take apart old video recorders with plyers, scissors, and screw drivers. Real tools! There’s a huge public sculpture of dissected computers in our neighborhood that has grabbed ahold of my daughter. This is definitely something we’ll be trying soon. Tinkering at Preschool: Let the Children Play
Preschool teacher and educational consultant Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute writes about providing children with art experiences with the spectrum of preschool arts and crafts in mind. There’s a place in the preschool world for crafts, but crafts are often parent or teacher-directed while art is child-directed.  The Spectrum of Preschool Arts and Crafts
And, as a bonus, Rachel Meeks at Alphamom came across this inspiring illustrated way to document the passage of time with children. It turns the scrapbook on its head with the parent making simple drawings of “a day in the life.” What a fabulous keepsake. And wouldn’t this be a great activity to do WITH a child once they could draw too? Draw Your Story: The Illustrated Journal

What good ideas have you come across lately?

Art With Everyday Things

I stumbled upon Tsh Oxenreider’s blog, Simplemom.net, and its words of clean and simple living wisdom have been a huge inspiration to this pile-making, book-loving, overstuffed home-making, can’t-throw-away-art-supplies-from-college kind of gal. I was so drawn in that I purchased her book, Organized Simplicity, and I’m finding myself on a new path toward simplifying my home and life.

Related to all of this, my home has fallen under The Great Purge, and odds and ends like never used triangular make-up sponges are mostly finding their way into the trash. Or in this case, because I still have the art material hoarding sickness…the art table. Although the whole point of this journey is for me to get rid of things, I had a feeling that my little art explorer would enjoy tinkering with them.

And she did! After sponging to her heart’s content, N reached for the paint squeeze bottles. Mixed media painting begins here! When she was younger I waxed poetic about limiting art supplies in any given project to avoid overwhelming a child with options. I’m still formulating my thoughts on this as she gets older, but it’s becoming more and more clear that she enjoys having access to a wide variety of materials in one sitting. In another recent session, she used pom-poms, glitter glue, and watercolor paint…all of her own design.

And then she picked up a grease pencil, or china marker, for some additional mark-making. These pencils not only make beautiful bright marks, but they’re fun for kids to peel open.

While the triangle sponges were saved from the dump this time around, it’s a whole other story for the old blender, maternity clothes, and set of rarely used hot cocoa mugs. Although, on second thought, that dying blender may find a second life as a paper pulper. Or not.

I’d love to know…what everyday objects you or your kids like to tinker with?