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.
Welcome, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.