Let's Play

By Janis Dukakis, posted on Oct 1, 2018

When Santa Clarita Valley’s Education Foundation asked me to act as art director on their annual Children’s Literature and Arts Festival committee, my first thought was, “How fun!” I saw an exciting opportunity to share my students’ creativity with the community. The festival was to be held at our city’s brand-new library. What better place to celebrate children’s art and literature?

My next thoughts were: (a) “How can I incorporate my students’ work into this community event?” (b) “How can my ideas for the event benefit my students?”

A Big Box Theater
I invited the younger students into the artroom to help me design a shadow puppet theater made from a large cardboard refrigerator box. I cut out the window and students painted a different color on all four sides. I then set out a tray of old game board tiles and dice with letters I had collected from unused games and flea markets. I encouraged students to make words with them to decorate our theater.

It was fun to watch students excitedly come up with words and phrases: books, cake, think, ducky, fun, be a kid, etc. They playfully scattered the words and their own colorful hand-prints all over the painted theater. I constructed a shingled roof from cut cardboard which students painted.

We made a chalkboard to announce showtimes and made curtains out of dish towels. For the final touch, I added old toy details such as small plastic animals and figures, blocks, yo-yos, Old Maid cards, and, much to everyone’s thrill and surprise, colorful lucky faux rabbit’s foot key chains.

Our puppet theater was a hit at the festival. Students played in the theater with simple shadow puppets they made out of craft sticks, tape, and black paper. They also made simple, mini take-home theaters out of a sheet of cardboard, tape, and paper.

The next idea for the festival sprang from our two kindergarten classrooms. Upon reading the books Make Way for Ducklings in one class and The Grouchy Ladybug in the other, kindergartners made clay ducklings and ladybugs. These adorable clay figures and copies of the two books  were exhibited at the event on round tables covered with painted table cloths. During the event, groups of children gathered around the art and listened to the stories read by library volunteers. This combination of story and art was the perfect execution for a literature and arts exhibit by students, for students.

There’s Always Hope
Excited by a Pinterest post from the blog New City Arts, my after-school art classes made clay poetry birds inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem, “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers.” Students each made a unique clay bird with their own personal hopes for their future stamped onto it. There have been times at my Title 1 school when I have been poignantly reminded of the daily lives of the majority of the student body I am teaching. Such was the case with this project. Their hopes for the future included food, glasses, home, love, magic, and a dad. I attached wire hangers to the birds and hung them, along with the poem, on 6' (1.8 m) bare branch trees.

A Blast from the Past
A station with eight working type-writers along with creative writing prompts encouraged the public of all ages to sit down and give it a go. This activity was a fascinating novelty for the young and a real blast from the past for parents and grandparents.

Finally, I scattered a series of ten posters I made, set up on easels throughout the library, of inspiring quotes from several famous artists, writers, and poets over time such as:

“[The arts] are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” —Kurt Vonnegut

A Rich Combination
Acting as art director for our community’s Children’s Literature and Arts Festival was an exciting experience. Envisioning creative ideas with engaging activities for the public was fun, and I think, for an art teacher, comes naturally. A large network of volunteers was made available throughout the day to help set up and work the stations where activities were to take place. The festival was a large, well-organized affair with more than 3,000 in attendance.

I find art and literature to be a very rich combination with a wealth of exciting and unlimited possibilities. I believe that taking an overall lighthearted and playful approach to the various activities and stations made for an enjoyable and creatively stimulating afternoon for children and parents alike.

Janis Doukakis is a teaching artist who works with Cedarcreek Elementary School in Valencia, California.

View this article in the digital edition.