HomeArticlesProject Cactus: Celebrate Young Learners!

Project Cactus: Celebrate Young Learners!

Experiences like this show children are complex thinkers and capable learners, with a right to interact and build relationships with one another, explore quality materials, and be heard by their adults.

Project Cactus
Artwork by Ayan.

In our classroom, we read many, many stories. Recently, I read The Three Little Javelinas, by Susan Lowell, which takes place in the desert. The children were especially interested in the story.

I read it in both English and Spanish, and after I finished, they were excited to learn other words in Spanish.

A few days passed. One of the children kept gravitating to the book, saying, “Miss Marjorie, I really, really want you to read this story again!”

Before re-reading the story, I decided to first ask them questions about it. I wanted to know what they remembered. One child mentioned the desert. From there, things evolved and our research began.

Project cactus
Using watercolors and oil pastels, Cal adds color to his drawing of a giant saguaro cactus.

I asked them questions about the desert, where the javelinas live. What kind of environment do we live in, here in Arizona? Who else lives in the desert? They mentioned scorpions, snakes — the conversation kept going. The children wanted to know more about types of cacti. Do they bloom? We talked about a saguaro cactus near the school. They wanted to investigate, so I said, “Let’s just go and search!”

We took our clipboards, paper, and Sharpies. They noticed many, many kinds of cacti right in the neighborhood. The saguaro was the show stopper. We gave them some time to settle down, find the cactus they wanted to draw, and figure out how to approach it. To search, ask questions. We were in no rush to finish.

Anniston was mesmerized by the shape, forms, details, and colors of the prickly pear.Adding purple on the top was important to her.

The children used words like “pointy” and “sharp” when they talked about the cactus spines. They noticed that, unlike some of the pictures of blooming cactus we saw in our classroom research, none of these cactus had flowers. When asked why, they thought perhaps there were no flowers because it needs to rain, or because we were then still in winter and maybe they would bloom in the spring.

I watched and listened to the children very carefully. There are many different ways for children to draw. I noticed each child observe what they wanted to draw and choose a particular perspective from which to draw.

For example, Luke was looking at his cactus from the top down. And then he squatted and began drawing from that perspective. Details like those pop out for me.

Hudson (top) and Cal worked together to research and study their saguaro. At first they sat close but soon realized they needed to move back to see the whole cactus. That was very clever and something an artist will do.

Shae drew many different types of cacti on one page. I spent time with her as she drew a prickly pear cactus with great detail.

Anniston took a very long time. I recorded what she was doing, and spent time with her as she drew her prickly pear cactus. She was both meticulous and talkative while drawing.

Sometimes children do that: draw and talk at the same time, narrating what they are seeing and observing. Anniston noted that the needles were different from those of other cactus types. She mentioned that it would take time to finish her work.

Luke first stood over his cactus to gain a top-down perspective. Then he squatted down to draw. What we see is the shape of the cactus and the needles around it.

Hudson and Cal researched the giant saguaro cactus. I observed them sitting down in front of the cactus together, so they could get a close look. They were quiet, and drawing intensely. But then they noticed the holes in the cactus. One said the holes were empty. The other said, “No, that part is just rotten!” They got closer and talked about parts that were gray, and parts that were black.

But from their perspective, they couldn’t see the entire cactus — it was huge — so they moved farther away to get a different view. Though they were sitting right next to each other the whole time, they did very different pictures. One used the entire page; one concentrated drawing in a small area.

Shea focused on many types of cactus, paying attention to the sizes, shapes, and forms of each. She also drew an aloe vera close to the cactus clusters.

For Jonathan, who also was drawing the saguaro, the needles were the most important part. Over the following weeks, his interest continued and he drew many versions of the cactus.

We were outside a long time. When the children came in, they immediately wanted to add color to their drawings.

The quality of materials children use is very important. It’s also important to give them many choices: markers, Sharpies, crayons, watercolors, oil pastels. I intentionally gave them greens and yellows — the colors that belong to a cactus — but didn’t limit them in any way, encouraging them to add color in any way they’d like.

We were working for a long time. Then Anniston said, “Miss Marjorie, I am not done with mine because I need purple.” I asked why, and she said, “A prickly pear has purple on the top.” So I brought her some choices for purple. She used the oil pastels to add different shades of purple to the top.

Jonathan (drawing at upper right, with his finished artwork above) drew many lines representing cactus spines. In talking with him we found out why the spines were unusually long: For Jonathan, that was the most important part of the cactus and what interested him most. Lower right: Elizabeth used a black Sharpie to draw and fill her cactus. When we asked why her cactus drawings were all at the bottom of the page, she said they were on the ground and the rest was the sky.

It came time to move on to another activity, but some of the children hadn’t yet finished creating their art. We did not rush them but explained that they needed to be finished for that moment. We reassured them there would be more time to work on their art the next day.

This class really connected with story about The Three Little Javelinas. If I’d only read the story, and stopped there, we wouldn’t have had this beautiful outcome. It is important for me, as a teacher, to understand what children are asking, figure out what they want to know, and try to go deeper — to let the children lead. And the magic will appear.

What can we learn?

  • When we give time to children, when we allow time to flow, we are empowering them.
    As adults, we need to slow down, pay attention and notice the complexity that can live inside simplicity.
  • Children have the right to be listened to, to be understood, and to tell us, their adults, what they are interested in.
  • No matter how busy we are, we can’t forget how important it is to create experiences with children that engage them in open-ended questions. Taking a weekly nature walk allows you to create these experiences and connections with them.
  • Art is not about an end project but rather the process of composing art, which connects neurons in the brain, helps children engage in critical thinking, and uses their senses, language, connections, and creativity.
  • The art of listening and observing is imperative in the process of learning and connecting with children. Being attuned to what children are saying allows you to enhance their learning experiences.

April brings 50th Week of the Young Child

Week of the Young Child is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. This year, the event’s 50th, will be held April 10-16.

Week of the Young Child focuses on the importance of early care and education for young children and their families. NAEYC and AzAEYC, a state affiliate in Arizona, work to ensure that every child experiences the type of early environment that will promote early learning — at home, in child care programs, at school, and in the community.

Experiences such as this one offered to children by DVUSD teacher Marjorie Ruiz show that children are complex thinkers and capable learners. Children have the right to interact and build relationships with one another, explore quality materials, and be heard by their adults. We invite you to join us in the celebration this month — and all year round! Follow #WOYC21 for ideas.— Dr. Eric Bucher, AzAEYC executive director

Marjorie Ruiz
Marjorie Ruizhttp://azaeyc.org
Marjorie Ruiz is an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) assistant and collaborator at the Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix and an active participant in Collaborative Educators Institute at Paradise Valley Community College. She holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the University of Puerto Rico, a certificate of completion in early childhood education from PVCC, a child development associate (CDA) credential, and is currently finishing her associate’s degree in ECE at PVCC. Her ECE journey grew from her interest in understanding her own children’s learning processes.



Sign up for our FREE eNewsletter!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.