How can we play with paper strips?

I would like to introduce you a material I love and often use with children: paper strips, that you can easily ask for free to printing houses as a waste material.

How can our personal artistic research – as teachers and adults – be an inspiration for children processes and not a model to repeat? How presenting the materials in a educational context? Do we show to children some examples or “techniques”? I think these are some central questions that not have only one always valid response.

Now imagine you want to present paper strips to a small group of 4-5 years old children, inviting them to freely play with this material and a stapler. How would you do it? Any prefiguration?


Here is my experience. In my case, I was not the theacher (or the atelierista) and children did not know me. One morning I just shortly introduced myself to the classroom. I told I was a professional, expert in transforming materials (that is the truth).
For example, let me show you how I could transform a strip of paper. Have you ever tried?

I slowly pulled out a long stripe of paper and a stapler, as if they were very special things. There were 48 eyes staring at me silently. As I formed a circle, they shout: It’s a sun! A hat! (and I put it in my head) A wheel! (and I made it roll). Without speaking, I went on with other trasformations, letting children being involved in this simbolic game.


Finally, I told I would have liked to come back to play with them with paper strips. When I came back, all the children remembered me and were very excited. We worked in small groups of four children for about one hour. In the beginning, many of them asked me to show how to create a heart, a house or another shape they remembered. But I answered: Well, I am not sure of what I exactly did and how… Please try by yourself, go on, and I will support you as I can. Trying by themselves, children started to develop a personal process and then, most of the time forgot the shape initially asked.

Even if it was a very limited activity from the point of view of the available materials, it allowed the development of many different, rich and unique processes. (Despite limits or thanks to limits?)

I tried to make each child feel comfortable, welcome and free to approach the material. If the environment is “good enough”, if we (educators and teachers) are not worried about educational goals, products or parents’ expectations, every child will express his/her unique potential through materials.

This process is often not a linear, with a clear result consisting in a single, final work, like the ones in the images below. For example, the most significant part could be the sensory exploration, the spoken words, the movements of the body or other interconnected aspects. If a final product is missing or less noticeable, it will be very frustrating for those who consider the product as the necessary proof to make visible children’s learning. I think we should try to have a different, wider perspective. Here is a short story about it.

Alessandro, 5 years old, repeated the same sequence of actions all along: folding a small strip on itself and then letting open it again, observing what happened to the strip. He created many spiral shapes, that were very similar but every time a bit different by chance. At some point, he used this sequence of actions to invent a game: he rolled up the strip, gripped it tightly in his fist, hiding it, then he moved casually near another child without getting noticed and suddenly left the stripe free, with a kind of spring-effect, in order to scare the child.


transforming paper strips in a creative worlshop for children

It was an investigation of the moviment that the spiral shape can produce, then this moviment became a game. Moreover, the transition from closed to open, from compressed to expanded is also significant from a symbolic point of view. You can see as in this case, the product can’t be divided from the process. It also makes us remember the importance of repetition: to consolidate a learning process, to investigate, to observe small differences, to reassure, to be enough sure before doing the next step.

Why is it important to know the characteristcs of the material we offer, to work it with our hands before offering it to children? Of course, not for showing them our beautiful works and skills, but to make the best choice for them: finding the most suitable way to present the material, good relaunches and ideas to manage the most difficult aspects. For example, in the case of paper strips, you would expect that such a serial material stimulates the production of a very big quantity of similar works (specially in the beginning of the activity), so that the available space will become probably full of stuff.

Already knowing it, you will be ready to cope with this kind of messy and overwhelmed situation, trying to contain it in order to support the process. For example, suggesting to join some of the paper works, to collect them, build with them, looking for a story or some kind of composition. In this way, what was overwhelming and cahotic can gain a new meaning.

children's works with stripes of paper

We should trust both materials and children. There is a reason or a need for whatever a child do or not do, and only from where children actually are, some kind of development can happen. Finally, I would like to end with some words by Nona Orbach, artist and art therapist, from her book “The Good Enough Studio”: A good kindergarten or elementary school educator needs to recognize the specific characteristics of each child. If an educator does see the child’s underlying qualities, they will be able to relate genuinely to each of them, and the children will feel that they are truly seen. If children are acknowledged and have a safe place to be themselves, they will also be less aggressive towards others. Children in such an environment tend to play and work for a longer period of time, and have better social skills. It is a profound need of our human nature to be genuinely seen by others; it assures us that we are loved and accepted as we are.
Thus any child, truly seen, will blossom.


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