“If you’ve ever happened upon a forlorn object that seemed to invite a second chance, that refused to be ignored, you’ve been overcome by the urge to scavenge. And if you’ve perceived that thing, not for what it was but for what what it could be, you have known what it is to let your imagination roam. Artists and children are notorious scavengers. They look at rubble and rusty parts with a fresh pair of eyes, investigating the curious shapes, visualizing something far more wonderful than a lifeless log or a weather beaten can…. Found objects appeal to the artist and child in all of us; what may appear worthless may also be irresistible.”– Joseph Ruggiero, Found Objects, 1981.
Searching for objects; finding, collecting, organizing, and displaying objects; studying found objects and using them to create works of art: these are the underpinnings of art and science in museums and classrooms alike. Infants at Burlington Children’s Space are now building work habits common to curators, artists and scientists, based on a fundamental human trait: curiosity.
Our collecting of objects began with one child’s interest in gathering rocks, sticks and other items, while out in our local community. As we explored Roosevelt Park, rocks caught a child’s eye and were picked up. Another day, it was the broken bits of a bright orange flying saucer that caught the child’s interest. Soon, the collecting turned into a regular act. As teachers, we realized the value and commitment behind this process of collecting. The child continued to fill fists with rocks and other items holding onto them tightly as we made the journey in our strollers back to school. We began embracing this interest by collecting with this child and engaging with this process of looking for items to collect. Other children in our classroom began to notice the collecting and joined in by picking up items from the ground. Items included: sticks, rocks, broken watchbands, pebbles, a coffee stirrer, a ripped up baseball, bottle tops, zip ties, and the list continues to grow.
Collected displays of found objects, called Cabinets of Curiosity or Wunderkammer, have an important place in the history of museums as we know them today. “Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were collections of rare, valuable, historically important or unusual objects, which generally were compiled by a single person, normally a scholar or nobleman, for study and/or entertainment….As time passed and the wunderkammer evolved and grew in importance, the small private cabinets (which nearly all wunderkammer had begun as), were absorbed into larger ones. In turn, these larger cabinets were bought by gentlemen, noblemen and finally royalty for their amusement and edification and merged into cabinets so large that they took over entire rooms. After a time, these noble and royal collections were institutionalized and turned into public museums.”-http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/mark-dion-tate-thames-dig/wunderkammen
When we realized the depth of interest in collecting items out in the community, we knew that we needed a way to fully invest in this collecting. Children often did not want to leave their found items at the park when it was time to return to school. We decided to honor this by allowing the children to bring the items back with us. Children opted to grasp items in their hands or on their laps while we went back to school. We felt passionate about allowing the children to bring the objects they found back to school. This enabled the class to further explore them and to keep them for future research. Soon hands were not enough to hold all the findings. Cloth collecting bags were then made for the children. When we returned to school, the items were explored in the classroom. Some were put into clear containers allowing them to remain on display and accessible at all times. Large amounts of rocks and sticks now line our shelves in glass jars. Other materials are left out in the classroom to be explored, used as tools, or as a means of story telling.
“Our ability to understand the natural world depends on the collection, preservation, and ongoing study of natural history specimens. These collections are the physical record of Earth’s life forms and processes.” -The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. This article on the importance of collecting specimens goes on the say, “Collections of objects often serve us in ways that could not have been imagined at the time when they were made. Sometimes these unanticipated uses can help solve today’s most pressing scientific problems.”
It’s important as well as empowering to allow children to collect and bring items of their choosing back to school. The building and keeping of these collections supports social learning and scientific inquiry. As members of the Burlington community, children are making connections as they find, keep, and explore items that interest them. Bringing these items back to school allows them to not only remember the items and location but also to share their findings with peers, families, and other members of their school community. The found objects are open-ended and often found in nature; they provide for open-ended learning which lends itself to many opportunities for deep, meaningful understanding of their world. As researchers and scientists, the children are forming and strengthening their abilities to inquire about their world through theirs acts as collectors. They observe, ask questions, predict, and investigate throughout this process of collecting and then furthering their research as they use dough with the found objects.
“A constructivist approach to science education in early childhood would focus first and foremost on the ways in which young children think as they interact with the physical and natural world. Everything that we offer children to interact with in the classroom must take into account their activities, materials, and environments in the broadest sense.” -Christine Chaillé and Lory Britain, The Young Child as Scientist, 3rd ed., 2003.
“The amassment and display of found objects for their aesthetic qualities dates back to at least the 16th century, when the collections of individual enthusiasts were displayed in private “cabinets of curiosities,” or what the Germans called “Wunderkammer.” But it wasn’t until the 1900s that artists began to incorporate found objects into sculptural works as an artistic gesture. The term “found object” is a literal translation from the French objet trouvé, meaning objects or products with non-art functions that are placed into an art context and made part of an artwork; what we now call “the readymade” is an updated version of that idea.”–http://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/art_market/the-history-of-the-found-object-in-art-52224
Famous artists who have worked with found objects include Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenburg, Tracey Emin, and Andy Goldsworthy, whose objects are found in nature. Currently, there is a popular resurgence in the use of found objects and materials among artists, inspired by the D.I.Y. and ecological art movements of the 2000’s. Assemblage is a type of three-dimensional collage which often incorporates found objects; this form has been used by many artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Once the found object collections were displayed in the classroom, we wanted to further explore these open-ended objects with an open-ended medium. We have begun bringing out our found items when we work with dough as a way for the children to learn about both materials in an engaging, child-directed way. Children rediscover their found items as they manipulate dough with the items and explore how dough and their items work together. It is exciting to watch the children’s ideas emerge from using these objects in dough. Using sticks as a means to poke, dig, and lift the dough, they create their own artworks out of their found objects. Where this creative impulse will go next is up to the children but our minds can’t help but wander… possibilities include sculptures, prints, three-dimensional collages. When working with children and found objects, ideas and opportunities are limitless.
This article was co-written by Rebecca Mack, atelierista, and infant/toddler teachers,Julie Montera and Miranda Paquette, at Burlington Children’s Space in 2016. Classroom testimonies are in italics. References and recommendations for further reading on found objects and constructivist curriculum can be found below and linked throughout the article.
Chaillé, Christine and Lory Britain, The Young Child as Scientist: A Constructivist Approach to Early Childhood Science Education, Third Edition. Allyn and Bacon Publishers, Boston, 2003.
Ruggiero, Joseph. Found Objects: A Style and Source Book. Clarkson N. Potter Publishers, New York, 1981.
Rebecca at Harvard Museum of Natural History
Julie Montera and student at Burlington Children’s Space
Miranda Paquette and students at Burlington Children’s Space