The Artful Environment

An environment that fosters creativity is more than bricks and mortar. Materials, attitude, and teacher/parent involvement are also important to providing a comforting yet challenging atmosphere. At the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is put into practice. Reggio Emilia educators explain the importance of providing a variety of art materials. Parents and children explore two museums created just for children—the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia—and Louisville artist Dionisio Ceballos and his daughter Emilia draw each other.

In the Program

  • The Key approach
    Students at the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis take ukulele lessons and explore their own interests in “flow” classrooms. This school was founded to put Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences into action.
  • Key points
    Educators discuss what kind of environment facilitates creativity and learning in young children.
  • About Reggio Emilia
    Reggio Emilia educators discuss why materials and surroundings are considered the “third teacher” (after teachers and parents) in the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.
  • Doing art at home
    Artist Dionisio Ceballos and daughter Emilia draw each other at home.
  • About children’s museums
    Children and their parents enjoy a variety of activities at two museums created just for young people: Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

The Artful Environment (Video)

Looks at how materials, attitude, and teacher/parent involvement can help create an atmosphere that fosters creativity. At the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis, teachers put Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences to work. Reggio Emilia educators explain the importance of providing a variety of art materials, parents and children explore the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, and a Louisville artist and his daughter draw each other.

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The Key Approach

The Key Learning Community


What led eight teachers in Indianapolis to found a school based on Howard Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligences?

“We were working at a very large elementary school [more than 1,000 children], and we began working with theme curriculum,” recalls Beverly Hoeltke, one of the teachers. Arts specialists at the school suggested a circus theme. “We did a three-ring circus, and it was so successful we were astounded. We didn’t have behavior problems. Children were really excited about school; they didn’t want it to stop. So that intrigued us.”

The teachers had also noticed that some children in their classrooms who had been labeled “failures” were very talented in the arts. They began investigating theories in education and found Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind. With its ideas that there are different types of intelligences, the book “answered a lot of the questions we had as far as why these children might not be succeeding in linguistics but could do a lot of other things,” Hoeltke says.

Making Connections

The teachers visited Gardner, and he told them about the flow theory of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “So we began to make connections,” Hoeltke says. “We really were on a bigger quest than we imagined in that we were trying to find out what education should look like that would allow children to develop their multiple intelligences.”

They put their answer into practice at the Key Learning Community, which opened in 1987 as an elementary school and has since expanded to serve students in grades K-12. It’s something quite different from most public schools.

  • At Key, children spend about as much time in music, art, and physical education classes as they do on subjects such as reading and math.
  • Elementary children spend time in individual exploration in “flow” classes, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a beneficial state in which people are so involved in what they’re doing that they lose track of time. “Flow basically teaches students how to make decisions, how to reflect on their thoughts, reflect on what they’re doing, and then also to use that information to have a more successful and meaningful life,” says Key elementary specialist Nicole Cooreman.
  • Learning is project-based. Two school themes are chosen each year, with student input.
  • All students, even kindergartners, are required to do two in-depth individual projects each year and present them to fellow students. The presentations are taped.
  • In middle school, students are matched with community mentors. In high school, each student works with a community guide in an apprenticeship situation.
  • Students spend time each day in “pod” classes—electives they choose that are developed by teachers who have an interest in the subject. (The Key Strummers ukulele class shown in Art to Heart is an example of a pod class.)
  • The school has no competitive sports teams.
  • Children do not receive letter grades; instead, they are evaluated in terms of progress made along a continuum of learning.

“The philosophy in the school has to do with developing students who are able to direct their lives,” says principal Christine Kunkel. “By focusing on all eight intelligences as equally as we can, that really helps the students to begin to recognize their own strengths and build a foundation for what they’re good at, what they like to do—learning how to recognize it and then taking that into the career realm.”

Find Out More

  • Learn more about the school and the theories behind it at the Key Learning Community web site.
  • Program 1 of Art to Heart has more about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory.

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Key Points

What Kind of Environment Fosters Creativity?


“It’s really important that when kids come to school every day, there’s some part of that day that they’re really, really looking forward to. Something that’s passionate with them, something that they’re going to take home with them that night, and something that’s really part of their life. And for a lot of kids, that’s music.”

Geoffrey Davis, history/geography teacher, Key Learning Community

“When I say ‘a rich environment,’ I mean one that provokes children to think, one that invites children’s curiosity. When children are curious they’re more likely to look at something, to focus their attention—and focused attention is, of course, the basis of learning.”

Deborah Tegano, professor of child and family studies, University of Tennessee

“We’ve learned over the years that high expectations and interesting materials are valuable contributors to children’s learning.”

Lori Geismar Ryan, director, Clayton Schools Family Center

“A beautiful environment, an environment that’s very much taken care of, supports the development of quality relationships among the people who live in that environment. Analysts and psychologists often ask people, ‘So what was your relationship with your mother like?’ and ‘What was your relationship with your father like?,’ but very seldom do they ask, ‘What’s your work environment like? What do you see when you look out the window? What kind of light is there?’ And, in fact, these aspects are very important for the quality of life.”

Vea Vecchi, consultant, Reggio Children

“Another way of thinking of it is thinking of children not as empty vessels but as full vessels, ready to express themselves. They have it all; they have the innate ability, the innate desire to make sense of their own world. To some extent, we just have to stay out of the way. On the other hand, we do need to support them.”

Ashley Cadwell, headmaster, St. Michael’s School

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About Reggio Emilia

The Third Teacher


Reggio Emilia, an approach to early childhood learning that began in Italy after World War II, puts great emphasis on the environment.

Each Reggio school includes a physical space called the atelier, or art studio, as well as a person with an arts background called the atelierista. “The choice to have the atelier and atelierista in all of these schools was a concrete act showing the importance of the arts,” explains Vea Vecchi, a consultant to the organization Reggio Children. “And this is because we believe that the imagination is what actually drives learning and knowledge building.”

In the Reggio approach, the environment is often referred to as the “third teacher” (the other two are parents and instructors). “We carried out a research project called ‘Children, Spaces, Relations.’ A book was published based on this research,” Vecchi says. “We believe that being in an environment that is beautiful and well cared for supports the development of quality relationships among the people in that environment.”

Find Out More

The Reggio Children web site has extensive information on the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Publications that can be ordered online include the “Children, Spaces, Relations” study, a joint research project conducted by Reggio Children and the Domus Academy Research Center of Milan. The study provides tools of analysis and practical indications for designing infant-toddler center and preschool spaces.

Aesthetic Codes in Early Childhood Classrooms, an article comparing the Reggio Emilia environment to the typical preschool environment, is posted at the DesignShare web site. DesignShare is an online community founded to share information on best practices and innovative ideas in learning environments from early childhood through adulthood.

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Doing Art at Home

I Picture You, You Picture Me


In Program 6 of Art to Heart, Louisville artist Dionisio Ceballos and his daughter, Emilia, draw together. Ceballos talks about the importance of spending time with his daughter and allowing her to explore and create as opposed to instructing her or critiquing her.

Many parents wonder how to best respond to their children’s artwork and creative efforts. Comments about their work should keep in mind the fact that for young children, it’s the process, not the final product, that is important. Asking questions that engage the child to talk about his or her work or commenting on a specific aspect of the work (“I like all those bright colors”) or the process (“It looks like you had fun doing this”) will be more encouraging than profusely praising every activity. Over-praising can actually create pressure on children—they worry that they will have to produce something that pleases you every time.

Experts also advise that you should try to avoid evaluating a young child’s work as a realistic interpretation. Your child is re-creating the world the way he or she sees it. Avoid the temptation to tell or show your child how to “make it look right.” Fearing that they can’t draw or sing or dance is one reason some children stop doing art activities around 3rd grade. Remember that your child is exploring, experimenting, and learning to express him- or herself. And that should be fun!

Tips on Organizing Art Materials at Home

  • Organize art materials so they are accessible. Purchase art materials that are safe and appropriate for your child’s age. Keep basic paper, markers, crayons, and other materials in an “Art Box” or “Art Drawer.”
  • Provide access to boxes and materials from recycling that children can manipulate.
  • Provide children free access to art supplies as possible. Some art supplies require adult supervision or participation, but children as young as toddlers may be able to learn simple rules for using some art supplies. When it’s safe, keep supplies in a location children can reach by themselves instead of requiring them to ask you to get them.
  • Let your child try painting with alternate materials like feathers, cotton swabs, and leaves. Children love handling different materials and making collages with different textures.
  • Regularly set out selected and special art supplies for exploration, such as paints, glitter, or sculpting clay.
  • Add new activities at home to increase children’s interest by buying new paint or adding tissue paper to the art box.
  • When possible, play with the children by making the same thing or working together. Messes are most likely to happen when children are unsupervised.

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About Children's Museums


Is there a children’s museum near you? According to the Association of Children’s Museums, the United States has several hundred museums created specifically to serve the needs and interests of children. Program 5 of Art to Heart visits two well-known children’s museums: the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

In addition, other types of museums may have areas specifically geared to children, such as the ArtSparks Gallery at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, featured in Program 1 of Art to Heart.

Making the Most of a Visit

As Lori Baltrusis of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis notes in the Art to Heart program, it’s often the parents who need direction on how to have fun, not the children. She encourages parents to relax, take their time, and play where their children are having fun instead of trying to rush through and see everything. Your child may want to spend the entire time playing at the water table, and that’s OK. You can always come back another time and see other exhibits.

If you’re considering visiting a traditional museum, research the museum before going to consider where your time will best be spent, recommends parent Mary Henson. Find out whether the museum has a children’s section, and plan your visit so the children’s section gives your child the “hands-on” opportunity at the right time for his or her development and interests. Look at a brochure or web site with your children to help them prepare for what they will see. Before going, prepare the children for the experience. A book from the library or a day of painting may help interest them in seeing the work of other artists. Discuss rules about touching, walking, and making noise.

While at the museum, show your child pieces that capture your interest and explain a little about why the art interests you. When looking at museum items, talk about them using descriptions and everyday terms. You might ask, “What do you think he’s doing?” or “How do you think she feels?” As you examine the art, ask questions based on your own reflections (“Do you see the apple?”).

At any type of museum, consider the children’s physical needs like rest, food, and water. Remember that you don’t have to see everything. The goal is for the child to have a positive museum experience and to look forward to the next museum trip.

Find Out More

  • Visit the Association of Children’s Museums web site for a list of children’s museums in the United States and around the world, along with information on how to make the most of your visit.
  • The Please Touch Museum web site has lots of useful resources for parents, including recipe cards for everything from lip balm to bubble soap and information sheets on topics like setting up an art area at home, enjoying art with your child, supplies, and teaching your child about art criticism.
  • The web site of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis offers units of study and other teacher’s resources as well as online activities for children.
  • Find out more about museums and children in Program 1 of Art to Heart.

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Other Programs in this Series

Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?

Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.

Visit the Art to Heart Collection

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Early ChildhoodEnglish Language Arts and LiteracyThe Arts