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Internship in Early Childhood Art Education Takes Students to the Great Outdoors

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Children drawing with markers

A collaboration that Art Education faculty member Christopher Schulte began while a graduate student at Penn State has evolved into an internship program for undergraduates seeking experience in early childhood art education.

In 2010, Schulte had a meeting with Christine Thompson, his dissertation advisor, and Linda Duerr, who at the time was director of education at the Child Care Center at Hort Woods. Together they decided to involve undergraduate art education students at the center through independent study projects. The center already placed a strong emphasis on learning through the visual arts, as evidenced by the art studio space fully integrated into the facility.

Interest in the independent study grew and when Schulte returned to Penn State in 2015 to join the Art Education faculty, it was formalized into an internship program in early childhood art education.

“Through carefully guided teaching and research experience, students in this program develop a complex sensibility for the artistic, play-based, and aesthetic practices of young children,” said Schulte. “Perhaps most important is the difficult self-work that occurs, especially when students are faced with the uneasy reality that children’s art never was quite what they thought it was.”

Participating students are based at the Child Care Center at Hort Woods or the Bennett Family Center, both on the University Park campus. Schulte hopes the internship program will expand through continued work with Duerr, who is now the children’s garden educator at The Arboretum at Penn State, as well as a field experience instructor in the College of Education.

Duerr said she wants to “grow” a connection to nature and outdoor spaces as viable places to make art and be inspired.

“I feel that, in education and teacher preparation, we do not pay as much attention to the outdoor environment as a learning space and our teachers are not as well prepared to use natural settings as places of learning,” she explained. “For some children, it is easier for them to express themselves in the freedom that outdoor spaces offer to them. My goal is for children and teachers to learn together what is possible when we go outside.”

According to Schulte, one of his primary goals is to ensure that students have the opportunity to gain experience in a preschool setting, which is quite different from a kindergarten setting. “The assumption is often that what happens in preschool can’t possibly be that far removed from kindergarten, but it is,” he explained. “And given the impulse to think about and approach the work of young children as if it is always less developed and less complex than the work of older children, and adults in particular, it is vital that students in art education have an experience that puts all of that deficit thinking into flux. Indeed, what happens in preschool should trickle up, not the other way around.”

According to Kayla Tompkins, who completed the internship in fall 2016, the experience was unique because it provided an opportunity for her to teach children in a more casual way. “The focus was not always on my performance as an educator, but rather on my being with the children and learning about how they learn,” she explained. “While reflecting on your actions in the classroom is a vital practice as an educator, how would I have known where to start in evaluating my teaching without first investigating how children think, learn, play, and make art? This experience showed me what it means to develop a curriculum in which the students as individuals are most important.” 

For more information on the internship program, offered both fall and spring semesters to any Art Education student, regardless of semester standing, contact Schulte at cms580@psu.edu.

This article, by Amy Milgrub Marshall, originally appeared in the 2017 edition of the College of Arts and Architecture annual magazine.