Children’s sculpture projects can be messy and time-consuming, particularly when using traditional materials such as clay or papier mache. My ‘after-school’ Art Club meets once a week for 45 minutes, and I prefer to complete a project in that time, otherwise it can often happen that one or more children are away for either the beginning or the end of the task. It is also my belief that, with preschool children, the most successful projects are those that hold their attention with quite immediate results.
‘Styro Sculpture’ is a great example of a project that is simple, fun, educational and can produce impressive results. Many kindergarten art teachers will be familiar with making sculpture from polystyrene packing peanuts and toothpicks or pipe cleaners. The kids construct all sorts of three-dimensional forms by connecting the small polystyrene shapes together. It is so much fun, and really exercises the children’s imaginations. Last time I did this project with four and five year olds, we had a classroom full of cars, horses, spiders and space rockets.
However, it can be a little frustrating for the children, as the toothpicks and the polystyrene peanuts fall apart quite easily. I also find myself frustrated with the outcome, as one of my key aims with any kids’ sculpture project is to emphasise the three-dimensional physicality of sculpture compared with painting or drawing. Because packing peanuts are so small, the resulting structures are also rather small and fragile.
I wanted the children to be able to work on a much larger scale, especially after coming across a ‘green art’ blog, Inspiration Green, which reveals the seemingly endless possibilities of polystyrene as an art material. John Powers, Dio Mendoza and Tara Donovan are just three artists making incredible sculptural forms from polystyrene.
The solution came in the form of a major furniture purchase from Ikea, which left me with stacks of really nice, long, polystyrene strips with square or rectangular cross-sections. Before the class, I used a fully-extended craft knife to cut the strips into a mountain of neat cubes and cuboids of different sizes. In addition to the usual toothpicks, I also purchased some wooden barbecue skewers, to enable the children to build big!
Before I let them loose with the polystyrene, I showed the children photographs of large-scale geometric sculptures, and we discussed what makes a sculpture different to other artworks such as drawings and paintings – sculpture is ‘fat’, not flat, it has more than one side, you can walk around it etc.
Then they started to build their own structures, and the room was soon filled with enormous, elaborate structures, which had to be moved from the tables to the floor so the kids could continue to build upwards without standing on chairs! Instead of making lots of tiny, figurative forms, the children were forced to focus on the fundamentals of sculpture, such as the different ways to connect their materials, and how to balance and support their structure.
In order to really show off the striking shapes and forms of the finished sculptures, I photographed them against a backdrop of black cardboard – an important step as these structures were not made to last. This project is definitely all about the fun of doing! However the kids inevitably wanted to take their creations home, and I can only imagine what the parents thought of the tangled mess of polystyrene, toothpicks and skewers presented to them that evening, in the bottom of a carrier bag!
Luckily I was able to display the photographs in the hallway a few weeks later, to the critical acclaim of the somewhat relieved mums and dads!
Please click through the gallery below to see the kids’ Styro Sculpture…