Styro Sculpture: Two Ways

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…


    • Well, as an Art Historian myself, it is natural for me to look for inspiration from historical and contemporary fine art and folk art. I agree with some of what Bartel says – there is some lazy art teaching out there – but I do think great artworks can play a role in inspiring and informing children about the huge variety of modes of expression practised by different kinds of artists. I am not interested in having children imitate an artist’s work, there is not much value in this. But by focusing on one aspect of an artwork, be it composition or colour or technique, this can really help children to find their own ways to express themselves. I do not agree that showing images before a lesson somehow encourages them to copy, or prevents them from being original/creative. Just try stopping a 4 year old from doing their own thing! All of the great artists have looked to the art of the past, or that of their contemporaries, at some point in their artistic development. Perhaps Bartel would reject my definition of ‘great artists’, who knows?
      The other point I should add is that I am currently teaching 3-6 year olds, and with this age-group you really have to have a strong focus/aim for each art project you do – it is simply a matter of practicality. Bartel criticises the “use of image flooding as a substitute for the clear articulation of issues and concepts” – in response to this I would say that, quite the contrary, looking at and comparing different artworks can really help children to grasp a difficult concept, such as perspective. The children I teach are not only very young, but many of them are also learning English as a second language – 99% of art, of course, has no language barriers – and from my time working in art galleries I know that young children are capable of looking at and understanding even quite complex artworks in a far more open-minded and insightful way than most adults, with their fixed opinions on the world!
      I do not claim to be a great art teacher – I do my thing, the way I know how, the kids enjoy themselves, and every week they produce artworks that blow me away with their imagination, inventiveness and energy. They leave the classroom feeling confident and proud of their achievements – what more can you ask?

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