When I plan, I plan with a purpose. We have the focus for the week. I choose activities that help the children explore the concepts related to that focus. And as I choose activities, I think of some specific ways the children may do those activities. Then...when the children arrive and take possession of the activities...I let the explore and use their own ideas with the materials.
We take this approach with all of the activities in the room, but I especially emphasize this at the art table. Why? Well, some teachers I know are so focused on producing a specific end-product that the experience loses any creativity or exploration. So I tend to go the other way.
My kids ask, "What do we do here?" I respond: "When I put these materials out, I thought you could _____ but you may think of something else." (Or something like that.) Usually kids explore in the direction I suggest (still using their own ideas to create whatever). And sometimes they go in an entirely different way.
I'm always trying to evaluate what I do and change tactics if something seems out of place. And I worry that I'm not helping them expand their ideas enough--helping them go beyond their limited knowledge into other areas that will take their imaginations and creations to new heights. (Can you tell that I sometimes think too much??)
This week I received confirmation that leaving them to their own ideas is a valid method. We were talking about showing love to family members (and recognizing when we hurt someone and what to do to correct the situation). In art, we were making "love notes." I put out some folded white paper note cards, other paper scraps, heart punch, scissors (regular blades and shaped blades), glue sticks and markers.
Many kids made cards, valentines, or other variations of my original idea. Then "B" came to the table. He worked for a while. Then, as he carried his creation to place on the take-home table, he showed it to me. He made this.
An alligator. No adult was at the table when he was working. (We were busy in other areas of the room at that time.) He decided to create it, searched among the scraps for paper that was the same color, put shapes together, cut other shapes, and created a masterpiece.
My favorite part is the mouth. It is only a slit cut with shaped scissors. Lying flat, the mouth stays closed; but you can carefully pull the mouth apart for chomping, eating, talking, or whatever else the alligator may need to do.
Never could I have suggested or even implied that "B" create this. I was surprised and joyful. And so was he. Long live the child's imagination.