Photo by moonlightbulb
A class of gifted preschoolers recently studied artist and mathematician Alexander Calder. It all began with a read aloud of Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone.
This book explains how Calder got started by repurposing junkyard finds such as wire and bolts into tiny circus animals. He performed his miniature circus on the streets of Paris and New York to the delight of children and adults alike.
Sandy’s Circus inspires interest in the artist and intrigue in using found objects to create. This lesson can be used with young children all the way up through middle school by adding extensions included in this article.
First, read Sandy’s Circus aloud to the class. Then, explain how Calder went on to become a famous artist who invented mobiles. From a suitcase at your side, dramatically pull out a few Calder-like circus animals and present to your class your own mini show with your samples.
I created a person on a bike, an abstract lion, and a ringmaster. Don’t be intimidated here – just play with the wire to see what emerges.
Now comes the challenge: give each student three pieces of wire, each about a foot long. Ask them, “If you were to create something out of these wires, what would you make? Would it be related to the circus like Calder or something totally different?”
Model techniques for working with wire, especially for little ones. Show possible shapes as well as how to connect them.
If you’d like to make this an ongoing project, have students collect found items at home to create their circus or a content-themed play.
Increase The Challenge
After allowing some experimentation, specify a theme:
- characters for a story or play that they will write
- people or objects from a history lesson
- characters from a novel the class is reading.
- creating with recycled materials.
This project can extend into a number of academic domains, but I let my young ones explore what they were interested in.
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A Balloon Circus
Interestingly enough, many of them created wire balloons. “Balloons?” you ask. “Where is the educational value in that?” Well, these young children began to fly their balloons all over the world. First they went to Seattle, then to Vietnam (where one of them was born), and finally to Italy.
The children decided to spin the globe, place their little fingers on a spot, and take their balloons for a ride to that country. Then the balloons went to a circus. The children took an old sheet and created a big top tent that they could all fit inside.
In case things head in this direction, have on hand circus-related costumes, scarves, hula hoops, rope for a tight rope, bean bags to balance on their heads, a sheet or parachute for a big top, and circus animal stuffed toys.
Although I had planned extensions related to Calder, balloons were the collective interest so we moved instead into Newton’s third law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We experimented with this law using what else? Balloons.
We explored carbon dioxide, inflated balloons with baking soda and lemon juice, experienced static electricity, and demonstrated buoyancy.
To tie the circus theme into science or math for older students, check out the following links:
Having emerged from the circus theme, your students have a basic understanding of the underpinnings of Calder’s work. Now it is time for math applications: understanding, making, and studying mobiles, and relating these to math.
You can use ideas from the National Gallery of Art’s Calder lesson plan. Especially interesting to me are the Mobile Maker, Calculating Calder, and the Spiral Patterns in Art activity that uses Fibonacci. Don’t be too tied to the recommended grade levels on these activities; gifted students of all ages can do many of these activities.
An obvious culmination to the unit is for students to create their own mobiles, which integrates art, math, the concept of balance, design, and perhaps even tick off “holiday gift for parents” from your list.
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