The Daily Life Magazine is an online LITTLE magazine about Everyday Life

The Art Pantry

In my newfound enthusiasm for teaching preschool, a feeling of which I rarely encountered when teaching older grades, I began devouring information on how to create the good stuff. Giant building blocks, a table for pretend play with lego characters and a doll house, a carpet with puzzles waiting expectantly. Songs and games led with overly embellished silliness. Voices not my own but emerging from my body as if I could be anything of wonder for these tiny growing humans.

art pantry

I’ve carried the title Teacher for many years: caring for, gently nudging, making space for the cautious bravery of children who are not my own. And I’ve loved them the same as my own.

He was on the aggressive side, known to throw pebbles haphazardly—but with quite a bit of force—out of the sensory table. Another child’s mother expressed her concern, hoping to keep the boys from hurting each other. Hoping to keep the four year olds from each other.

His name was Arvo, and his neon blond hair was unruly, like straw in a windstorm.

“Ms. Leslie!” Arvo spoke with his whole body despite his little voice. And he’d have some contraption from the science center atop his head like a hat. “Beeeeebop, I’m a robot!” Then he’d slam it to the ground and tornado his way elsewhere.

I called Arvo over to the miniature table the shape of a donut cut in half that first week of my first year teaching preschool. He plopped down, slouched his bottom to the edge of the red chair like a thirteen year old, and here we met.

A line was drawn down red paper. Gripping a stick of Elmer’s glue, Arvo traced the length of a green strip of construction paper perfectly. Two long lines he slanted together and one small horizontal bridge to make the first letter.

“A for Apple! And! A for Arvo—,” His face momentarily lit up. He peeled and placed exactly one apple sticker in the middle of his first ABC Binder page before anchoring his heels to the linoleum and sending his little chair backwards.

Arvo certainly liked me. All of them did. Some cried tears and snotty sadness over Mom leaving them with a stranger in those first few days. However, in all of my own motherly softness I became Teacher to them.


“No, I’m Ms. Leslie.” And I’d smile with a swelling akin to the fullness of my own belly ripe with life. Sweet with a fresh start.

I found him with his bottom on the floor, knees up to his chest, bare feet planted on the large easel paper, shoes and socks tossed nearby. He had taken a rather thick stack of easel paper and scattered a few around himself.

Using tempera paint sticks (my absolute favorite art supply, mind you), Arvo traced his feet first, then drew two squiggly paths for legs going upward followed by a large round belly and a circle for a head on top. He attached two lines outward and then began to trace his hands. Big swirly movements took the paint stick like cartoon clouds around his hands. Nonetheless, ten fingers and two fat palms appeared.

Arvo was proud.

“Hey lookie!” He only really wanted to show me his self-portrait, but the other children in our class noticed his delight, and curiosity took over. Soon, everyone had the large easel paper on the floor with shoes and socks littering the room.

I had absolutely nothing to do with this. And what a carefree day: fifteen three and four year olds content in their own creations. Together. Not much chit chat, and no throwing (I have plenty of tempera paint sticks to go around). This was a sort of connection, a sort of plugging in to the real good stuff, and I wanted to find the outlet to keep the spark lit.

Side note: I have a short fuse. For a teacher, this is assuredly not my finest quality. Yet, it is not often people who set it off. What sets it off is this: messiness. Clutter, gunk, crumbs (I am shivering in my skin), sticky substances that find themselves under my nails and on the webbings of the in-betweens of my fingers, toys strewn and noises that grow louder as the state of the room grows ever dirtier.

Can anyone relate?

A few of us teachers had a grand idea to keep the art pantry folded and closed save for the few items we selected for each day. I gravitated towards the markers, tempera paint sticks (hello, again), feathers, never glitter, stickers, googly eyes, mini foam shapes. Of course, I’d grab the bucket of glue sticks, and I’d occasionally work up the nerve to use the liquid glue. We’d have a rainbow array of construction paper restricted to half sheets for budget’s sake and we’d keep the items portioned out in little wooden bowls. Scissors were their own separate activity: Mr. Munch, a game in which children cut little kibble-sized pieces from pre-cut strips of paper to feed to a finely decorated cheese ball container with a slit sliced through for a mouth.

At first, with my teacher led craft table to focus on our ABC binders, a few bite-sized art samples at a small circular table, the paint easel, blocks, puzzles, and dramatic play, the kids would make their rounds through each of the centers of the classroom. Like connecting the dots in a coloring-book.

And here is the concern: what is the connection if the picture is not your own? What is the spark that draws us creative creatures to wonder? to excitement? to each other?

Ainsley Arment, founder of an education initiative titled Wild + Free, states, “Children need freedom to try out what they’ve learned, to make it their own, and to present their own interpretations.”1 Ainsley advocates passionately for free play, and her mission is to rescue childhood. She argues that children thrive in an environment without instruction or forced coercion to complete a particular task. If their heart isn’t in it, the learning won’t be either.

What a lightbulb moment.

I opened the art pantry. Flung wide the doors. Gave the children access to every piece of random clutter. Excuse me, treasure.

Arvo was first. He looked at me for permission, and I encouraged him.

“I can’t wait to see what you create.” I winked and quietly walked elsewhere.

Arvo stayed at the art pantry and the little table nearby for an hour. He wasn’t tempted to throw pebbles or engage in a tug of war with a classmate and a dress up blouse. And his calm attentiveness to his pile of beads, shells, puff balls, and paint as he glued each bit to paper cut with his own two hands with the careful steadiness of a chef with a chopping knife – this was the spark. Passion for our own imaginative expertise, and an eagerness to share our humbly beautiful ideas will carry us into an eager love for our neighbor. Joy simply can’t help but spill over. And get this, the mess wasn’t bad at all.

A connection between humans – child to teacher or child to child – does not need to involve a world of words. It does not need a beautifully modeled end product. It simply needs an art pantry, a few loose parts, and the word yes.

Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial

Written by: Leslie Yeary
[Creative Writer; University of Kentucky; Teacher; Musician]

Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team

‘The Art Pantry’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on January 27, 2023


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