Center for Child Studies Art Studio Encourages Students’ Inner Artists, Builds Life-Long Confidence



Outdoor Nature Classroom to be Newest Addition to Center

A student teachers shows a child how to weave in the Center for Child Studies Art Studio.

A student teacher shows a child how to use a loom to weave in the Center for Child Studies Art Studio.


April 23, 2008 – Southeast Missouri State University’s River Campus isn’t the only part of the University boasting a new art studio. Original works of art also are being created in a studio in the Scully building on the main campus, masterpieces which now line the walls surrounding the Center for Child Studies, where the artwork is being created.

The art studio, a large room located in the Center for Child Studies, opened in the fall 2007 semester to serve the Center’s 80 students, ages 6 weeks to 6 years. This is no ordinary preschool art center that occupies the corner of the classroom. It is a full-fledged art studio that offers children far more creativity than your typical crayons and finger paints allow. Materials galore, including clay, recycled items, a multitude of items from nature, as well as a variety of paints and drawing materials, fill the studio and inspire the children to create sculptures, collages and other works of art.

“All the things you would see in a real art studio, we have here,” said Leigh Tyler Marshall, the art studio teacher and a graduate student in human environmental studies at Southeast.

Students not only create their own masterpieces on their easels, they mix their own paint to create them, Marshall said. They also are encouraged to take inspiration from more unlikely sources, like the recycled materials and natural objects, and to use the materials in unusual ways.

“You would be amazed at what kids can create from recycled materials,” she said.

“The art studio gives the children a more intense art experience,” added Sara Starbuck, director of the Center for Child Studies and assistant professor of human environmental studies. “We design experiences that are completely processed-based, allowing the children to just explore what’s here. We don’t focus on the finished product – it’s all about the experience.”

Allowing the children to direct that creative experience themselves breeds confidence in their abilities that can carry a child through their academic career and their life, Starbuck and Marshall said.

“Creativity is so important in child development,” Marshall said. “It’s so important to give them the freedom to create and to nurture their creativity. So many times, as they get older, that creativity gets stifled. Nurturing their creativity at a young age gives them the strength to withstand this.”

Starbuck agrees, saying she has noticed this lack of creative confidence in her college students.

“As I work with college students, I’ve noticed many feel they aren’t good at art. They don’t have the confidence in themselves that they can create something,” Starbuck said. “Even adults can nurture their creativity, but somewhere along the way, most of us have gotten scared and given up, thinking we’re not creative,” she said. “Often when children are in school, they’re told how to do something. Everything is so product-oriented; they can’t create things the way they want to. Here, we encourage them to create everything how they want to. We want them to feel for themselves that they are competent, and then take this confidence wherever they go in life. We don’t want them to lose this enthusiasm and creativity they have now; we want it to be there forever,” Starbuck stressed.

The creativity isn’t just reserved for the art studio, either, according to Marshall.

“We integrate the students’ creativity into everything we learn,” she said. “Creativity helps them learn to be curious, be willing to take risks and be problem solvers. In the art studio, all those traits are celebrated.”

The students enjoy celebrating their creativity as well, according to 4-year-old twins Allison and Sydney Buchheit.

“I like painting,” said Allison. “The best part is making colors (mixing paint) and testing the colors I make. I also like stomping on the clay and jumping on it with my feet. It got flatter and flatter and then we got to make stuff out of it,” she said.

“It’s exciting to go to the art studio,” Sydney agreed. “I made light purple and dark purple paints yesterday, and I used a lot of black. I like to paint because it’s my favorite, best thing.

“Our baby sister, Kate, in the infant room, paints all the time and gets messy and has fun,” Sydney added.

Visitors to the Scully building are welcome to stop and peruse this unconventional gallery. Many already do, Starbuck says.

“We see people stopping by and looking at the artwork on their way to the elevator,” she said. “We also hosted an art exhibit for parents at the end of last semester, and they got to see how the learning process unfolds,” she added. “We view children’s work as more than simply art or decorative pieces; their work is a representation of what they think, know and wonder about the world. As they create, the children discuss and reflect upon their work, and their art serves as a gateway to further learning,” Starbuck said.

Art Studio Benefits Go Beyond Preschoolers

While the art studio obviously provides a wonderful opportunity for the students enrolled at the Center for Child Studies, the benefits don’t end there, according to Starbuck. More than 70 students from Southeast’s Colleges of Health and Human Services and Education do practicums in the Center’s classrooms each semester, and each of these students also works with the children in the art studio, gaining unique hands-on experience.

“It provides a really good learning opportunity for education students as well as the children,” Starbuck said. “By doing what’s best for the children, we are in turn doing what’s best for the University students by allowing them to see the best scenarios modeled.

“We also use the studio for additional experience during the University students’ practicum class – they come here and work with clay and recycled materials,” Starbuck said.

The art studio also provides an opportunity for Starbuck, Marshall and the other educators at the Center to research first-hand the most beneficial ways to use studios of this type.

“We’re doing a lot of research as we go on how to use the studio most effectively,” Starbuck said. “We’re exploring different and better ways to work with the children in this environment. It’s really a fluid process, and we’re documenting and revising the methods as we learn more. The documentation helps us share with others what the children are doing and help people outside our department learn from it.”

Plans Under Way for Nature Classroom at Center for Child Studies

In the wake of their success with the art studio, the Center for Child Studies is currently planning another unique experience for students – an outdoor nature classroom – with the goal of creating a nature exploration area where children can connect with the natural world.

“Over the years, kids have been exposed to nature less and less,” Starbuck said.  There is such a disconnect that students and younger people have to nature. They have this fear of nature.”

“Children not exposed to nature suffer for it,” added Tammy Davis, an instructor in human environmental studies and the infant/toddler master teacher in the Center for Child Studies. Davis initiated the outdoor classroom project.

“Many children today have nature-deficit disorder (a term coined by author Richard Louv in the book Last Child in the Woods). The world we live in doesn’t allow enough exposure to the outdoors. We want to provide an environment here where children have more opportunities to enjoy nature,” she said.

The idea for the outdoor classroom took hold when Davis and some colleagues attended the World Forum on Nature Education for Young Children last fall. The forum brought together early childhood educators, landscape designers, city planners, environmental educators and others to discuss the challenges created by children’s limited contact with nature.

“This is really a growing trend that is coming to the forefront,” Davis added. “We know children with disabilities, and all children, really benefit from being outside.”

The new space will include many natural elements, said Starbuck.

“We’re trying to get away from plastic playground materials and give children places to wonder instead of big structures that have no meaning to them,” she said.

The Center for Child Studies is working toward building certified Nature Explore Classrooms in both the infant-toddler and preschool outdoor areas, Starbuck said.

“The Parent Task Force provided funding to procure designs for these classrooms from Dimensions Research Educational Foundation, which works in cooperation with the Arbor Day Foundation to promote the Nature Explore Classrooms,” she said.  “A world-wide movement is in place to build these types of outdoor spaces for children, and the Dimensions Foundation hopes that the Center’s outdoor classrooms could serve as demonstration sites for others interested in observing such classrooms in action.  The Center is currently working to build a coalition of families and community members who will help with fund raising, procuring materials, and supplying labor to make the Nature Explore Classrooms a reality.

“Hopefully the children will be able to have a hand in making the playground as well,” Starbuck added. “They can help move mulch and other simple tasks,” she said.

The Center for Child Studies has received a small grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation to purchase native plants for the outdoor classroom. The Center continues to seek additional grant funding to help fund the project, as well as volunteer support, Starbuck said. The Child Development Center at Southeast Missouri State University-Sikeston also is in the process of creating an outdoor classroom, which should be completed by the end of the summer. The Sikeston campus has received a $20,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fund the project.

For more information or to volunteer to assist on the project, contact Starbuck at