When I'm teaching summer art classes with children, I put a lot of thought into the first day.
I want the students to feel comfortable above all. I will not make them stand up and introduce themselves, talk about what kind of art they like best, or anything that could make someone anxious being in a new place with new people while they are figuring it all out. I don't do anything complicated, messy, or requiring previous experience on the first day. The first project is making nametags for their desks, and everyone learns each other's names by seeing them. I can tell a lot about the students with this first project. Some quickly scribble their name with one colour and then ask what to do next, while others are still putting on finishing touches on the third day. I get a sense of what types of things they are interested in, maybe their paper is filled with Pokémon, flowers, giraffes, fashion ideas or geometric designs. The ones with elaborate cursive bubble letters will be really into the projects, those with a rushed scribble will probably need more outside breaks to the playground. I plan little side-projects for the kids who are constantly "done" while the rest of the group works on the main project. Play-doh is good, until they start throwing it around the room. I imagine their parents saying, "you can't play video games all summer! You're going to day camp! Here, this art one sounds fun." A good compliment I received once from a student, "I thought this was going to be totally boring, but it isn't."
On the first day, I explain what we will do all week. I show them which materials they have free access to and which are in the Teacher Zone. My preferred style of art instruction is "buffet" where everything is laid out for them to choose what they want. I let them know that art is like science, in that we test things out and some things work and some things don't. Failure is very important in finding success, and art is so much more than making a horse that looks like a horse. I tell them realistic art is only one type of art, and we explore and experiment while we create and express ideas.
Within an hour, the kids are feeling like they know what's what, and even the most shy start feeling comfortable. Some are excited that they will try materials like charcoal that they've never tried before. They are starting to make friends with the other children they just met, and think I'm pretty entertaining with my theatric inflections of voice and passion for art.
I take them on a walk around the college before snack break to look at and discuss art, and also check out some cool places we will come back to for Outdoor Sketching. It's like when I used to give art gallery tours, only there are ponds and gardens and an elevator the kids love to take to the third floor. "Look at these four paintings. Do you see things that are the same or different? Do they make you feel peaceful or angry or sad or something else? What was the artist trying to say?" We talk about local artist James Marshall's brick mural at the college, and they can always remember where they've seen his other brick murals around town.
The different age groups have different main projects, but I always say if they have something else really inspiring them they can make their own project. I won't force anyone to create something they don't want to, for example a student could choose to make army tanks instead of flowers with egg carton cups if that's what they were stoked about. The students usually enjoy Free Time in addition to what I have planned, and I've abandoned some projects because everyone was in the zone doing their own thing.
One year I had a student that was really creative and liked trying new things. Her dad picked her up one day and she excitedly began explaining she rolled marbles around in a box with paint and how fun it was. He looked at her paintings and heart-breakingly told her that wasn't art since a 2 year old could do it. Guess he was expecting a horse that looked just like a horse. I was so glad I got to show her a different view of what art can be.