Fox Chapel Area program stirs creativity with hands-on activities

Iain McDonald paints with his son Julian McDonald, 3, at the Kerr Elementary literacy program.
Iain McDonald paints with his son Julian McDonald, 3, at the Kerr Elementary literacy program.
Photo by Jan Pakler | for The Herald
Tawnya Panizzi
| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Nathan Begg, 5, spent an afternoon counting a box full of blocks and matching them by size and color.

With his mother, Jennifer, Nathan plopped down on a brightly colored carpet in a Kerr Elementary School classroom to talk about numbers, textures and shape.

It's all in a day's work at the new Fox Chapel Area Creativity and Literacy Program, which opened last month with two locations. One is at the Kerr campus along Kittanning Pike, and the other is at Volunteers of America's All of Us Care along Main Street in Sharpsburg.

With its expanded emphasis on science, technology, engineering, math and medicine, or STEMM, skills, the facility takes the place of the Fox Chapel Area School District's former Family Literacy Center, which focused solely on reading.

“We want them to learn how the world works through trial and error, and not be afraid to fail,” Director Alison Francis said of students in the program.

Aimed at children ages 3 to 5, the new courses highlight 21st century creativity, exploration, design and play skills, Francis said.

“It's project-based learning, so it's all hands-on,” said Francis, who spent the last four years as a kindergarten teacher at Fairview Elementary School.

“We want them to learn to be flexible in their thinking and adept at problem-solving so they are not afraid to fail.”

For example, last week's lesson focused on learning to print with textures. Students crafted a stamp from string and paper, and then used it.

The aim is for the young minds to realize that learning is not cut and dried. There's more than one way to create a stamp, Francis said.

“Performance is their feedback,” she said. “If it works, then it's done properly. If it doesn't, we go back and try again.”

Parent Kate Parker said she attends with her 5-year-old son, Harrison, to help him become familiar with the school setting, in preparation for entering kindergarten next year.

They spent a portion of the class working on fine motor skills, fitting tools into holes in a workbench.

Begg, with Nathan, worked on matching blocks.

“I didn't know if it would be challenging enough for him but the activities are hands-on and he's thrilled with that,” she said. “He definitely takes home the lessons and talks about them there.”

Francis said the tactile learning environment seems to lead to increased creativity.

“It's really an open-ended program. I'm seeing them using objects in unexpected ways,” she said.

“As adults, we have a clear idea of what PVC pipe is for but here, they can use it as an instrument, a piece of a sculpture or as a ball shoot. Their creativity is driving them.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or

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