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Creative outlet for the young, the restless

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Beaming with pride, Eamon Frongillo-Lofstrom, 3, offers his mother a slime muffin. She accepts it with mock excitement. At a nearby table, Coco Pierce, 5, works on a bat-shaped puppet. “I like the glittery paper,’’ she says, surveying material options. Meanwhile, a few feet away, Quentin Cooper, 4, cuts out circles with a childproof hole punch and declares, “This is sculpture making.’’

It is all part of the creative process at Muckykids Art Studio in Cambridge. The cozy, craft-filled space on Massachusetts Avenue gives children a chance to explore, experiment, and show off their artistic talents.

The slimy, batty, glittery scene unfolds on a cloudy Saturday afternoon as Muckykids hosts drop-in studio hours with four activities at four tables. Kids choose among piecing together paper strips and circles, creating bat masks and puppets, playing with slime, and making paintings with various plastic objects as stamps. But really, anything goes as they flit from table to table, more interested in the process than in finishing their projects.

“When designing activities for the week, I make sure there’s a wide enough variety,’’ says Liz Vance, Muckykids owner, who wears a bracelet made of paper circles and strips. “Depending on the temperament of the kids coming in, there’s going to be at least one that is engaging for them, if not more. For most kids, all the activities are engaging. There’s always something for every kid here.’’

The walls and shelves at Muckykids overflow with brightly-colored art projects. And glittery, silver stars hang from the ceiling, giving the studio an appropriately whimsical appearance. In one corner, there is a sticky wall, delighting children who toss large pompoms toward it and watch them stay put. A red barn made of cardboard boxes stands beside the sticky wall, marking the start of an interactive, farm-themed play area. Soon, a tractor made of cardboard boxes will join the barn and kids will decorate the vehicle. Upcoming drop-in studio activities will use farm animals and farm machines as inspiration.

“Quentin comes in here and he gets absorbed because there are a lot of different things to do,’’ says his father, Todd Cooper. “We’ve been here for almost two hours and he isn’t bored because there are different stations and other kids doing things. There’s a freedom that allows them to create what they want to at the different stations and there’s no pressure to create, to do art, if that’s not the mood they’re in.’’

Eamon’s mother, Katrina Frongillo-Lofstrom, adds: “I love doing arts and crafts at home, but there are projects here that I would never think of. And I would never want to get this messy in my own house.’’

Considerable planning goes into each activity, with projects changing every week. Vance aims for each to emphasize a different skill, to provide a different medium for experimentation. She always includes something sensory, typically involving clay, or homemade play dough or slime. Each week, she also offers some sort of craft and a painting station or two.

Vance chooses and prepares activities that work for a wide range of ages with children who drop in, typically between 18 months and 3 1/2, though she sees and welcomes older and younger children. While a 1-year-old might entertain himself by crinkling the paper strips, a 6-year-old might make something close to the pumpkin Vance assembled as a model. With the craft activities, she always provides a few ways to approach the material. Inevitably, the children take the projects in their own directions.

The drop-in studio costs $12 per child per hour and includes all supplies, whether glittery paper, popsicle sticks for puppets, or paint and brushes. And the fact that an hour of messy, creative arts and crafts doesn’t involve two hours of home cleanup is priceless for many parents.

“I want it to be a safe, welcoming place where kids feel relaxed enough to experiment and play and not worry about mistakes,’’ says Vance. “They bring to the table what they want to do or can do or are curious to try.’’

My nephew Henry, 2, visited Muckykids on a week when the activities included red clay printing, bird puppet making, watercolor painting, and pipe cleaner sculpting. Henry easily stayed occupied for an hour, moving back and forth between stations while, thankfully, covered in a smock. He found a zebra and stuck it in the red clay along with whatever else he could grab, made a one-eyed puppet with a feather that sort of resembled a bird, and attempted watercolor painting without the water.

At one point, Vance asked Henry whether he needed all the items he had carefully stockpiled on red clay. He relinquished a plastic hammer and textured plastic cylinder. The interaction was typical of how Vance oversees Muckykids. She provides general, introductory instructions about the activities and gentle suggestions when needed.

Vance studied early childhood development in college and graphic design at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She taught preschool before taking time off to raise two children. Vance always “daydreamed’’ about opening an art studio for children and jumped when the right space for Muckykids became available at the right time. Since opening in 2009, Muckykids has expanded its offerings and attracted a devoted following. Vance knows the names of all the kids and parents who regularly visit the studio.

In addition to the drop-in studio held three days a week, Muckykids offers classes for various ages two days a week. Every fall, winter, and spring, Vance teaches a class called “Sensory Fun’’ for ages 1 and 2. On Sundays, the studio hosts birthday parties where kids can choose a special theme. Recently, a party focused on trains with a set of tracks laid down on the studio floor and activities featuring train parts and shapes. Muckykids will start science classes next spring for 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds with Vance hoping to make physics “super approachable’’ and related to “things they interact with day to day.’’

When asked what she hopes visitors take away from activities at Muckykids, whether drop-in studio regulars, class participants, or birthday partygoers, Vance simply says, “A discovery.’’ As drop-in hours wind down, Quentin turns the slime into a pancake studded with glass stones, Coco puts the finishing touches on her bat puppet, and Eamon makes a few confident brush strokes. The studio is filled with discovery.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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Muckykids Art Studio
1776 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge
617-354-0540
www.muckykids.com
Drop-in studio Thu-Sat from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. for ages 1 and up. Per child per hour $12, all materials included.