Cala Smoldt/Correspondent


"I like it better this way because it feels like real school - even with masks on. They’re not that hard to wear," said 9 year old Winola student Justine. She's enjoying doing art class outside.


Students at Winola Elementary in Viola are integrating art and math to create an interactive path on the blacktop of the school's playground with paint. Restrictions handed down by IDPH (Illinois Department of Public Health) and ISBE (Illinios State Board of Education) mean children aren’t allowed to play on the equipment - resulting in an opportunity for art teacher Tony Vermeer to get creative.


Vermeer said the idea was inspired by PE teacher Bev Kruger who had shown him a similar idea using vinyl on the gym floor - but they needed a bigger pallet. They brainstormed how they could create something like the vinyl path - but for the outside blacktop.


Coupled with the unique task Vermeer faced to provide art class to students in their own classrooms - a measure implemented by the district to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination - sparked the idea to involve his students.


"My 4th grade always starts the year with an expressive painting project in the classroom. To avoid a paint mess in a carpeted classroom, painting outside became the solution," said Vermeer.


He now uses an "art cart" to take the supplies needed for that day’s lesson for each class.


"The cart challenges me each day to work on my organization skills," he said, "(it) also forces you to make some changes to your lessons."


Nine year old Aiden painted various colors of pink and red in his circle. "It’s worth wearing a mask to get to come (to school)." He said he’s glad to see his friends again. He enjoys the hands-on art project. For Aiden, remote learning brought technical difficulties… when he heard he would be attending in person, he said he was, "Pretty happy."


Vermeer mapped out the blacktop and used a graphic design program to determine the size of each section where students would paint their work. Students helped measure and chalk-line the area. The painted sections will make a large ‘S’ shaped path across the entire blacktop on the playground.


"They’re having a lot of fun with the measuring, they’re really into the whole construction of it," he said.


Teachers are facing unique challenges across the nation - balancing ‘in-person’ and ‘remote’ learning has been an obstacle for Vermeer.


"More challenging than the cart has been the instructional videos…" Vermeer - a guitarist in a local rock band - is used to playing guitar as a teaching tool in his art class, "I am not comfortable when I know the ‘record’ button has been pressed… I am a much better teacher and guitarist when I can move around, rock out, and adjust my presentation to the audience. I feel too much pressure to perform perfectly for the classroom videos. It's just not me," he said.


Justine was focused on choosing the right colors for her painted section, she said, "I’d rather be here than be at home… I feel like it’s a lot easier here than at home. Understanding everything… and making sure you’re getting everything right. You have to email your teacher to ask her a question, and sometimes they can’t get back for a little bit."


She said she should be playing volleyball this year - she missed playing softball and soccer over the summer. She’s hoping things go back to normal soon, "When you think about it, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re actually going through this - and it’s not like a dream or something.’


… It will be a good story to tell people."


Alysse, 9, said she misses softball - and all the other sports. "It’s bad. I don’t like that it’s happening, I want everything to be normal, especially school… Hopefully this school year gets better - and as normal as it can get."


Echoing the sentiment, 10 year old Jaren said, "I like being back at school because then I can see my friends."


"This was also a way to take them outside and get some fresh air," said Vermeer. Teaching art to students outdoors had multiple purposes - since masks are worn indoors at school-  "mask breaks" are encouraged across the district. This has meant altering lesson plans to include an outdoor activity.


The finished project will also involve the viewer - engaging them in physical activity.


Vermeer is passionate about teaching art and though he faces challenges this year, to him it’s worth it to have students in-person. He said amidst those challenges are unique opportunities to get creative -


"The interactive playground project has allowed these students a one-time opportunity to express themselves through their art, on a canvas that can be viewed and enjoyed by other students for years to come."