By Billy Cox
SARASOTA — For a few minutes, anyway, "Miss Debbie" Kaufman looks like she has the best job in the world.
As the star of an ad hoc show broadly known as "StoryWalk," she commands the attention of nine pliable preschoolers, all of whom would follow her off a cliff if she kept up this pace.
Today's reading project is a book called "Mouse Paint," by children's author Ellen Stoll Walsh. Three white mice hide from a cat by dissolving into a white paper background. As the cat sleeps, the mice venture out and begin playing around with primary colors. They take paint baths, they drip, they leave puddles, they shimmy, they shake, they create new colors — orange from red and yellow, purple from red and blue.
Except, the kids aren't reading. Not in a conventional sense. "Mouse Paint" is deconstructed into illustrated pages, each separate page situated into an interactive "station" with accompanying visual props. Miss Debbie leads the kid cluster in mimicking the mice. She twirls, they twirl; she hops, they hop. "The yellow mouse hopped into the blue paint," Miss Debbie recites to the kids. "What color does it make?"
The chorus delivers a unanimous verdict: "Greeeeen!" On and on it goes.
Sponsored by the Sarasota County Libraries' "Born To Read" early literacy program, the StoryWalk scenario is making its Sarasota debut at Temple Emanu-El Early Learning Center. Designed for children five and under, StoryWalk takes a kinesthetic approach to learning, which allows children to grasp lessons and concepts through physical activity.
The StoryWalk approach is a relatively new tool, initially designed to rouse kids — and adults — from sedentary habits and get them moving around outside. Created in 2007 by former Vermont public health official Anne Ferguson, StoryWalk has generated a line of interactive books, with an eye on children who might have trouble in traditional classroom settings.
From everything she's seen, Born To Read Outreach Coordinator Faith Lipton says StoryWalk is onto something.
"Children will remember this experience because it connects right back to a book," Lipton says. "StoryWalks are great jumping-off points that descend into the classroom. Plus, children engaged this way sometimes come up with ideas that maybe you didn't even think of before."
Miss Debbie says the application — not the idea — is new.
"It's not just children who learn better when they're interactive. As adults, if we watch a video on golf, could we go out and play golf? No," she says, "we have to get out on the golf course and hit a few balls."
Back in character, Miss Debbie guides her bouncing, twirling, spinning, shimmying kids through the book's paces. She dispenses balls of cotton to represent the white mice. The mice eventually wash themselves clean but take their newfound understanding of paint combinations to colorize blank pages. "But," continues Miss Debbie, concluding the script, "They left some white because of ..." She reaches for a stuffed animal and, with laugh that might be terrifying by candlelight, "the CAT!"
"That's a lion, not a cat," replies one child. The plush critter does, in fact, resemble a baby Simba from "The Lion King."
"It's a leopard!" insists another.
Book finished, Miss Debbie leads the nine back into the art room, where a table with jars of primary colors, paint brushes, and paper cups of water wait. She tells them to have at it, to experiment with their brushes, their cotton swabs, their fingers, their hands.
"Look at that — it looks like you're getting an aqua," Miss Debbie tells one child. To another: "You've created a maroon color right there. Maroon is like a dark red."