On a stage at one end of a large open room, a group of small children act out an ad-libbed play about an evil queen who steals their food and money.
Five-year-old Devin Brown, who has just returned from watching artist Sam Gilliam hang an outdoor painting, energetically jumps into the play and decides to add wizards to the chase between the queen's forces and her wronged subjects.
At the other end of the room, children waking from their afternoon naps join in silkscreening, string painting or spattering wet clay on each other in classroom-like areas that have been formed by the arrangement of bookcases.
These scenes are typical at the Columbia Heights Children's Center which runs a program to foster creativity in preschool children through music, drama, dance and painting.
The preschool, for approximately 50 children aged 3 to 6 years, is unique in the Washington area because it employs the concept of teaching through art for children so young, according to Marcia McDonell, director of the center.
The hope is that the children will learn to apply their creativity to whatever situations they encounter in their lives, says McDonell.
"Through art, children are opened up to new possibilities," McDonell says. "I just hope, in their adult lives, if they run into any brick walls, they'll find a way to get through it; that they won't say, gee, nobody ever told me the answer to that one."
Most of the children at the school, located in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church at 16th and Newton streets NW, come from low-income families and cultures as diverse as those of Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Caribbean. McDonell says the stafff tries to make each child feel good about himself, and his culture.
"If they feel that their culture at home is something to share with other children, it makes them feel special," McDonell says.
The sharing includes trading family recipes every Thursday when the youngsters prepare their own lunches. McDonell's theory is that all activities, whether cooking or exploring Rock Creek Park, help develop learning skills necessary for reading, math and science.
In cooking, she points out, the children must learn to divide ingredients into certain proportions, a mathematical concept.Dancing, she said, helps the child "learn where his body is in space . . . (and) how the body moves through space. That relates to how letters are printed and positioned on paper."
The 12 teachers at the school, who are paid slightly more than minimum-wage salaries, "sometimes give input, sometimes back off and let them get into it," according to Bonnie Atwater, who formerly worked for the D.C. public schools. She and her teaching partner, Back Alley Theatre actor Ray Green, spend a lot of time with their 13 students exploring woods or the city around them.
Children are encouraged to learn to categorize and organize objects that they find. The teachers also "let things carry through," Atwater said. "If there's a fight brewing, we keep a watchful eye to make sure it doesn't get out of hand, but we let things follow their own natural force."
What happens? "Well, often there's a fight," she said, laughing, "but afterward, we try to point out the limits of how they can treat each other." As a result, she said, "They're a very close group of kids. They sympathize and look out for each other. You do get to see the other end of the tunnel."
From their two-year experiment, McDonell said, they have found that "there's no child (for whom) some aspect of this doesn't work." However, some children have a hard time coping with the open structure. "Some have a hard time with too many choices," she said.
But order does seem to prevail at the center. Sometimes, McDonell added, "The more traditional families, who mainly want a place to leave their kids while they work, want to know why their child isn't learning his letters or numbers." Other parents, who have brought their children to the center after hearing about it, "say they love having their daughter come running home splattered with paint," she said. Some children do learn to read and count, but they are allowed to develop at their own pace, she added.
If funding can be arranged, McDonell would like to do a 10-year study to examine how children have fared after leaving the center. "Some of the kids who've gone to grade one, they hang out here the second they get out," said.
While stafff member Steve Provizer does not expect most of his students to become artists in their adult lives, "I think more of them will appreciate the arts," as a result of their experiences at Columbia Heights.
But fundamentally, the adults hope to give the children a personal basis for their own creativity. As Atwater put it, "We're living it rather than being told it."
Since many of the children come from single-parent families and cannot afford the fees for the program, which range from $25 to $70 a week, the District's Department of Human Resources underwrites about $100,000 of the program's $184,000 annual budget.
To help make up the difference, as well as to purchase more art equipment for the school (computer printout paper is now being used for silk-screening, for example), the school is holding a "Roller Rumba" fundraiser June 12 at the National Roller Skating Rink at Kalorama Road and 17th street NW. Live Latin music from "Maria y sus Magnificos" and disco music from Raymond St. James are features of the event. Admission is $5.50 to $7.50. For more information call 241-7950.