Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue
I have been thinking about how we set choose, present, invite participation with materials for young children. Partly because I have been looking back at some of my old project work in schools dating back some 15 years (gulp! where did that go!) and also in light of a recent pedagogical exchange to some fantastic pre-schools in Stockholm, Sweden.
I very much set out as an artist in residence in UK schools with a kit bag full of all the nice things that either schools couldn’t afford or didn’t know how to use. Usually, my bag contained textile transfer paints, shimmery fabric paints, silk paints, foils, micro glitter all materials that guaranteed success no matter how they were applied. (Really, that was my criteria!) Often I created a set of materials for schools to use post project but sadly often they were not and I would find them sitting on shelf in the art cupboard two years later, untouched, when I had been invited back into the school to do more of the same.
The trouble was, this kind of work wasn’t sustainable. Now I know that ‘sustainability’ like ‘accountability’ are buzz words of the current economic climate but for me the sustainability wasn’t to do with the politics of the economy but instead is interwoven into the creative experience of the children themselves. It was unsustainable as the children would not be able to ever master these materials in school because to be frank, once I shipped out of my weeklong residency, they would most probably never use them again.
After my first study tour to Reggio Emilia I began to evaluate some aspects of my practice that I wanted to change. One major factor was the materials that I was using with children on a daily basis. I had shied away from the traditional materials (paint, clay, drawing, and collage) and instead focused on my specialist area from my degree in textiles. I figured that the everydayness of these materials were things that the educators I was working with were expert in.
I began to ‘look again’ at these familiar materials and set about researching how children approached them, what they did with them, and examined the perspective of the educator – what were their intentions and knowledge about the materials to hand and were they attuned and fitting to the strategies of the child? It lead to a significant chunk of my Masters research that you can find Here.
I am not going to go into here the ins and outs of what I found out, you can read the research for that – but there were several things that during this time I found myself thinking more and more about. They were:
- The qualities of the intelligence of the materials
- The transformative potential of the materials
- The dialogues proposed with the materials
And that these were affected by:
- Educator knowledge of the materials and their potential
- The organisation and presentation of the materials
- The intentions of the educator
In looking back there has been a shift in thinking in the UK about the early childhood learning environment and the materials provided within. Fifteen years ago I found myself working in places where it was the complete norm for children to be called to a table to ‘make a spider’ because the intention was to count up to 8. The resulting spiders would be identical because all the elements (body, eyes, legs etc) would have been pre-prepared. And I did this too! I also made the with children the strangest things in the name of learning and education – my favourite being dream catchers made from paper plates, string, glittery pipe cleaners, pom poms and glue. I am ashamed! I am glad to say, that I rarely encounter this type of activity now.
Then the discussions I was having in schools began to change, as new words were bandied about like ‘child-initiated’ ‘child’s interest’ ‘independent learning’ and creativity was the golden and most enshrined word of all. Now it seemed we had to make sure that we were not hampering creativity and or intervening in anyway as this might ruin the creative act of the child.
So now my portfolio of work changed again, and the spiders and dream catchers disappeared and were replaced with open baskets and containers of treasured material, all freely available to the children to choose from and use in whatever way they wanted. I remember how in one school I took the doors off the cupboards so the children could indeed actually help themselves. So when a young three year old made a hedgehog from clay using the best felt tips and brushes I would simply smile in the wonderful creative spirit of the moment. Another example I recall from this time was picking up a sodden box and marvelling in creative awe and wonder in how a child had managed to use the years supply of yarn by gluing the yarn balls to cover a cornflake box that had (incidentally) become attached by 1000 metres (at least) of selotape to the drying rack. Creativity, following children’s interest, child-initiated, independent learning? Really? A non-interventionist pedagogy here just resulted in chaos and mounds of tangled tape.
So what I have I learnt? For me, taking Reggio’s idea of ‘intelligent’ materials’ has made me question this non-interventionist choice. There is no free, independent choice of materials in school because as teachers we have the responsibility to set the stage for education, we choose which materials and how they are presented, and this is a great responsibility indeed. Materials are not neutral but are imbued with learning potential and expressive qualities. For example, which material would suit the idea of expressing the dynamic qualities of water – large wooden blocks, clay, and paint? One would find it hard in blocks.
To teach is a verb, it is an action and we must not fear this. I learnt how to draw at Art College, I was taught rules on perspective, on using materials. I was taught how to weave, use a sewing machine and methods of printing. I was an apprentice to a master who was willing to share the methodology, however it was up to me to use those skills to express or conceptualise ideas of my own.
So yes, I think it is of absolute importance that we choose which materials and how to present them as it is precisely this critical thinking that will help young children make sense of the crazy, chaotic world around them.
KH Cuffaro (1995) reminds us all that materials are “the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed.” Therefore we have to pay close attention to these things and choose carefully which way to present the materials, which way to teach children how to use them, which ways to invite questions about the them, and to make the move to considering how will these materials enable children to give form to their thinking, their understanding of the world.
Vea Vecchi (2010) points out “We must go beyond materials and techniques to stop and look at processes of empathy and intense relations with things…” and this too is another important reminder, that it is not enough for children to be busy with hands ‘sticking and gluing’ or ‘exploring paint’ but to engage their emotional sensitivity and construct together with other children and their educators deep relationships to matter and knowledge.
Whilst in Sweden I was honoured to be able to spend time with one of Stockholm’s pedagogical coordinators of the pre-schools and she shared with me this idea of working with materials in dialogue and with empathy. With the teachers she works with in the network, she often asks them to arrange materials of their choosing so that children could construct and elaborate their thinking (knowledge construction) of concepts such as symmetry, contrast, measurement, identity, transformation. Choosing specific materials with specific qualities is a skill and something we should all (including myself) think more about. The tables in the pedagogical centre were littered with familiar examples of natural (leaves, horse chestnuts, flowers, earth) and expressive materials (paper, paint, graphics) placed in dialogue to provocative thinking about the aesthetics of the materials (building an empathy with a flower for example) and the relatable connectivity of the natural world that builds directly on the work of Gregory Bateson (1979) (who they are studying) who considers aesthetics as a vehicle of making connections, of responding to the patterns that connect and the dance of interacting parts so as to avoid over simplification, and superficiality.
An example of oversimplification is the learning objective for children to ‘label the parts of plant’ often found within a key stage one lesson. This labeling is done in a abstract way, without feeling how that plant is part of the earth, how it lives and breathes and pulsates with life, then fades, slowly back into the ground from which it came but before doing so, spreads on the gentle the breeze or in the bellies of the birds its creative seed, to start again so that another plant can reborn from the seed of another. A plant connected to the earth, the atmosphere, the cycles of life not just of its own kind but to other kinds too, to benefit not just itself but also a wider circle of mutual and symbiotic relations. Is it enough for children to label a bud a bud without thinking of the relationship of that bud to stem? Vea Vecchi (2010) picks up on these ideas in her book too (reference below).
In conversation with other educators who I was with in Sweden it was precisely this ‘intentionality’ of the educator who considered carefully the placement, selection and preparation of the materials offered to the children that they were struck with. In one school materials with the possibility and potential for creating and responding to sound and music had been prepared for the children to use with the intention that children could think about tempo, beat, rhythm and movement. This went far beyond the pots and pans strung up on a bit of string outside for the children to bish, bash, bosh.
In another school a collection of autumnal leaves had been gathered that invited thinking not just of ‘the colours of autumn, whatever they are!) but the subtle hues and variations of colours found in leaves that came from the same tree. These leaves were fashioned later by two four year old children into a spiral of the hues of autumn -a pattern that goes from dark to light. An exploration of colours that connect, a pattern of relationships of colour and not an abstract labeling of orange, red and brown.
So, is it enough to ‘put the paint out, top the glue up and get out the basket of maracas’?’ No, it certainly is not! Instead we must think hard about the intelligence of materials and the possibility of materials in dialogue.
KH Cuffaro (1995) Experimenting with the World
Vea Vecchi (2010) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia
Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind and Nature: A necessary unit