Looking for Learning, Seeking Meaning-Making: Fostering meaning-making in a learning experience

img_0610There is an abundance of ideas and activities all over Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook that point to many ‘learning experiences’ and activity set ups for young children and whilst I appreciate the sharing community of educators all wanting to do the best by children, many of these pinned activities are devoid of their learning context, observation and interpretation of children’s active enquiries.

Active enquiries can be both long and short, last a half an hour to a year, they can be enquiries that originate in children’s own interest and can be offered to children as potential interest and engagement. Ideally they are “educative experiences” (1938, Dewey) that connect the learner to the wider world, across time (continuity) and do not separate out learning into tightly defined subject areas. Many of the shared activities on social media are maybe as Dewey describes as “mis-educative”, a learning experience that may have some benefit to the children, for example, it may address a function to manipulate small objects and thus practice fine motor control, but overall lack that connection to bigger ideas and meaning-making. A mis-educative experience is one in which a child has not reflected or thought about and so has obtained nothing for mental growth that is lasting. (Experience & Education, 1938, Dewey).

img_1398Meaning-Making can be defined as a process by which children’ make-sense’ and interpret situations, events, objects, and conversations either alone or with others. It is a process by which children bring what they already know and have experienced together with the current context of learning. “Learning as meaning-making” is an expression that concerns how children are actively engaged in constructing and making sense of the situation – the context, objects, materials and relationships. Therefore the contexts and situations that we create in our classrooms should be rich and generative in possibility for such deep level, educative learning.

In the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, I have seen how they work with big ideas that offer many interpretative possibilities such as birth, the city, the future, that relate to how children may think about these things. They investigate how children form relationships with materials and matter, and with each other, and within the wider communities of their city and the World and in this way the teachers avoid these unconnected, small, segregated examples of activities that constitute much of what is shared on social media. This need not be confined just to those schools in Reggio but can be grown by us all in all our contexts with young children.

project-2016-img_2801-1I was asked recently about my own personal enquiries and questions that I have about children’s learning that help me to plan and observe children in the process of their meaning-making. Below are some of the questions and enquiries that I hold onto and I offer these as alternatives to help us all think about the best ways of being by children’s side.

  •  Does the learning situation/context off opportunity for meaning-making and can the children bring prior knowledge to the current context? What do they already understand?
  • Does it hold a rich context for children to touch, hold, see it in its original context?
    Is the situation/context of learning generative of multiple perspectives and different points of views?
  • Can children discover information and knowledge for themselves rather than being told?
  • Does the learning experience/situation offer potential for continuity and evolvement of ideas over time?
  •  Are there rich and multiple sources of information that you can draw upon?
  • What do you anticipate what may happen in the learning situation/context? (So as to be open to the unexpected and unusual.)
  • What are the strategies and approaches of the children to learn about the subject(s)?
  • How do they use strategies of imagination and fantasy as part of their meaning-making?
  • When moving between languages of expression (the hundred languages of children) how are children re-elaborating their ideas and thinking?
  • How are we supporting the children to discover more about the subject for themselves? 
  • Are our questions generative of further learning, that open up to increased diversity of thinking and ideas – asking how, what if questions rather than why?
  • How do we re-propose to children their ideas and thoughts so as to raise up challenge, further debate, different ideas (diversity)?

It isn’t as easy as browsing pictures online, but with thought and curiosity we can engage with children’s’ active enquiries and generate rich and educative learning situations that foster creativity, critical thinking and imagination of both children and educators.


Young Children’s Drawings: Marks, Meaning and Materials


imageI have been reading the Reggio Children book Mosaic of Marks, Words, Materials. It is a book dedicated to their ongoing research into the One Hundred Languages of Children as expressed in Loris Malaguzzi’s poem of the same name. This research focuses on the interplay between drawing and narration; on the interplay between marks, surfaces that receive the marks and the narration and stories of the children of the Pre-Schools and Infant Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

“Drawing and telling stories means imagining, analysing, and exploring spaces, forms, colours, words, metaphors, emotions, rhythms, and pauses, entering into a narrative dimension that is both internal and external to the self, playing on reality, fiction and interpretation. Though drawing and words are autonomous languages, for the children words and stories, silent or spoken, almost go hand in hand or intertwine with the drawing, creating an intelligent and often poetic mosaic.”

Mosaic of Marks, Words, Materials. Reggio Children (2015) p.15

It is a highly visual book, with many examples that at first seem familiar as they are the often early traces that young children make when involved in drawing, but it is the deep level of research that impresses me in how they observe and make sense of the interaction between the mark making implement and the surface that enables the mark to become visible. They notice how, for example, corrugated card, aluminium foil, bubble wrap, and acetate suggests and accepts marks from different thicknesses of markers, metallic ink markers, conte crayon, charcoal etc. No material therefore is neutral but suggestive of ideas to the children and by the children.

In one example, children play with ideas of camouflage, invisibility and secret messages as they use black markers on black paper. In another example, they research the ephemeral marks such as water brushed onto stone with one child, Luca aged 5.5yrs drawing, “The cloud that is disappearing…”

Drawing overlays using acetate is a strong feature of the work, enabling the children to experiment with backgrounds, foregrounds and combined drawings that can be projected and increased in size on the overhead projector. Sandpaper offers a scratching surface upon which to work oil pastels into stories about different sorts of giraffes. This book is full of examples of materials and surfaces and the narration of the children as they make drawings that intertwine with stories and imaginings that help the early childhood educator to understand more about the poetics that may lie behind their own children’s drawing and storying.

In the accompanying essays in the book, the teachers, pedagogista and atelierista’s involved in the work offer some ‘Interpretative Hypotheses’ that I find very useful in thinking about my work with teachers in the field of early childhood. They attest to the innate relationships that give narrative shape to our gestures through drawing. So often I have heard how some children, (most often boys) who are considered as reluctant ‘mark-makers’. I suggest there is no such thing, but rather a reluctant offer of materials that fail to ignite the imagination. The research in this book and accompanying exhibition reminds us of the importance of palettes of materials that invite, provoke and challenge children to make experiments with not only the marks but also the surfaces upon which they draw. A tub of markers and a variety of A4 photocopy paper paper in different colours is simply not enough if we want our children to express what is already inside of them.

Another interpretive hypothesis is that when exploring the materials and surfaces for drawing, many ‘technical accidents’ occurred that led to powerful learning and expression that could be re-titled as ‘creative potentials’. These seemingly mistaken and unexpected occurrences (such as an accidental smudge of pastels or marker on acetate) led to evolving ideas about the ephemeral, the fleeting and in one case led to poetic representations of the effect of the wind.

For those working with very young children, an interesting interpretation was how body language that accompanied the drawing and verbal experience was considered as almost being a ‘theatrical performance’. I liked this idea as it marries with ideas that John Matthews holds about children’s earliest mark-making as being embedded with the experience of the body. Coming from a more schematic perspective, Matthews (2003) in Drawing and Painting: Children and Visual Representation talks about how children’s early movements (such as the crossover of the arm across the body, and the reaching out in front of them) are often the marks first created upon a surface in the form of the horizontal arc (using the movement of the crossing over of the body) and the vertical arc (using the up down of the reaching out in front movement). When observing closely even as babies as they trail a finger through custard or spilt gravy you see them observing you, connecting with you in a game of can you see me do this? It is indeed a performance that invites the other to play also!

This book has much to give the early childhood educator to think about in terms of materials, surfaces and the meaning that children give to marks. It will certainly accompany me in my conversations with teachers and will encourage me to observe even closer the expressive richness of children’s drawings and the narration so that accompany them.