The Journey into Children’s Drawing

The Language of Drawing

510xR6NA+7LI have always been both before and since the research of my MA days an avid interested party in the strategies and content of children’s drawing.  I am currently reading the new book from the Contesting Early Childhood series published by Routledge entitled “Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia” edited by Calgari, Castagnetti, Giudici, Rinaldi, Vecchi and Moss and was delighted to come across some writings on the subject by Loris Malaguzzi himself (pp.308-312)

Malaguzzi describes drawing as a language (one of many), as a natural and biological language belonging to children that is constantly in conversation with many other languages available to children.  (See Malaguzzi’s The One Hundred Languages of Children poem).  From the outset of his description of drawing, Malaguzzi reminds us of the great responsibility of adults to read and interpret these visual communications.  It is with great sadness that I see many a child’s drawing simply placed in a going home box or drawer without any form of real reading or interpretation of it. They are valued, but as pieces of children’s ‘mark-making’ or as a precursory stage to writing and have become more about participating in a process of drawing than valued as a communicative language in their own right.  I wrote about Drawing as a Communicative Language here.

Malaguzzi, reminds us that drawing is “refined and diversified through children’s life experiences.”  Drawing when viewed in this way is something to be re-elaborated over time (not necessarily the same drawing but the same subject) and offers the educator a way of seeing drawing as an attribute of children’s capacity for critical thinking.  With each new drawing made, there is a refinement of process and form and of the ideas that sit behind it.  The drawings are never fixed with one singular meaning but are rather, as Malaguzzi tells us, multi-factored, dynamic, evolving, ambitious, and unfolding with meaning(s).

“Children’s journey in drawing (through the drawing, through this evolving language because it constantly accompanies children’s evolution) produces different and sometimes discordant attitudes towards the relations between themselves and the world, between themselves and things, between themselves and situations, themselves and feelings and so on.” p309

The drawings therefore act as sites of relational exchange, they are a visual becoming rather than a recall or remembering of something past.

IMG_6560I work with a network of schools for whom drawing is central to their pedagogy as a method amongst many methods of visualising children’s thinking, their ideas, their communications, their theories.  One such example is this drawing from Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK.  What appears as a simple charcoal line on a strip of paper is in fact a ‘seed’s song’.  It was created whilst singing a song made up by the 3 year old drawer to help seeds grow.  What might seem at first as a sweet but naive idea is connected to current explorations into plant to plant communication strategies, which makes his idea seem not so naive after all.   Also, within this genesis of an idea is it possible that he is creating a musical score of some sort, a visualisation of one language (singing/music) into another (drawing/musical notation)?

The Pleasure of Drawing

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Malaguzzi also speaks of the pleasure of drawing.  Pleasure as defined as a form of energy.  He names the ‘pleasures’ that characterise the act of drawing as:

  • A motor pleasure – a feeling in the body and of nervous activity that gives pleasure when in the act of drawing
  • A visual pleasure
  • A rhythmic-temporal pleasure – the rhythm and flow of a pencil or marker upon a surface that breaks up space in many directions
  • A spatial pleasure – the organisation of space through drawing
  • A self-identifying pleasure – the seeking and giving of meaning and identity to marks made
  • A pleasure of repetition
  • A pleasure of knowing and learning – of making permanent or ‘fixing the event’, the what has happened or the object in terms of what is known about it
  • A pleasure of the aesthetic – to know when a drawing is just right, balanced in harmony with your ideas

So, Malaguzzi reminds us that:

 “…reading children’s drawings is something very serious, very committed, very difficult, very responsible.  To interpret a drawing we meed to have competency, passion, and a capacity for getting inside the children’s situation and the operation they are carrying out…

The risk we run is of classifying too quickly and putting things in order too soon, without thinking sufficiently, without waiting sufficiently long, of not knowing how to wait, and not knowing how to interpret children’s acts.”  p311

He ends with this important statement:

“In other words we have started on a journey to the source of children’s thinking.”

Leading Change and Developing Practice in the Early Years Environment

Reflections from my notes:  “The role of the teachers, the pedagogista, and the atelierista.  Which kind of relationship and strategies of collaboration.”

Study tour to Reggio Emilia, Italy.  October 2009

Playing with colour, light and photography in Reggio Emilia.

I remember being part of a discussion group facilitated during this study tour to Reggio Emilia where a heated conversation arose about the frustrations of working with other teachers who may not be as experienced in their roles or as familiar with their approaches of working alongside children as their counterparts were. There was much talk from the international group present about ways of trying to convince others to work in a different way, one often perceived as the Reggio Approach.  I have heard this argument played out many times since then when teams are frustrated when things are not quite going to plan.

In a sense, this ongoing battle is not about what Reggio is or is not but about how we as educators choose to work with each other and alongside of the children.    It is no doubt a familiar frustration to many when working in teams all holding different beliefs and personal understandings about early childhood and education.

A way to approach this dilemma differently (than the battle) is to listen to what they have to say, and to hear their perspective as one that is not at odds but one that could help us all to think differently.  It means believing that the other has something to say and offer.  Maybe it is not about trying to convince the other that ‘we’ are right, or that ‘we’ have greater knowledge but instead to find ways in how we could strive to become mutual co-protagonists in the learning processes of both the children and of ourselves working as a group.

Claudia Giudici gave an example of how she approached a situation with two new teachers working in one of the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

“In a discussion with two new teachers, I asked, ‘in which ways do you think children investigate colour?’  Their response was ‘the children learn the primary colours and of course they must learn the names of colours too.’ 

Of course, I knew that this was what nationally we are told but I knew that this was not the approach of the children as they are interested in the nuances of colour, the many shades and hues of colour, the communication of colour and its expressive contexts.

But, if I were to tell the teachers what they should do instead then I would deny them the opportunity to think and find understanding themselves.  Instead, with the atelierista, we made a proposal that activated opportunities for the two new teachers to observe the children’s exploration of colour, to record and document it and to present it so that together we reflect on the children’s approaches to colour in a real context. 

In this way we connect theory and practice in a way that develops and constructs meaning for the teachers and is not the application of another’s knowledge.  Often, pedagogisti work with the teachers on their questions, their strategies, their proposals of their daily encounters with children.  We spend much time reflecting and analysing these, not in isolation but together.”

The leadership action therefore of the pedagogista was not to tell, to model or to demonstrate but to generate the context that enabled the group of educators to observe, document and reflect upon their approaches to teaching and learning in their own contexts.  It was a much slower process but one where theory and practice was co-constructed and not just passively received.  It required of the educators a great responsibility to capture and record the very essence of learning and the contexts that enabled it to emerge.   In addressing the idea of developing practice in this way, far from being a passive or watchful approach educators are encouraged to reflect deeply on their own pedagogical actions and to choose in which ways to proceed (take action) and to make this choice not in isolation, but within a community of inquirers sharing and listening to each others point of view and researching ways of being better co-protagonists alongside young children in their learning.