Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue

Materials that are "friends' with light

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
From a workshop in Reggio Emilia. Light, projection and video camera - materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital and multiple selves

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.

Sticking and gluing? Sprinkling not thinking?

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.

Thinking about the aesthetic of natural beauty and colour

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.

Variation and tonality of hues of autumnal colour.

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

Why ‘exchange’ and not ‘study tour’? A Sweden/UK Educational Exchange Project.

A Visualisation of Exchange? A swedish teacher came across this composition, the young child described it as the cold country (the tiles) and the green country (the green pegs) and in the centre is the middle land. I couldn't help but see this image as a metaphor for the reason of exchange.

I have just returned from a visit to some of the pre-schools of Stockholm, Sweden.  It was an exchange opportunity organised through Sightlines-Initiative for three settings I work with here in the UK with three pre-schools in Stockholm.  In just three weeks time, our Swedish colleagues come to visit here in a mutual exchange and for participation in our daily school life with young children.

The schools involved in this exchange are all ‘inspired’ by the context of education seen in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools of Italy.  To be inspired does not mean to copy or replicate their experience but instead to reflect upon the ideals and values they place upon the environment as a teacher, pedagogical documentation as a tool of research and making learning visible, group learning, a rich image of the child and the connectivity between school and community.  What is interesting in the Swedish context is that here lay a group of schools examining these principles of Reggio within their own Swedish cultural and educational context in a similar way to how we are examining the principles of Reggio within our own UK context.

Exploring the variation and tonal hues of autumnal colour. A five year olds composition.

This experience so far is very different from a study tour, which usually focuses upon a go, see, and find attitude that I liken to a kind of teacher tourism led by the knowledgeable pedagogical guide. This exchange felt more like a live, feel, and hold experience.  There was something quite unique in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, even though for just a week.  Often it was overwhelming, as at first you have so many questions that are all aimed at orientating yourself around what you are experiencing and making sense of what you see and feel, but then as time progresses, your questions become more refined, more attuned to finding the similarities and differences between the two positions and practices.

Doing this as part of network feels important too, as it is not just about your classroom, or your individual school but how an experience like this can challenge the culture and perception of education, family, child and childhood for a connected group of people.  This is important because it is only together in the situation of a small group can we exchange our points of view and reach a possible third way of understanding or a new creation of knowledge and understanding.

Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) describe this process of constructing new knowledge in relation to children, but I propose here to use it as a way of understanding how as a group of educators we too construct new ways of being and seeing.

“Recognizing the function and peculiarities of conversations held in small groups is an important step for adults.  It requires the adult to shift from a perspective which sees language as the revealer of thought to that of language as a generator of thought…It is possible therefore, to see group discussion as a way in which to create knowledge instead of being simply a method for discovering who has what knowledge.”

On a study tour, it is easier to go and see and find out ‘the ways to become a better educator’  – a process of osmosis where you seep up the educational chlorophyll from others who have already discovered a better way of being.   This experience of mutual exchange has enabled through active participation, constructive dialogue and group discussion/exchange a method to generate and create new ways of being and thinking.

As a group of children sat talking and painting about the transformation of colour in leaves, another group drew what this discussion group looked like. It reminded me of the importance of seeing ourselves from a different perspective.

What I have also understood so far from this experience, is that there is no one singular way of improving education, there is no necessary singular path to follow, we must not become all the same even though we may share values and principles. I understand too that there is still also the danger of responding to what is seen and felt and lived passively i.e. to become consumers of thinking rather than searching for the possible third way.  We might do this in looking for answers on the how and what we want to change and develop, the bits that we already know don’t quite work.  We have to be wary of just looking for solutions, too easily.

So, instead of focusing on the what and how of our educational practices maybe we should first start from the point of view of why.

Our questions in the beginning were:

  1. How do we work with parent participation (strategies, methods, building mutually respectful relationships)?
  2. How do we think about the environment and prepare materials and areas for children and children’s own choices?
  3. How do we construct meaningful learning projects?

But the danger lies in how we might replicate what each other does in our differing settings and doing so in admiration of the other but without critically deconstructing the experience and reconstructing new possibilities.  I realise now that our questions should have been written instead as:

  • Why do we want to encourage parents to be active and equal participants in the educational experience of young children?
  • Why should we think about the educational environments and materials we offer children?
  • Why construct meaningful learning projects for young children?

Maybe, if we think about the why, learn to construct and reinvent our knowledge and practices continuously we can indeed transform our practices.


Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) in Reggio Children Reggio Tutta: A guide to the city by the children.