Drawing and Young Children: Re-Connecting With Our Own Poetic Languages

I was privileged last week to be invited to run a workshop about drawing, teaching and young children.  My work began by collecting many different types of drawing media (inks, watercolours, charcoal, soft pastels, oil pastel, pencil crayons of different varieties, aqua crayons, non permanent and permanent markers, graphite, charcoal pencils to name a few.  I also collected together many different surfaces of ‘paper’ including brown paper, textured paper, acetate, corrugated card, cartridge paper of different weights and colours, paper napkins, bubble wrap, tissue and mulberry papers, transparent, opaque and paper of differing sizes.  I aimed to create a palette of surfaces for where the marker would encounter its resting place.

imageIn the book of the exhibition, Mosaic, Marks, Words, Material by Reggio Children (2016) they challenge the viewer to engage in their own poetic thinking in order to see and savour the exhibit.  I took this challenge back to the educators with whom I was working with, to challenge our own thinking and to reconnect with our own creative and expressive languages.

In order to truly see and value children’s poetic expressions the book challenges us to engage wth our own sense of the poetic, the expressive, the imaginative, the metaphoric, so the day was taken up with two practical sessions.

dscn1293Session One involved the testing and hypothesising about the materials offered, finding out what they can do, their affordances, their ways of making marks upon the surfaces available.

 

dscn1301Session Two involved the use the materials and the knowledge gained from the first session to express an idea, to offer a poetic representation in marks and materials.  The idea was to represent a personal idea or something related to the ideas being constructed in the research within their own classrooms together with young children aged 3-4.dscn1303

Many ideas were explored, ideas about houses that belonged in the sky, the difference between noise and music, the representation of a song, of a piece of embroidered fabric, an angry sky, a happy sky,  the phases of the moon.  In doing so, the educators became makers of marks that entwined with the surfaces and narrators of their own metaphors and poetry.  At times, the talk was rich, at other times, we were silent in with our thoughts and making.  We engaged in a kind of slow movement, giving time to the activity of drawing and the expression of thinking.

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What became apparent was that it was the surface of the drawing (often created by ripping up and attaching pieces to another surface that drove and motivated us to make marks.  A finding also of the educators in Reggio Emilia – it was if the surface ‘spoke’ to us of how it could be used and encountered.  The materials therefore were not passive surfaces awaiting marks but surfaces that sought to be  dressed with markers in empathetic and reciprocal ways,  It made me think of how important it is to offer different types of surfaces of ‘paper’ to children, not just as a way of offering diversity but as offering different languages upon which to verbally speak upon.

The sessions enabled educators to become familiar with the materials and drawing instruments, understanding both their affordances and difficulties and thus be better prepared to understand from the child’s point of view how they might experiment and make-meaning with the characteristics and properties of the materials.  It also enabled educators to ‘feel’ how it is to express an idea, how vulnerable it can be, and how we discover and experiment with different strategies (just like the children do) to offer our marks as communicative and expressive acts of a visual nature.

If you work with children, give time to you to draw for yourself, and in doing so, you will notice more of what children do and perhaps, as Malaguzzi famously said, perhaps your teaching will be different from before.

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Aesthetics of Relationships in the Early Childhood Classroom

img_4891.jpgThe aesthetics of learning or the seeking out of beauty and loveliness as Vecchi (2010) described it has been embraced by the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy and can be seen in the ateliers, the spaces and rich environments of the schools, the presentation of children’s learning processes through pedagogical documentation as well as in the materials offered to children on a daily basis to contemplate.  On study visits to the schools you cannot fail to see the beauty in how they organise their spaces for children and educators to learn alongside of each other.  Aesthetics in this context is a poly-sensorial approach to understanding each other and the world.

Dissanayake (2000), talks about aesthetics as a sensibility that defines how people intentionally show what they value, appreciate and care about.  It is a playful way of being receptive to elaboration, exaggeration and emphasis and is about understanding and communicating the human condition.   This implies that aesthetics can be related to the idea of relationships too in all their forms.  Relationships between people, children, between objects, materials, environments and places.

d51f7f79345debd680aa3d43ab3be6d1Carroll (1999) considers the aesthetic experience as a way of encountering stimuli that involve attention, contemplation and thoughtful perusal that must involve being open and attentive.  In this way, aesthetics is capturing of attention and wonderment.

In the presentation at the First International Summer School in Reggio Emilia (2010) Vea Vecchi and Claudia Giudicci described how aesthetics must hold a significant pedagogical presence because it is an important part of being human and for children this aesthetical sensibility is their primary method and activator of learning.  The real risk for us all is if we fail to embrace the aesthetics of the relationships of learning is that education becomes mere technique, that learning is simply seen as an efficient and functional way of doing something that conveys no thought or feeling but that is easily measured and feels robotic rather than humanistic.

Aesthetics and expression are for Vecchi (2010)  “…activators of learning in all children’s ways of knowing”.  In her presentation to the International Summer School she gave the example of the yearly provocation of autumnal leaves.  Leaves are something that are familiar to many teachers across the world and used at some point to discuss and ponder the changing of the season.  However, all too often dried, decaying leaf corpses are collected and displayed.   An inherent danger in this is that we teach children that autumn is about death and about the colours orange and brown.  Instead she suggests we should contemplate the whole pulsating life cycle of the tree and not just the leaf and to see colour not as one shade but of many possible variations. Aesthetics exists here in the complexity of the relationships of life and nature and the relations inherent with it, us, the world and the cosmos.

Children were asked if they thought trees were alive.  Children responses included:

“I think trees are alive because they make apples, they make leaves, they make wind.” Marco aged 4.

“The roots are very, very important because they are the tree’s brain.” Giuseppe and Giulia aged 5-6.

“The [tree] seed already knows how it has to become.” Vittoria aged 5.

In these early beginnings children were not just confronting the crumbled form of a leaf devoid of its mother tree but expressing their thinking regarding the aliveness of trees.  Knowledge rather than something fixed was seen as fluid and provisional and worthy of elaboration and multiple perspectives.

#2lgTo elaborate and re-present these provisional theories clay was offered as medium capable of being moulded and shaped by small hands to form many different expressions of tree and aliveness.  Children sought different ways of expressing their theories, searching for the most beautiful ways to communicate and make visible their thinking.  In the work with clay, children must understand the techniques so that their trees can stand up but often children would make thin trunks, which were weak and bent over. Vecchi said there were different paths one could follow at this point.  The first one involved the adult showing them a specific technique of how to make a strong trunk. Although this path does not do any harm, the result is often one of many technically good but identical trees.  The second is a hopeful context that sees the educator sitting on their hands, being watchful and hoping for children to solve the problem.  This pathway often results in children moving away to another activity instead, a diversionary tactic that fails to resolve problems.  The third path involves generating an active group context that enables children to experiment with their diverse engineering solutions to the direct problem posed by the educator (based on their observations) of ‘how to make a strong tree?’ This results in many different methods that are modified and elaborated, selected and refined until a firm creative solution evolves within the group of children.

This third way (an intra-active and generative context) enabled children to create a set of trees that communicated their thinking of how and why trees were alive and gave possibility for re-elaboration of their theories as the seasons progressed.  It involved pausing to explore techniques (of making something stand up strong and bear weight), referencing of other languages capable of expression (their drawings and verbal commentary), of being part of a group working together on a shared theme together with a competent educator knowing when to ask and pose questions, when to listen and when and how to act on what is seen and heard.

To separate out these aesthetic and expressive encounters into skill based teaching of technique is meaningless and counterproductive to children’s learning.  It is like sounding out words that you don’t yet know what they mean let alone use them in a sentence.  To separate instead of connect is to become technical rather than relational, rigid rather than flexible, ignorant instead of empathetic, reductionist rather than complex, poor instead of rich.  If we choose to take a path that tends to separate out the different disciplines, that works in a compartmentalised way then we choose myopia – a state of being that lacks imagination, is short-sighted and dangerous.

Giudici and Vecchi reminded me that aesthetics and expressivity offer an alternative educational path that embraces learning as a way of wondering, of seeking beauty, of looking for the complexities, of searching for connective and multiple networks and modes of understanding.  It enables children to show what they care about and enables others opportunities to visibly listen to what they say in a hundred languages.  Aesthetics is a way of knowing that for many politicians and economists may seem unessential and irrelevant right now, but this myopic viewpoint is to deny children an expressive voice and to deny them a powerful and generative and relational context of and for learning.

 

Ellen Dissanayake (2000) Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began.  University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Noel Carroll (1999) Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction.  Routledge, Oxon.

Vea Vecchi (2010) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia:  Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education.  Routledge, Oxon.

Claudia Giudicci and Vea Vecchi (6th July 2010) Presentation “Aesthetics of Learning”.  First International Summer School in Reggio Emilia, Italy.