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.

Children, Empathy, Ideas and Ecology

maxresdefaultLoris Malaguzzi, recalling Barry Commoner wrote that ‘ecology will be the alphabet of the future.  We are part of an ecosystem…our earthly journey is a journey made together with the environment, with nature, with the cosmos…[This is] where the great web of our lives exists.”  

Malaguzzi, inspired also by Gregory Bateson was convinced that children, like adults are not separate to and living upon this world but are an integral part of it.  They both talk about the interconnectedness of systems within systems and that nothing can ever be seen in isolation.  It is not about parts or wholes but as a self organising, relational learning system.

There is a vitality and life to learning with and of children, they do not stand still, instead they move with energy making connections between connections.  They are multi-modal with each modality informing each other.  I think this is what Malaguzzi describes in the 100 Languages of Children poem, not of individual languages of learning but of how each language relates to another and another and so on…

This way of working in a relational way or as they say in Reggio ‘a pedagogy of relations’ can make teaching complex.  There are no timetables or boxes, or set lessons for children… we might think we are teaching this and that, but to the young child, their learning is a continuum of continuums.  I have seen this first hand, when observing children in a nursery aged three and four – they move like the wind or as Nora Bateson commented like synapses in the brain and so do their ideas.  Some teachers might think they are flitting, or not settling, or even worse, off task, but they are often deeply engaged in ways in which many an adult has forgotten to be.  Learning flows, not in one direction, but in many directions with no beginning and no end, a complex web, Malaguzzi’s idea of the great web of our lives.

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Patterns of the trees music, Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK

 

So what happens when children are in nature, feeling their ecological connection to the greater web?  Sometimes they might stop and wonder, in awe of leaf, or feather, or tree, but hardly do they stay still at that.  They don’t want to label or categorise what they have found for that is to put it into a ‘box’ that takes it away from the interconnected web.  Instead their curiosity leads them to wonder about the connections it holds, how it is organised with others that might be similar or different.  They look for Gregory Bateson’s ‘patterns that connect’.

When finding many curled up leaves that had fallen to the ground, one group of three year olds commented that they were poorly, that they had lost their Mommy who was waiting for them back up in the tree. The fact that the leaves were curled up inside one another was to them a way of giving each other a hug. Children elsewhere, also three and four try to take the leaves back, returning them to whence they came as if they had become lost from each other.  Another group of children, upon seeing a crisp golden floor of leaves used them metaphorically to create a leaf blanket “to keep the tree warm.”   Another child, made a scarf for a single autumnal leaf “Because it‘s winter and it will get cold, that’s why it has fallen off the tree.”

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

Children have a strong sense of empathy with the world and the cosmos.  One could argue that this empathy is already inside of them and that it comes out in conditions that foster and generate it.  It makes me feel sad when children are ‘taught’ about empathy, as if it isn’t a capability of theirs already waiting for itself to become known.  Children reveal their deep sense of emotional and physical empathy with the leaves of this world as they do with trees, branches, and insects etc.  It is important to cultivate this disposition already inside of the children if they are to maintain this empathy with the world and its finite resources.

So what are the conditions for thinking and expressing ideas about empathy in education?  Well, we could begin with listening to children, and holding always a strong respect for their ideas no matter how off beat, or naive they seem.  We need to see ways of learning and the ideas themselves as connected, as living and moving interconnected thoughts.  We must encourage the multiplicity of ideas and points of view as “everything has more versions” says Nora Bateson, where those somersaults in thinking  (Diane Kashin) can somersault in multiple directions and dimensions.  And then there is us, as teacher or parent, or friend by children’s side who need to act with such sensitivity, who look for relationships, the places where there is energy, to examine and become open to look for the unexpected as a possibility of newness, of fresh ideas, of different ways of thinking about something, even something as simple as a leaf.  Often children’s play is not given the due attention it deserves.  In paying attention we notice their relationships to knowledge and experiences that have the potential to transform theirs and our own beliefs.  However, and so very sadly, this way of being is at odds to a system that values education as an efficient measure of instruction where children are packaged as individual units ready to serve at the altar of the economy.

There is often a poetic approach to children’s construction and expression of ideas.  Art and aesthetics is seemingly at the heart of learning in education for young children therefore we must put it at the heart.  That doesn’t mean we fill children’s time with make and copy crafts, or make use of templates, worksheets and other reductionist methods.  No, we must attune ourselves again with the poetics of learning, find a new aesthetic of a relationship between learning and teaching.  One that listens carefully to children, to the things they wonder about and notice in the world. As Claudia Guidicci of Reggio Children discusses:

“If we perceive children’s learning to be multi-disciplinary, trans- disciplinary, poly-sensorial then we must embrace and generate the contexts for children to represent, communicate and express their thoughts through diverse mediums and symbolic systems.”

So, if we are to generate the right contexts for children we need for children’s meaning-making to be a central attribute of our pedagogy.  They need to have an emotional engagement with the subject and we have to understand the meaning of their and our own experiences.  Children are so open to the world of ideas of the world, to the possibilities that science has to offer us as a way of asking questions.  Their ideas are often related to bodies of knowledge in the field of science, philosophy, anthropology, ancient wisdoms… as educators we need to be open to knowledge beyond what is safe and already known to us. As Jeff Bloom reminded me, their ideas are also fantastical and although might not be ‘accurate’ are often at the edge of scientific exploration and should become the questions that scientists and the such need to be asking to see further ways of knowing our world.

In doing so we enable children to make their own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgements, and feelings of others. Transformative learning like this develops renewed and flexible learning as well as being rich in critical thinking.

So I am an advocate not just of being in the world, the woods and the forests, the beaches and caves, the meadows and oceans but to listen with ones whole body to make it possible to see what ourselves and children love and wonder about when encountering these places.  Ideas and places are interlinked, they are not separate.  If I have learned anything from closely observing young children it is that they are, to quote Gregory Bateson “…living in a world of ideas.” and those ideas are as connected to the world and the cosmos as it is themselves.  

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