A is for Aesthetics

Google “alphabet chart” and you get over 16 million results.  Most of them look like this.

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Q is for quilt, D is for Duck… we’re all pretty familiar with these – they’re ubiquitous.

They’re also inexpensive, available at every teacher supply store and online, and they’re bright and colourful – kids like that kind of stuff, right?

Well, I’m not so sure – I’m not sure that kids’ aesthetics are actually what we think they are.

I think that as adults we tend to see childhood through a hazy lens: all idealized, sun-shiny, primary-coloured innocence.  Is our point of view skewed by our own need to frame our childhoods in a positive light?  Is it motivated by our need to protect our kids and place their childhoods in a box that we feel is known, something predictable and, we hope, predictably safe?  The coexistence of this cutesy aesthetic alongside the hyper-sexualization of children in so much of popular culture is bewildering – we seem, as a culture, to want it both ways.  We want to cute-ify childhood by rounding its edges and trimming off the ragged, risky, fun bits, while at the same time chipping away at it from the other side by pushing children to grow up too fast.  The mind boggles.

After years of watching kids draw, paint, dance, and build I’ve become convinced that our adult ideas about childhood aesthetics are mostly wrong.  Kids are, by and large, very uninterested in cute.  They are also very uninterested in products.  For most of them it’s all about the process.  The things they draw, paint, and build aren’t cute – most of the time they aren’t beautiful either.  They’re interesting, they’re puzzling, they’re absorbing, they’re real.  Often, like a post-modern artist, they’re more interested in the properties of the material than they are in the visual effect.

Kids have emotions that are as strong, or stronger, than adults; when was your last temper tantrum? They experience the full emotional range and they express their experiences in their artwork.  We shouldn’t be surprised that their aesthetic sense has very little relationship to our manufactured ideal – we made that, they didn’t.

So what do they make when they’re given a chance?  When we pay attention to their expressions of understanding, what sort of alphabet reference do they create?  I’m sure they make lots of things that we miss but we did catch this one and I wanted to share it with you because I think the contrast is illuminating.  What it’s not is as important as what it is.

Have a great March break!

student-led alphabet chart
Printed on vinyl, images altered so that each letter remains coloured while the background is in black and white

 

How did this alphabet chart come to be?  Here’s the story:

The E – made with snap cubes – came first. The child shared it with us spontaneously and our ECE created a provocation with it. She taped 26 plastic pockets along the wall, each with a question mark in it. In the 5th one she put a black and white copy of the photo showing the child holding her snap cube E. When kids asked us what the pockets were for we responded by asking what they thought they were for. Eventually, they figured out that they could fill in the blanks with other letters. Then they started creating letters in lots of different ways – play dough, blocks, tiles, bodies – and we would share them and add them to the wall.  Later we edited the photos to make the letters stand out and had them printed in three long pieces.

The best field trip… EVER

We go on a lot of field trips in our class.  I believe in the power of getting outside, off the school grounds, and out into the community.   I really think that one of the things that separates children who succeed and children who fall through the cracks is the richness of their experience; when they come to a book, a math problem, or, heaven forbid, a test question that references an experience like going to a restaurant or riding on a train, the children who’ve had those experiences have an inherent advantage over those who haven’t.  Their broader schema gives them a leg up when confronting new information.  While as teachers we don’t generally have it in our power to take children on airplanes or ski trips, we can take them as many places as possible.  When you’re out and about you are open to new and surprising experiences that may go well beyond the stated objectives of the trip.  So far this year we’ve been to the art gallery and on community walks to urban and green spaces but our latest community walk may go down in the history of my teaching career as the best field trip ever.

It started out as a fairly standard walk.  We were on the hunt for letters – on signs, graffiti, and in the environment.  I handed out the cameras and off we went, pausing frequently to snap photos.

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There were some hairy moments as there are always are when you venture downtown with small children.  Walking sedately in the middle of the sidewalk is not the forté of four and five year olds.  These adventures sometimes require nerves of steel.

We were making our way back to school, crossing over the train tracks, when serendipity found us.

A train engine was chugging towards the bridge and, as it approached, the engineer started sounding the whistle.

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The kids started to squeal with delight and I found myself laughing out loud.  Everyone was smiling.  The train passed under the bridge, sounding its horn (please forgive my total lack of railway terminology).  It was so loud that it shook the bridge.  You could feel it in your chest.

One of the men on the engine got out and turned a switch on the track, waved at the kids, and hopped back on the engine.

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Then they reversed back down the track with the engineer taking over the waving.

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Once again, they gave our chests a rattle as they passed under the bridge.  It was totally thrilling and it wasn’t an experience we ever would have had if we had stayed in the schoolyard.

So – please – be brave and take that class outside!