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