The last play

The weeks that my kids spend at summer camp are usually my opportunity to purge the accumulation of stuff in our house. If I can get it done when they’re not looking, they usually don’t notice that the toy-they-haven’t-played-with-in-two-years-but-is-super-precious-and-can’t-be-thrown-out is missing. This year, like everything else, my annual donate-a-thon has been different.

Firstly, the kids didn’t go to camp so we’ve essentially been together non-stop for 6 months. Secondly, very few places are taking donations of used toys/clothes/books.

My kids’ constant presence this summer has made it very tough to get any of their extensive collections pared back. They go to bed later now so unless I time my covert eviction sessions for early in the morning, I’m out of luck. I can occasionally get them to agree to giving away clothes or books but toys are really, really hard. Even though they very rarely play with them, each toy has an emotional attachment that resists separation, claws out.

But even when I do manage to get them to admit that, no they haven’t played with that pirate ship in three years, and yes, some other child would probably enjoy it, actually getting it out of the house presents it’s own challenges as very few places are taking donations in the pandemic.

So, the toys sit there by the front door, waiting for a new home.

And then something curious happened.

The 12 year old boy who eats two bowl of cereal before bed, who insists that his name is Jeffrey the 3rd-and-a-half (his name isn’t Jeffrey at all), and who thinks it’s hilarious that his armpits smell terrible because it’s yet another way he can torment his sister stumbles across the bag of plastic animals that I promised to one of my Kindergarten teachers and starts playing.

Battle groups of bears

And just like that, time rolls back.

I hear him from the other room, making guttural noises and talking in voices, pretending to be a dinosaur, then a kangaroo, then a bear. I sneak around the corner to spy on my boy/man.

He’s making teams, and organizing battle groups, figuring out who could beat whom (turkey versus kangaroo… who would win?). His elongated pre-adolescent legs folded underneath him in a posture only young hips (or yogis) can tolerate, totally engrossed in play, in a way he hasn’t been for months.

It was so beautiful, and so very sad. He was once an epic player, he could do this for hours, on his own, totally engrossed in a universe of his own imagining. I used to marvel at the way he’d give himself over to the experience with such total intense focus – before fishing and bike riding with his buddies and Minecraft lured him away.

But the playing days are almost over. Take a picture. Hold your breath. Make a wish. And maybe hold onto that pirate ship for just a little longer.

Surreptitious photography

A is for Aesthetics

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

81nR8RxehtL

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.