Never, ever draw for a child?

 

What was once a wise recommendation to support children’s drawing without drawing images for them seems to have gradually evolved into a powerful absolute with regrettable consequences for teaching practice. When I heard of a centre where this guideline has been extended to an instruction to ‘never, ever draw with, for, or near a child’, I was galvanised to explore why it is that I sometimes do draw with and even ‘for’ children, and why I instinctively feel that it is of value.

What are the perceived hazards of drawing with a child? Primarily, children will think that yours is ‘the right way’ and will slavishly imitate you, thus cramping their creative self-expression and motivation to discover for themselves.

Being creative in front of children

Should one then also not assemble a train track, sing, make mud pies, dance, or tell a story in front of a child in case they conclude that these are ‘the right ways’ to do those things? Will children therefore think their own efforts will not be good enough? How does one scaffold creativity? And what if Grand-dad doesn’t know these principles? What is the danger if younger children emulate older siblings and peers? What happens when a child receives five different impressions of how people sing, draw, work in the garden, use playdough and tell a particular story? Clearly children successfully cope with this, just as they are able to learn three languages before they are five, simply through exposure. Should we stop being creative because children are watching? I believe the reverse is desirable: that we should model (and advocate for) creativity. And challenge, as Simon Nicholson did when he proposed his theory of loose parts, the elitist mindset whereby ‘the vast majority of people’ have to leave creativity in music, painting, architecture, literature, and the sciences to the ‘creative gifted few’.

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The four A’s of intuitive storytelling and the volcano seed.

David Sewell writes about the four A’s of intuitive storytelling and I am beginning more and more to understand what he is talking about. He refers to Attention, Affection, Approach and Allow. At the recent workshop on empathy and toddlers, we finished with a story… and I produced a basket of random props .P1120700

Together we selected some characters which we were drawn to… mostly ones that I was drawn to but the other women also contributed, and they also helped name the characters. I threw my scarf over my knees and announced that it was a mountain with a volcano at the top and the bottom was the river, on the banks of which lived our main protagonists.

 

There was a girl who was named (Leonie?) and she had a pet chicken and they liked to row on the river in their boat and talk about the important things of life. The mother stood on one of the banks with an empty cooking pot.

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Having chosen the characters, one now has to invest them with significance and detail, such as names, strengths, challenges and favourite activities. One can also find oneself drawn to explain the key idea of the story and respond with affection and acceptance to whatever arises most prominently in one’s vision or in one’s imagination ( or which a child offers as an idea).

There were two more characters or items that drew our affectionate attention and which we accepted with confidence and conviction. There was a lion who lived at the top of the volcano and who guarded a chest with something within.

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The plot of the story was that the volcano kept erupting and destroying the crops of the people who lived below. I told the listeners that the contents of the chest were reputed to have great magical powers and asked if they knew what it could do? Someone suggested that it meant you could live for ever ( and I apologise for not accepting or attending to it appropriately!). Instead I said ‘How ghastly’, and they immediately changed it to ‘You would always have enough to eat’, which was a great offer since we had already established that currently they did not. (Also stories seem to work best when you stay as much within the realm of the reasonable….. castles made of jelly, although fun, usually end you up in a great deal of bother and tricky detail which, although clever, tends to lose the children, or overexcite them).

So now the scene is set, the characters are named, the dilemma is articulated: hunger… and the goal has been identified: to try and get to the chest.

So we have worked with the first three A’s that David Sewell mentions. We had attended to various options, been affectionate and accepting of them ( apart from living forever!) and we have approached… we are now right in the thick of the story, in a boat on the river, poised for the plot to unfold. This is what he calls allowing. He also says that Aboriginal people believe that stories are like sorts of ghosts who want to be ‘told’ and if you don’t tell it, they have to wander off until they can find someone willing to ‘tell ‘ them.

So, it transpired that Leonie, the girl, and Cluck, the chicken, decided to explore the volcano and have an adventure. As they approached the peak of the mountain, they talked about trying to get into the chest. They got scared, they reassured each other, and empathised with each other’s nervousness. It turned out that Chuck had a plan which she explained to Leonie ( and to me, because until that second I did not know either!). It would have been truer to the archetypal story if they had met a fifth character who  needed some sort of help that Leonie and Chuck could provide and then that character might have endowed Chuck with the brilliant idea… you know the principle of the wise helper who ‘tests’  your  humanity and offers an unexpected gift in exchange? )P1120684

 

She would fly over the lion and lay an egg mid air… (this is the story now telling itself… I simply opened my mouth as Cluck, and that is what she said! I was all admiration! She pointed out, with my help, that laying an egg in midair is very hard because you can’t push against the ground with your feet while you push the egg out).

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She flew off to distract the lion with this scheme and achieved great aim and once again, I was surprised by the story because the lion immediately transformed into a big wuss and lay on his side, and whined for his mother, “Mum, mum, there’s egg in my hair , oh yukky yukky’.

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This was handy as it gave Leonie time to rush in and extract the treasure. It was a round red felted ball.. They ran off down the mountain, and I have no idea what will happen next… the story is telling itself and it did again.

Leonie (me) failed to have a good grip with her little china hands and dropped the ball which rolled over my knee and fell into the river.

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Suddenly I could see where the story wanted to go… the red ball hit the water with a resounding ‘hissss’ as its fiery heat was extinguished.  And do you know what this meant? Yes, the women listeners did… it was the seed heart of the volcano which had been extinguished and it would never erupt again, and the crops were never ruined again and they always had enough to eat! I mean how tidy is that for an ending!!? Brilliant in my view… and it was absolutely to do with allowing.,.. if I had tried too hard, I would probably have gotten myself into a knot and a stuck place…. but instead it fell into place.. ..literally. And of course, they made friends with the lion who came and lived with them and told wonderful scary bedtime stories to Leonie and Chuck, about the volcano that was no more. (You can see my hand trying to get the ( now deceased ) ball out of sight!!)P1120696

Post script: in many ways, I suppose this is called improvisation, and/but it is a very mysterious process. I took part in a storytelling improv weekly class last year and it is similar. It has to do with playfulness, trust and a willingness to take risks… but as David Sewell illuminates, ultimately the biggest challenge ( or the most important part) is possibly ‘allowing’. We want to maintain control, we are self-conscious and so we lose the juice of the whole affair. Do you also see how this style of story telling is so very similar to what children do when they play with their toys ? And how, if they have loose parts to play with, they happily improvise and include them in the plot, and use all the wonderful language, ideas, concepts, knowledge, working theories, and cultural capital that they have in their hearts, minds and imaginations as they are going along, never worrying about how it will all turn out…!! in the same  way that they play in the sandpit or do a painting… which is why their  paintings are often so brilliant!!

One of the key maxims of the improv class was that ‘gold was discovered,  not invented’, meaning you don’t have to bust your gut making up stuff…it just allow it to unravel and let it be discovered. If the Aboriginal people are right, it is dead keen to be discovered!

Here is the link on which you can find long articles on the first two A’s and the third two are also there if you dig around!  I got a bit tired just putting up this article! boy, it’s a mission. First you have to compress your photos and then you find they are too small and fuzzy but it is too late, cos your photographer has gone home!! and you can’t take more! http://thewonderofchildhood.com/2011/02/sparkle-stories/   and this link takes you to two longer articles about the two A’s… http://thewonderofchildhood.com/tag/storytelling-in-waldorf/