On the child

"Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and, most of all, connected to adults and other children." [loris malaguzzi]

Sunday, July 11, 2010


GOTCHA! if you know me or are just getting to know me, you probably think this title is coming out of left field. no worries, have not lost my mind – just have a point to make!

the other day i was organizing, categorizing and maybe even purging (insert applause here) my professional bookcases and set aside a few early acquisitions that seemed not to fit into the current collection of books. it’s a small pile, mind you, but one that gave me cause to pause and reflect about my evolution as an educator. on the top of the stack, staring back at me in all of its cheery children cutting out uniform shapes of construction paper, was CRAFTORAMA [name has been changed to protect the innocent!] with a 1984 copyright.

the book was something i got (possibly even from a book-of-the-month club free enrollment package. SCORE!) early on in my journey as an educator – probably when i spent a year as a live-in nanny (right after college) or when a few years later, i began teaching italian to preschool-age children in a weekend program.

as you might imagine, the book is filled with halloween witches on broomsticks, santa’s with cotton ball beards, heart-shaped pizzas, and yellow school buses but, believe it or not, no hand-print turkeys (there are instructions for something called “circle turkey,” though, made from a paper plate!) as i leaf through the book with a mix of contempt, fascination and confusion, i wonder if i will be able to let go of this book. there is something so charmingly old-fashioned and naïve about it. i feel a certain reverence towards it, as if it was an archeological artifact of a by-gone era (like finding your grandmother's recipe for jello salad.)

i can feel the cockles of my heart warming up, as i work my way through each chapter. i loved making some of this kind of stuff when I was a child – the father’s day handprint clay ashtray, the mother’s day tea party hat, the kleenex tissue ghosts.

and suddenly i am reminded of just how much i treasured the “365 bedtime stories” book my sister and i had as children. there was something magical about having a special story or poem for each night, something comforting about going back to it year after year, never once thinking of reading anything out of order. it was a ritual, and rituals bring order, comfort, and predictability to life.

i kind of wish i  could access my childhood box of mementos right this very second (but it just so happens to be on the other side of the country – so that ain’t gonna happen!) and go through each item my mother or I chose as a keepsake to landmark moments in my childhood.

when we lived in italy, my sister and i each had a gray milk crate in the bottom of our bedroom closet, where mummy had begun to collect artifacts of our lives – locks of hair, our first passports, clippings of things that happened on the day we were born, report cards, our first scribbles, my remarkable portrait of my father in which he oddly resembled a large phallus (whatcha think about that, freud?), my first school autography book, the very first research paper i ever wrote, and so on.

how does this all apply to my educational philosophy and practice? how has my experience shaped me as a teacher? i have very mixed feelings about construction paper (well, let's be honest  - strong feelings) and markers (especially the chubby ones.) i prefer to stock my classroom and studio with white paper, black thin-tipped flair and sharpie markers, beautiful colored pencils in a wide range of colors (prismacolors are my favorites), and an assortment of open-ended re-purposed, recycled and reclaimed materials.

this does not mean that moments of teacher instruction and everyone doing the same thing have all gone out the window with the child-centered play-based emergent curriculum. i do give demos - let’s even call them “lessons” (borrowing from my year in a montessori elementary classroom) - on how to use “real” artist tools and materials. i do ask children to follow directions; to learn the proper way to squeeze acrylic or watercolor paint out of tube; to mix colors on a palette; to rinse, dab and dry a paintbrush without crushing the delicate bristles; and to use those foundations to let their creativity soar.

the likely outcome is that children, given the proper tools and the time to explore with them, will not churn out a series of cookie cutter handprint turkeys after they have had a taste of something more real. they might just create the next masterpiece you will want to steal away with, so you can hang it on your wall at home. a couple of days ago, i was in a home where one of the prominent works of art in the dining room, was the eldest child’s preschool interpretation of a bunch of brussels sprouts. now, even discounting the fact that i love this much-maligned vegetable, for a moment i coveted the painting, and plotted how to get it out of the house unnoticed, for it was an interpretation worthy of a gallery wall.

"First you become receptive, and then you become creative." [osho]

Saturday, July 10, 2010


so what does an unemployed (going on a year but things are looking up! yay!) early childhood educator and girl who loves beautiful and wondrous things do to satisfy her need to discover and experience contemplative moments of wonder. well, there's the neighborhood nature walk - usually stealth ones around dusk with a bag in hand - while i collect random treasures from nature - the odd eucalyptus leaf, a fallen mossy branch, a prickly pod or two or three. there's 'dumpster diving', also known in the Bay Area as 'bulk trash day' - no need to actually swan dive head first into a smelly trash receptacle. there's the strange gifts from strangers - just last week, i scored about 100 gently used golf balls that were just sitting there in a box next to the parking space i happened to pull into. a perfect addition to a block building area, or material for a 'sink & float' activity.

and then there's my guilty pleasure - some people channel surf, but when you don't have cable and the mail carrier has not kept up the steady flow of little red envelopes and DVDs - then there's the FREE page on Craigslist. it is here that in the last six weeks, i have scored two great finds. the first, a trash bag filled with approximately 50 pounds of (totally sanitized) metal bottle caps. an instant collection or one step closer to starring in my own episode of a reality show? well, that's a topic for another day.

as an early childhood educator and atelierista, i was thrilled to find the posting for the bottle caps and even more excited to actually win the lottery and have the owner chose me as recipient of her largess. it made it so much better to know that she also is a teacher and that her son, now in high school, had been collecting the bottle caps since age 10.

now why do you ask would i go into a tizzy over a plain old bottle cap. well, besides the fact that there is something so charmingly old-fashioned about them, especially when they are from a soda bottle - as a child i used to collect little treasures, like bottle caps (in my case from Italian sparkling water), and remember sorting them, admiring them, counting them and squirreling them away with great pride. they were my treasures and they could not have been more precious or appreciated if they had been made of gold.

as an early childhood educator, over the years i have been experimenting with ways to replace stale, commercial and generic classroom materials with 'beautiful stuff' and open-ended materials that reminded me of my own childhood, and invite wonder and discovery. so why not offer a beautiful basket of bottle caps in a classroom as a material for sorting, matching, classifying and counting, and creating?

as a studio teacher, i have made bottle caps available for children to string, thread and wrap with wire. all it takes is a hammer and a nail for a child to make the perfect hole. and bottle caps turn out to be a very satisfying thing to nail onto things too. driving a nail into wood is great, but driving a nail through a bottle cap into a piece of wood (over and over again), is a whole other ball game!

this morning i meandered through oakland and berkeley, taking the 'scenic route' to go pick up another free craigslist find - a collection of treasures collected while beachcombing by an artist who (thumbs up to her!) was now letting go of some of her stuff. i had been looking forward for several days to getting my hands on this handy-me- down treasure. and what i conjured up in my imagination was just as good and satisfying as what i found in the shoebox the artist lovingly placed in my hands. she stopped to point out a few pieces - limpets, bright shiny green mussel shells, and the tiniest of treasures contained in a small ziplock bag. my best guess was that the small pointy white objects were the teeth of some lilliputian shark. when the artist opened up the bag, she cupped in the palm of her hand a miniscule white swan and she told me how her mother had first introduced her to one, so many years ago. the little swan turned out to be part of the inside of a crushed sand dollar. it wasn't much bigger than one the freckles on my arms, and could have passed for just an insignificant crumb, a speck of a nature. but what a gift, i was given, the glimpse of something magical. a beautiful white swan with its wings outstretched ready to take flight.

"Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everthing is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity." [twila tharp]