Investigating Nature with 100 Languages

As every human being, you already own the “hundred languages” that the Italian pedagogista Loris Malaguzzi mentioned in his famous poem. This does not mean you need hundred materials or tools, but that you have hundred possibilities to enter in a relation with the world, starting from your wonder and using what you already have. Don’t think of a final product, as a realistic drawing of a flower or a leaf: just try to be in a relation with that flower or that leaf.

For example, have you ever really observed the colors of a flower you like? Are you able to count and name all of them? It is not as easy as it sounds. The “green” (as every other color’s name) includes such a large number of different hues that there are not enough words to identify and name them. Moreover, outside the color changes over time: through the seasons, during the day, and looking more closely, even at the same moment: just changing point of view, or because a cloud suddenly moves in front of the sun.

So what is the “true” color of the flower I am looking at?

And what if a child noticed the shaded colors of a petal, how – as educators – can we support this interest and make it develop? Of course, giving value to his observation, eventually making some questions. Adults and children are dialoguing and wondering together, it’s not an interview with the teacher writing the child’s answers for the documentation. This also means that they can just silently observe. Infact, making questions to children is not a good thing itself. A question could be asked too early or effects too much the answer. For example, what if a teacher asks the reason why colors change along with light before the child has noticed it?

Then, which materials could we offer to children and how, in order to deeper the investigation of chromatic shades? There isn’t only one right way – it depends on the context, the school organization, the age and the number of children, and so on. Anyhow, if we just invite children to choose some markers, it will be a very poor answer compared to the endless possibilities of overlapping and mixing colors (“of the hundred they steal ninety-nine”…).

Why don’t ask children what materials they think would be better in order to explore shades? Then, try to follow and support the process. Maybe children will choose markers but soon realize there are not enough chromatic tones… so their research will probably lead to water colors or gouche, as water is a crucial element for mixing colors (somehow closed to the nature of the shade’s phenomenon). I think it would be very different if the teacher offered water colors since the beginning.
What is the exact spot where a color ends and another begins? If we cannot clearly define the boundaries between different colors, we say there is a “shade”. So, what exactly is a shade?

According to the artist Paul Klee, a shade is a type of “order” typical of the natural world, that develops through a continuous process of “growing” and “decreasing” (crescendo and diminuendo), where the opposites flow into one another. On the other hand, the artificial order is poorer but perceptible through a kind of organization divided into measurable steps.

Klee made a deep research about plant forms and about how natural shapes develop. He was used to write his thoughts in a notebook, that later he used for teaching to his students at the Bauhaus school (all these notebooks have been printed in Italian in two beautiful books, I hope theys exist in English too).

For example, how does the leaf-shape form? According to Klee, the ribs are lines of constructive energy and the final shape depends on these forces: the outline is formed where the linear irradiation stops. From this perspective, the outside shape results as an effect of a inner, primary force (or cause). But many other answers and theories are possible from different perspectives.

The biologist and mathematician D’Arcy W. Thompson, in his book “On Growth and Form”, ventures into a search for algebraic formulas that regulate the growth of natural forms. From another point of view, the Italian designer Bruno Munari approaches every natural thing as a perfect example of good design and every natural shape as built according to laws of constructive economy. In his tiny book, “Good design”, he describes in technical details an orange, a pea pod and a rose, as perfect objects in which the absolute coherence of form, color, use, consumption is found.

What is the right explanation? There is not only one, nor even a unique way to look for it. As well as there are many languages ​​to look for an answer, many answers are needed to get closer to the truth. Moreover, an holistic approach – that holds together many dimensions – characterizes the spontaneous playing of children and their learning processes. Of course, I do not cites these theories for encouraging to agree with them or use them with children, but as examples of what rich and various processes can develop from every personal research. Have you ever tried your own one?

In light of this, why do exist some recurring proposals that are usually associated to the Reggio approach and the Hundred languages, like drawing the shadow of an object or a flower placed at the center of a table? Maybe, do we need ready-made answers because we do not trust “enough” that an interesting process will flourish from children?

Why drawing the shadow – among the hundred and hundred possibilities of exploring it? During my walks and researches into nature, the encounter with shadows had nothing to do with drawing. Once, it seemed to me that the leaves shadows of some branches were writing a code, an alphabet of different balances of full and empy spaces within the same shape. I was mainly interested in the visual rhythm created by the continuously changing interaction between leaves, light, air and my point of view. The process was leading me to play with some leaves-pentagrams…

What about the child originally interested in the petal’s shades? Maybe, he would continue to wonder about colors even through shadows: where does the color go when a shadow covers it? And what color is the shadow?

I think that the first-hand experience of a creative process is strictly connected with the capacity to trust others’ processes and let them flourish. What is your personal experience with the “hundred languages”? What are your favourite ones?

That shadow or that flower is unique, however many dimensions are there – scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, emotional, narrative – and they are all connected. The atelier is a place where these exploration paths can be developed thanks to materials and tools it offers.

That flower is one, the reality is one, but in the meantime it is reflected in hundred mirrors, one for each expressive languages and also one for each person. Isn’t it amazing?

Enjoy your nature exploration!

Playing with Loose Parts in the Atelier

Unstructured materials composition

How finding the right balance between rules and freedom, in order to support the creative process?
The image above is part of a 100 x 70 cm composition made by three five-year-old children with some loose parts. How do you think the creation process has developed? What was the proposal (if any) and the role of the adult?
First of all, consider it was the last of a series of atelier sessions dedicated to these materials. This is quite significant, since the first time need children meet a new material, they like to is freely explore it for a long enough time, knowing its potential and limits. So it’s better to postpone more specific proposals. But let’s start from the beginning.

I would have liked to offer an experience with loose parts – small pieces of plastic, metal, wood, cardboard, buttons, stoppers, scraps from industrial and artisan processing – all collected in various containers. But how presenting theml? As a completely free exploration? I could imagine that inebriating wealth and multiplicity became a confusing jumble in a few seconds… So how to “contain” children’s activity and stimulate a rich personal research at the same time?

My solution was a kind of game with a few, simple rules: a small group of children at a time, the materials neatly arranged on a table. Every child had a small container which he/she could use to “shop”, putting there the chosen materials. On other tables, there were white cardboard bases, where children “played” with their materials. Once the game (and the composition on the cardboard) was finished, the children could optionally take a picture of the final composition and gave it a title. Then they put all the used materials back into their personal container and divided them in the different respective containers. At this point, children could start the process again and again.

Another solution I tried is putting all the containers in the center of a large table, where the children could take the materials they needed from time to time. Maybe it was my need of order… Anyway, it worked. The rules were gladly accepted as part of a game and allowed children to manage themselves independently, respecting individual times. Even the final step of “destruction” of the work was “naturally” welcomed by children, that were immersed in a fast and intense research, without needing to “hold” a result. A demonstration of how the “attachment” to the product is more frequent in adults than children.

As children liked it very much, we repeated the same activity several times and I gradually introduced some variants: for example cardboard bases of different formats or a selecion of a certain range of materials (according to tactile, chromatic or other criteria). Some variations were stimulating for children, others were not. So I chose the next variant observing children’s responces. It was also interesting to observe how different materials influenced the composition and, at the same time, how the personal style of each child was recognizable through the diversity of materials: personal style and material characteristics are elements that are always intertwined in every work.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is comp-finale-costruzione2-1024x425.jpg

As last step, I proposed a group work: three children at a time, on a large format of 100 X 70 cm. Of course I knew that the format was too big to be “controlled” and organized with a shared project a priori. So I invited the children to start individually, from the side they preferred. Then each group followed process that organicaly unfolded, bring the various contributions together. Inspired by the forms that were gradually created and by some questions of mine, children gradually connected the three parts, both aesthetically and narratively. In this case, I proposed to fix the final composition on the sheet with glue, as a tangible conclusion of a long process and enhancement of a collective work. Product and process are both important: it’s up to us to understand when it’s time to focus on one rather than the other.

Every game has got its own rules, which are willingly accepted by who freely choose to play. Sometimes the rules “allow”, sometimes they “limit”, as well as total freedom can be an obstacle or an impetus for the creative process. There are not solutions that are always good. Each time we have to look for the right balance, taking into account the context and the objectives. It is a flexible dance between two necessary opposites. The empathic listening of children can help us to be attuned to their rhythm.

What’s the sound of paper?

the sound of paper and sound books

Colors, shapes, textures, consistency, hardness or softeness, weight, dimension, smells, sounds… Each material speaks to us through all our senses, but above all, we are used to consider the visual informations. Here I would like to share my investigation about an often overlooked aspect of a material I love: the sound of paper. How many action can we do creating different sounds with paper? Let’s try.

  • Crumpling
    Every action made with a different type of paper will produce different sound nuances. Reopening the paper and crumpling up again, will the noise be the same? You can collect various pieces of waste paper and crumple them, one after another, in a kind of sound farewell ritual before throwing them away.
  • Shaking
    Make the sheet vigorously oscillate in the air with one hand.
    The sound changes according to different dimensions and thickness of the sheet of paper.
  • Tearing
    You can draw the direction and the lenght of the tear, mark the stops, change speed and rhythm of tearing.
  • Rustling
    Have you ever tried to quickly leaf through the pages of a book? It makes a very nice sound… Here are some books I created in order to increase the rustling-sound, made of different kind of very “noisy” paper.

The pages can be cut in different size, so that it is easier to leaf through the book, investigating different sounds and finger movements. It is also possible to alternate strips of various types of paper in the same book, or to differentiate strips of the same type by glueing small objects, in order to increase the rustle. You can play a “Rustling Book” holding it by the bound side and shaking it, making it swing, pinching the pages with different rhythms.

Rustling books

Another kind of sound-paper-object is the Accordion Book. It is made by folding orthogonally two strips of paper joined at one end, as you can see in the picture below. Once the bending is finished, a thicker cardboard has been glued on the two ends. A rubber band fixed in the two cardboard pages will be used to insert the hands. You can play it holding both ends, then opening and closing it horizontally or outwards. Otherwise placing it on a table, then opening and closing it vertically with one hand.

accordion-book
Accordion book

You can also make a sound-book with a descriptive-narrative function that accompanies a story telling with some relevant noises at the right time.
“…she was going through the woods…” (rustling of crepe paper leaves)
“…and branches broke as he passed…” (crumpling of baking paper)

Sound-book

“…they slowly got out of their beds…” (rolled and unrolled toilet paper)
“…and and they ran fast on the gravel road…” (sandpaper imprints crawling on a rough surface)
“…till the land of the silence song.” (the book closes)

sound-book

“In ancient times life was immersed in silence. Today, however, it is always accompanied by noise: everything we have around produces a noise. The noise is therefore a familiar experience to our ears, while the musical sound represents an occasional element, built in its perfection, not very spontaneous, limited. Finally, let’s break the narrow boundaries of pure sounds to venture into the infinite variety of sounds and noises. The noise that comes to us confused, irregular and always different, holds innumerable surprises. Let’s learn to listen it … “


“The art of noises” by Luigi Russolo, 1913

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