What is an Atelier?

Art studio or atelier

According to my experience as an atelierista, the identity of the space that we call atelier is strictly connected to the theory of the Hundred Languages, that Malaguzzi showed in his famous poem “No way. The hundred is there”. In fact, I perceive the idea of the atelier as if it naturally arises from the idea of the child described in the poem.

So, how is a human being seen through the metaphor of the Hundred Languages? He’s like an very rich container of a great multiplicity of expressive, communicative and creative possibilities and languages, that includes verbal and non-verbal ones, held together in a holistic approach.

The first line of the poem said “No way, the Hundred is there”, meaning that this hundred-multifaceted potential is already there from the beginning, it naturally belongs to our nature as human beings. It’s a kind of treasure that actually needs to flourish, to develop, to concretize, to move from a potential to something concrete. Like everything in nature, for example a seed, it will finally make flourish its potential if just given the chance.

Why did I say if given the chance? Because it needs a good enough environment to flourish, a welcoming context where this process can be allowed and nourished. Let’s call this place atelier.

Thus, I perceive the atelier as a context specifically set up by offering some materials and experiences within a space-time frame, with the aim of making the multifaceted 100% potential of everyone express itself.

In other words, it is a place intentionally set up for welcoming the uniqueness of every child and its natural expression, and for supporting the child’s active construction of knowledge through a creative relationship with the world (that is through the offered materials and experiences as a metaphor of the world).  

Atelier of “Le Betulle” preschool, Cavriago (Italy)

According to this definition, the atelier is not necessarily an extra room, even if the very first atelier of the Reggio Emilia preschools was a dedicated room (and it still is today). It mostly consists of a way to arrange the environment and of a certain approach toward children, according to the goal I have just described. For example, it could be an area within the classroom, the house or the garden; a mobile mini-atelier on wheels or even an entire school, where the regular aged classrooms have bene converted into thematic ateliers. Of course, which of these options are achievable depends on the specific context, on its needs and organizing.

Tailoring Atelier, “Gallizi” preschool, Fano (Italy)

So what are the required characteristics of such a place, with this goal, that we call atelier?

First of all, the metaphor of the Hundred Languages suggests that it should be multifaceted, variegated, containing diversity and multiplicity. Thus, it will correspond to the natural richness of the expressive potential of children, who play and learn at the same time, using all their senses and skills, body and mind.

Like the atelierista Vea Vecchi said, in early childhood, children do not separate the exploration of reality into separate disciplines, but from our point of view of adults, many different disciplinary approaches are present and interconnected in children researches. Are we educators able to see these multiple aspects involved in children researches?

Cooking Atelier, “Gallizi” preschool, Fano (Italy)

Let’s consider, for example, a child who prepares a round cake for the birthday of a friend. First he kneads the cake, then decorates it with some small balls and some ornamental engravings made with a sharp tool; finally he divides the cake in many slices for sharing it with his friends. So here there are: modeling-tridimensional techniques and manual skills; tactile, sensory aspects; the matematical thinking (while dividing the slices); social and emotional skills (concerning friendship) and also an aesthetic visual research through the decorations.

As Malaguzzi said, the 100 languages work naturally together in a synergistic cooperation. So we should consider multiplicity as a whole, where all the elements are connected by the sense of the process of that child, relating to her uniqueness.

Hundred languages are not a list of hundred materials: they invites us to find out hundred ways to use, for example, the same pencil, instead. If we carefully observe, everyone will use it in a different way, maybe only for a detail. Moreover, the metaphor of hundred includes a variety of times and rhythms of the creative process, that can walk side by side. Every person has got his/her own pace, a personal approach to time and space: how does she move in the environment, how does he occupy a space ad intereact with the context?

How can every uniqueness be welcome within the general organizying of the educational context and the atelier?

Even if every approach is unique, while growing up each human being goes through the same universal developmental stages, that we as educators should know. I find amazing that the development of every child unfolds according to a universal, archetypical development and in the meantime intertwines, overlaps the uniqueness of that child. As Nona Orbach wrote in the beautiful book “The Good Enough Studio”, the particular expression of each individual, in their marks left on materials, is both unique and at the same time overlaps with the archetypical map of symbolism characteristic of humanity as a whole. In other words, each of us will walk through the same stages but in our own way, with our own pace, expressing a personal, unique variation of the same universal process. The knowledge of these universal processes, such as the drawing development, will help us to understand where the child is at that moment, what his actual interest and approach to drawing are, so that we can better see and support his process.

Thus, uniqueness is intertwined with universality, as two sides of the same coin, both necessary for understanding what is happening in the atelier.

Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

Another very important element is, of course, the knowledge of materials (or of the Grammar of Matter), an essential characteristic of the identity of the atelierista – who is actually a specific professional with an artistic background.

It is not an intellectual knowledge and not optional. We should explore firsthand tools and materials that we offer to children. Only living our own creative process we can recognize, acknowledge and support children’s processes; also, we will be able to choose the right materials for suggestions and provocations. Hundred Languages does not mean doing everyday something new: it concerns the richness of the qualities (not the quantity) of the materials, the richness of their connections, the relationship between materials and children: what meanings, stories and knowledges are they creating?

Atelier of “I Tigli” preschool, Cavriago (Italy)

All the points I talked about are interlinked to each other and with the specific context. Of course each context is different, as well as each human being, and that’s why there are not “always-valid” solutions. However, we have a clear goal showing the direction and some elements I tried to outline that can orient us.

The person (of whatever age) is both the starting point and the final point, realizing the hundred per cent of the potential that is possible at the moment.

“No way, the hundred is there”, it’s just waiting. Are we able to trust it?

Finally, don’t forget that you – as educator, atelierista, teacher or parent – are one of the active, never neutral elements of the relation. Your uniqueness is part of the process, or we could metaphorically say, part of an amazing dance, together with children and materials, in our theatre-atelier.

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Now, what is your idea of atelier? What should be its characteristics? And what its goal? Are there some particular aspects you are interested in, that you would like to deepen? Let’s open a wider dialogue…

You are welcome to subscribe the newsletter if interested in this topic. And enjoy your atelier, whatever it looks like!

The Experience of Wonder

ginko biloba leaf

How can we investigate wonder?

I think that a direct, personal experience is the best starting point. So I went to my favourite public garden near home, where I love to walk or sit in a bench. I was ready to wonder looking at nature, as it often happens to me in that place; ready to catch pictures to share with you and to carefully observe all the process. 

But that morning nothing happened, even if nature was beautiful as usual… nothing . I was a bit disappointed and suspected that intentionality was an obstacle: maybe one can’t look for wonder. If you look for it, you can’t find it.

So the new plan was to retrace some of my past walks and to find out if there were some recurring elements, a kind of  list of clues, that characterizes those experiences of wonder. In other words the underlying question is: does a common denominator of the wonder-experience exist?

The first clue is easy and confirms my suspect about intentionality. I didn’t expect anything, I did not look for anything. Something just suddenly happened or I suddenly noticed something.

The second -ever present- clue is an inner empty space, needed for let wonder come in. My head was not busy or full of thoughts. Sometimes I was just too tired for thinking… sometimes it was Sunday or a daily break from work. Anyhow, I would generally call this quality a receptive, sensitive, welcoming emptyness.

Third clue: wonder happens through details and tiny things. It is delicate, it plays hide and seek and does not like haste or noises.

Clue number four: it is revealed through the senses, so it is mostly an aesthetic experience, not intellectual.

I could also state that it is connected to beauty, but the word “beauty” is too complex and general, difficult to define… What does it concretely mean? So a more useful question is probably about the recurring aesthetics qualities or topics that I associate to beauty.

I found at least three ones:

  • The wind or the movement of the air
  • A special kind of light (very warm but not too strong) that interacts with some surfaces, creating shadows and transparencies
  • And of course leaves. Not “any” leaf but “that” leaf, in that moment and place, seen from a precise point of view and through “that” light.

I wonder (in the sense that I ask myself) if everyone -like me- has got some specific aesthetics qualities typical of their own perception of wonder. Maybe these personal aesthetics elements are somehow connected to our roots, to the physical places where we come from or even to our very first encounters with the world.

Fifth clue:  I felt immersed in what I was looking at as if bounderies become less definied and for a split second, my ego disappeared.  I was not Roberta Pucci, atelierista, from Reggio Emilia, etc… but just my perception, an insightful, not-personal awareness. Also, the daily, usual perception of time changed for a little while, like a small oasis where time stands still.

This kind of feeling is as involving as fragile;  it can easily desappear, specially if I want to catch it by taking a picture or a video.

So here is the clue number six: taking pictures can be an obstacle for keeping a state of wonder.

Why? I think because -for taking a picture, for example of a leaf – I need to place myself “out” of the relation with that leaf, to take an external point of view, so coming back in my shoes, getting out of the connection and looking at the leaf from outside.

This makes me think to some educational context and some teachers that overwhelm children with questions or take a lot of pictures when noticing that children are deeply involved or attracted by something… Please let’s be careful and help children to take care of their precious moments of wonder. Yes, wonder can be the beginning of a meaningful learning… but it’s itself like oxygen for our soul and not only a pedagogical tool. 

Finally, a last question: where does wonder happen? Usually in nature, in my case, but perhaps there are some typical wondering-places for each of us?

Is wonder potentially everywhere, but it depends on our state of mind if we can access to it?

Can the extraordinary be hidden in the ordinary?

How can these clues and a deeper understanding of our direct experience help us to acknowledge, support and preserve the wondering experiences of children?

I would like to know to know what is your experience, hopefully adding others clues to this map.

Well, we are coming to the end of this short walk… thank you for joining. I wish you to enjoy the experience of wonder and take care of it. With open eyes and heart, but without looking for it!

You can watch the video of my Wonder Exploration clicking here.

Thanks to Suzanne Axelsson for inviting me to think about this topic. Also, in the guide Wonder of the Facebook Group The Original Learning Approach you will find other interesting reflections about it.

What’s the meaning of the 100 Languages?

The hundred languages

The idea of “the hundred languages” was originally born of a poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, and later became a famous educational topic. The language of poetry is made of images, metaphors, rhythm: and in fact it is not a theory we can understand at a cognitive, conceptual level and then apply. Does it tickled some of your childhood memories? How does it resonate with all your body and mind? Moreover, a poem evokes specific images through which it tells some universal truth. And in fact, “The hundred languages” does not concern only our everyday work with children, but our idea of who a child is and – after all – our idea of a human being.

The hundred languages poem

After reading the first lines, let’s focus at the word “hundred” for a while. I think this number is a metaphor representing the great multiplicity and richness of the potential that belong to each child. “And a hundred hundred more…”: it’s probably much wider than what we can figure out as adults. That’s why children can always surprise us, for example using things in a way that we could never imagined.

In the meantime, all the hundred and more possibilities are connected in a special way to shape the child uniqueness. In other words, every child holds within himself a unique, personal treasure of hundred. This is why not all the children should necessarily do the same experiences and activities. For example, if a teacher proposes each day a different material to the classroom (watercolors on Monday, oil pastels on Tuesday, clay on Wednesday and so on), that’s not bad itself, children will probably enjoy… But the essence of the hundred languages is something else.

It is not a list of many different materials. It does not concern the quantity of things (“the more I have and I do, the more I will be creative”), but the variety, the molteplicity of the qualities of materials and experiences, so that every child will naturally find his own way, unique and hundred-faceted in the meantime.

However… Continuing to read the poem, something unexpected happens: they steal ninety-nine! How is it possible?

Here there seems to appear a clear division between the child and the adult. So we may wonder: do the Hundred Languages concern only childhood? And if so, until what age? What happen while growing up, where has the Hundred gone when we become adults?
Let’s try starting from the beginning. For a child, everything is a fresh, new encounter. Why should the kitchen be less interesting than the atelier?

A child is completely involved while exploring, with all the senses, body and mind. It is an holistic approach that holds together many dimensions – emotional, cognitive, social, the child’s needs, goals, stories and questions. A child plays and learns at the same time. “Playing with fun and seriously learning” is a division that adults and school make later, and I think this is what Malaguzzi was referring to.

In his book “Art, mind and brain”, Howard Gardner explains that in early years, children begin to use various symbolic skills and expressive languages in a very flowing way, easily moving from one field to another. This is because they do not know anything yet about the culture and conventional uses of things, tools and symbols. Then, after some years (according to Gardner at about 7 years old), children are becoming more interested in cultural patterns, social conventions and rules. They want to understand deeper how things really work, focusing on one thing at a time.

So we could say that growing up, there is a natural movement from an horizontal dimension of connections to a vertical dimension of deepening. In the meantime, the school tends to divide the knowledge in many disciplines. These two dimensions are both necessary, there is not an exclusive opposition: but every age, or better, every developmental stage, will have a different kind of balance between the two.

For what concern the 0/6 age-range, the horizontal direction of connection is fundamental, while becoming older and more interested in the cultural aspects, the number of connections and of the explored languages can become less and less… Of course, later in life this dimension can be hopefully recovered and nurtured by new awarness and knowledge. Anyway, I think this gap can explain why children have 100 while some adults (that remain firm in a phase of specialization) only 20, or maybe only one. We just have to be aware of it and not forget there are other 99!

So how can we (as adults and educators) set up an environment for children according to their hundred possibilities?
Here is a typical proposal that is generally associated to the Reggio approach: some flowers on the table, along with sheets of paper and materials for drawing in different chromatic shades. But how can we say it is consistent with the 100 languages theory, only by looking at one picture, knowing nothing about the context within the proposal was offered? Why did the teacher suggest children to draw a flower? And what was the relationship between the children and that flower?
If the teacher offers this same proposal every year, with every new group of children, it is just an activity, a technique, an experience. That’s not wrong itself, some children will probably enjoy it, but the essence of the hundred languages is something else. And what if children were not interested in the flower at all but focused on the movements of a ladybug that suddenly appeared? What would you do?
Do we actually observe children, listen to them, give them space or maybe are we too worried about expectations and curriculums, following the last trendy pedagogical slogan?

No template can ensure we are really following the path of 100 languages. Why? Because every child is unique, as every teacher or atelierista and each context as well, with its specific cultural and social background. Thus, we are always joining a flexible, dynamic dance, created by the encounter of our identity (along with our pedagogical-artistic knowledge) with children’s identity, within our specific context. What wonderful, neverending intersections… Why always choosing a table with a flower, paper sheets and some drawing materials among the hundred and hundred possibilities?

“The Hundred is there”: what is the unique hundred of your children? As educators, we have an active role in the process and if we take part of it with empathy, we will not fill the child with hundred things, but provide a rich and welcoming environment where a hundred per cent potential of children will flourish.

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Have you got some questions or would like to share your experience? You are welcome to join the Facebook Group “The grammar of matter” and subscribe the newsletter for updates on opportunities to learn more.

Identity Investigations

I have always been fascinated by variations: how identity can change and remaining recognizable at the same time? In other words, while changing, at what point that identity is no longer recognizable? And what is that make it recognizable through changes?
There are many ways to explore these questions using images and materials. Or even by playing with Esther. But who is Esther?

Initially, it was a paper strip, a processing waste of a paper work lying on my desk among other materials. It was casually folded in three parts and this folding gave to the piece of paper a special kind of balance so that it “seemed something”… I touched it softly: it began to swing and I began to see it alive. As its identity was taking shape in my mind, I tried to shape it with scissors and here she is: hello Esther!

Once her identity was defined, I just played with it. How does she move in the space, how many positions can she take? How can she relate with different shapes or contexts?

How can her characteristcs be transformed in order to create variations? For example: changing dimensions, material, texture, the shape of some folders or details…

In his book “Fantasia”, the designer Bruno Munari lists a number of creative techniques to transform a known object by changing its characteristics, in order to develop imagination. Here are some of his suggestions:

  • using opposites and antonyms (a fast turtle)
  • multiplying a part of a whole (a dragon with seven heads)
  • changing dimensions (a huge ladybug)
  • changing color (a blue bread)
  • changing material (a sponge hammer)
  • changing the function (a shoe used as a flower vase)
  • changing the context (a ship in the middle of a meadow)

The identity of every character will also evolve within a narrative frame, through encounters, stories, adventures. For example, what if Esther met a cat?

The topic of identity and its possible transformations through variations is also developed in many picture books for children. Here is an example of some pictures from “Hyppopposites” by Janik Coat, where the hippo identity is explored through different colors and textures.

The exploration of the possible variations of an object (of a character or an image) makes us investigate the limits, the potential and the essence of its identity: at what point of the transformation we can say that something has completely turned in something else? Which elements determine and affect one’s own identity?
Like Munari said, “a fish with horns is still a fish”?

Enjoy your identity exploration and don’t miss Esther Trilogy on robertapuccilab Youtube channel!

Playing with shapes

basic geometric shapes

Playing with paper strips, you can easily create the three basic geometric shapes: the circle, the square and the triangle. Using these three shapes, you can structure the space (two-dimensional or three-dimensional) through infinite combinations.

The same happens when children play with building blocks: using some shapes as modules, they build something in the space and structure it. As a full shape is formed, the empty space around it transforms as well and acquires a new meaning. Just think of the “emptiness” that represents a door or a window in a structure that represents a house: that empty space was there even before the construction of the house, yet it was not seen.

Playing and becoming familiar with these shapes, children can learn to recognize them in many different contexts: at some point, the circle, the square and the triangle will be “internalized” and become “concepts” (not connected to only one specific object).
Construction games activate a spatial, bodily and visual intelligence. During the playing process, many implicit questions arise, although not verbally formulated. What happens if I put this shape on top of this other? How many pieces can I add? Why does it fall? Which shape can I put inside this other one?

Our task as adults is to support and stimulate children researches, without giving them ready answers. Sometimes, expressing interest and curiosity will be enough; other times, a question or an observation will trigger a new significant process… but in another context, the same question could hinder the ongoing process. So what is the right choice? I think it can be found just empathically and carefully observing the child, also with the support of your theoretical knowledge of the developmental stages.

These basic shapes have got interesting specific characteristics relating to angles, edges, curvature and combinatorial possibilities. Each one reacts differently when explored, while through the repetition and accumulation of two or more ones, very complex structures can be created. That’s why this kind of playful research can offer a wealth of learning to all ages and different degrees of competence – from a pre-school to a design college.

Symmetry, for example, is a possible way of combining several elements together. It can be interesting to observe if and when children prefer symmetrical structures, if symmetry characterizes an individual style rather than a certain theme or play context. Again, before talking about symmetry as an abstract concept, it is important that children can “act” it concretely, on their own times.

The abstraction process needs a while to mature and feeds on many concrete experiences. At some point, it will happen that a certain quality (such as symmetry, the round or squared shape) which has been observed and manipulated in different real contexts, will be “abstracted”, not connected only to a specific real object: the concept is born and and we can give it a name.

In nature, there are many beautiful examples of modulated structures. As the designer Enzo Mari explains, the phenomena of nature are always organized according to a series of numerous equal elements which materialize in modular structures, variable according to elementary schemes until they form new modular units.
The most common example is the hive. But why are the cells of a beehive hexagonal? Of course I am not going to reveal the answer… the taste of research is yours! And please, do not reveal the answer to children, rather intrigue them.

Each shape effects us, producing a certain internal resonance, that is not counsciously identifiable or clearly describable in words. Through the human symbolic capacity, everything can become a symbol. However, the three basic geometric shapes (circle, square and triangle) represent a recurring archetypal symbols in human history, found in all times and in all cultures. In particular, first the circle and then the square spontaneously appear in the first drawings of children. Thus, we can say they belong to human nature, in a sense.

All this would open a very rich window… If you would like to take a peek through it, I recommend these little lovely books by Bruno Munari: “The circle”, “The square” and “The triangle”, published by Corraini Editions.
Enjoy your constructive exploration!

Natural Diary

natural diary

Welcome dear nature’s lover. Nothing easier than explaining you how to do a natural diary… since you already know. In other words, there are no rules and everyone can do it in her own way. First, choose a notebook along with some stationery and go outdoors, in your garden, in a courtyard, on a terrace. Otherwise, sit next to a flowerpot or in front of a window where you can see the sky, maybe a tree.

Please choose carefully your notebook and the other stuff, as they will somehow influence you. Pencil, pen, markers? Chalks, highlighters, colored pencils? What about sheets? White, colored, striped, checkered? Each texture differently effect us, each tool produces a different expressive nuance. You can also change stationery from time to time, inspired by the mood of that moment. And having only a few of them available is not an excuse: you can start even with a common notebook and a pencil!

What is in the pages of the natural diary? Words, drawings, leaves, petals, spots, signs. The shape of a cloud. The refrain of a song. The trajectory of an insect. A memory. A photo, printed, pasted and retouched. A collection of traced shadows. Any free association of images or words born in this short time, free from daily commitments.

Try to take a while for your diary every day, without necessarily following a chronological order of the pages. In other words, you can go back and forth as you wish or leave a blank page, like when the color passes through the other side of the sheet and leaves a mark that you don’t like (maybe, after some time, you will like to transform it…).

The writing of the natural diary occurs in a special “suspended” time, when your eyes and mind can rest, without looking for anything. Things will come, big or tiny, maybe just a word or a small sign. It is an excuse to legitimize oneself to be not productive or functional, at least for a few minutes.

The human being feels isolated in the cosmos, since he is no longer embedded in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These, in turn, have gradually lost their symbolic meanings. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry divinity, rivers are no longer the house of the spirits, nor trees the vital principle of man (…). No voice reaches people from stones, plants or animals any more, nor does the human beings turn to them sure of being heard. The contact with nature is lost, thus the profound emotional energy that this symbolic contact released has failed.

Carl G. Jung, “Man and His Symbols”

The natural diary is a kind of small gesture of reconciliation with nature, and maybe with ourselves as well. I will periodically publish some pages of my diary on robertapuccilab Instagram profile. You are very welcome to share pages of yours with the hashtag #naturaldiaryfornatureloversonly – so that we can find each other. It will be a silent contemplation, without any comments in addition to the words of the diary, but with mutual acceptance and gratitude.

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Enjoy!

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A tactile walk for every age

hands touching sand

The sense of touch deeply affects us and evokes ancient, visceral sensations. It is the first sense to develop and the last one to leave us, thus an always open expressive and relational possibility. Along with sight, it is the one sense that can grasp the shape of an object and its spatial orientation. But unlike sight, that immediately grasps a form in its entirety, touch is an analytical sense that proceeds its exploration in successive stages, in a temporal development.
I would like to invite you to a short tactile walk, starting from the Museo Omero, a special art museum located in Ancona, Italy.

tactile art  museum

The uniqueness if this museum consists in the possibility of touching all the art works on display. On the ground floor, there are architectural models and plaster copies in reale size of some of the most important classical sculptures, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, with many works by Michelangelo; on the first floor, original sculptures of contemporary figurative and informal art.

tactile art  museum
tactile art  museum

In this way, art is accessible to blind people and at once this has become a new opportunity of experience for all those who normally use sight to know. At the entrance of the museum, the staff invites “sighted” visitors to walk through the rooms in pairs, alternately wearing a mask to obscure the view and explore the works with touch. Looking at the sculpture after knowing it through hands is a truly amazing experience.

Continuing our walk, the next stop is the tactile forest, an idea of Bruno Munari that is usually loved by children.You can easily build it, just hanging many transparent nylon threads on the ceiling of an empty room and attaching various materials to the threads with clothes pegs. Pieces of fabric, ribbons, shoe laces, pieces of jute and pannolenci, wool, cotton wool, cords, organza strips, doilies and lace, straw, fur scraps, wooden or metal rings, keys , padlocks, belt closures, pieces of bark… Every kind of material suitable to be touched while crossing the forest.

prelibri by Bruno Munari

After going out of the wood, our journey leads us to the discovery of tactile books. A book is usually considered a conceptual thing, consisting mainly of words (and sometimes images). However it is also a concrete object and its phisicality plays an important role, even if we are not aware of it. A book communicates through its material, color, size, shape, smell, texture, hardness or softness, weight. Thus a book, before its reading, is an object to be discovered in itself. For some inspiration, you could have a look to “The prebooks” by Bruno Munari: twelve little books in the same squared format (10 X 10 cm), each one made of a different material (paper, cardboard, fabric, transparent plastic, wood) and with a different bindind. Through the pages children can find some surprises – a wooden thread, a button, holes, a drawn insect… Thus, a child is supposed to enjoy the first encounters with a book as it was a very interesting object.

Tactile books built by parents for children
Tactile books built by parents for children

A tactile book is a recommended experience for every age, speciallyteachers, parents, curious adults. In the photos above, you can see some books made by Simona Piovaticci (a pre-school teacher) during my tactile-book workshop for teachers. Some time later, a group of those teachers repeated a similar workshop with parents, who then gave the books to the children. It was a very significant experience, in order to share an educational approach of active learning by making something concrete. From words to action on the matter.

Tactile books built by  children

“Today I have a very special thing for you: a book to read keeping closed eyes…”. Children were surprised and amused by my words. We sat around a table, I closed my eyes and solemnly opened the special book. It was made of two cardboard pages with a composition of various materials. While slowly touching these pages, I began to tell a story inspired by the tactile sensations I felt. “I’m going through a forest (crepe paper), the grass stings my bare feet because I lost my shoes… here is a small ice lake (a CD)… I can’t swim, how will I cross it? It’s better to go around it… The chilly fishes live in the lake, they are always very hungry”. After the story, I gave the book to one child at a time, inviting them to “read” it. “Would you like to create a book that you can read with your hands and closed eyes?” They all agreed.

tactile books for children

I had already prepared several materials, neatly organized on a table, ready to be touched, chosen and eventually cut in different shapes and sizes : fabrics, papers, plastics, ribbons, threads, small objects. It was a small group of five children, from three to five years old. Each child was given two cardboard pages where placing the materials. Once the composition was ready, children glued the materials on the cardboard, using vinylic glue and a brush. Finally we joined the two pages with adhesive tape on the external-central side (taking into account the thickness of the materials). Everyone “read” the pages of the books, touching the materials and inventing stories, evoking images.

tactile books for children

And now, let’s go from a workshop to a simple game born by chance, while my mother liked to touch some stones I gathered near the sea. They were all similar but so different from each other, with their own personality. Here’s how to play:

  • the stones are placed on a table
  • one of the players closes his/her eyes and receives a stone (chosen by another player) that she/he will have to explore carefully with only hands
  • once the exploration is finished, the stone is put back in its place
  • the player opens his eyes and, looking at the stones, tries to guess which onee he touched

Of course, the more the stones are similar, the more details become significant… What other materials could we use to play? In how many other ways can stones be placed on the table? Or maybe on the floor?

Some properties of materials, such as weight, solidity, temperature, are exclusively perceptible through touch. The infinite qualities of the surface of the materials, such as smoothness or roughness, porosity, graininess and all possible physical textures, are also perceptible through the view but belong in a privileged way to tactile perception. The sense of touch helps us to perceive tiny details and differences, to enrich the exploration of the material world. Touch has got its own memory. I wish you will keep it always alive.

tactile table ("Tavola tattile")
Art work by Roberto Arioli and Fabio Bello (detail)
Art work by Maria Lai (detail)

Peeking through containers and contents

exploring containers and contents

Containers have always fascinated me. Border and threshold between inside and outside. Forms that the vacuum can take. They contain and protect, open and close. Who contains what? What relationship between container and content? I invite you for a walk through very different containers I met.

exposition of kitche containers

In our daily routine, we often choose and associate containers and contents… Are we aware of it? On closer observation, everyday objects can reveal interesting details, shapes, colors, surfaces. This was the main theme of a kind of “treasure hunt” for children about kitchen containers, which I designed for a public library.

children assembling a cake dish

Children, divided into small groups, could choose from time to time a colored envelope containing a playful test: riddles, reconstructions of disassembled objects, questions, research of details – inviting to carefully observe, to use touch, photography, drawing. Jars, cake tins, fruit bowls, butter dishes, salad bowls, bread bins … the characteristics of these objects have suggested me the tests for the children. And of course, at the end of the game, we found the coveted treasure preserved in the cake pan!

a child touching a bowl without looking at it
a child drawing a bowl

Even the most common object is not obvious. How many ways can you use and transform it? Here are some pieces of the Emboutillage collection by the designer Antonio Cos, who explored the potential of a common glass bottle.

the designer Antonio Cos and some of his creations with glass bottles

The first intuition goes back to the day when Sophie, Antonio’s partner, asked him to roll out and level the dough for pasta: not having a rolling pin at home, I used a bottle. While doing it, I was thinking about this function shift … The object already exists, I enjoyed formally analyzing it. A bottle is mainly composed of two cylinders of different sizes joined by a semisphere. So its geometry guided me in exploring the object and breaking down its different parts.

some of the designer Antonio Cos creations with glass bottles

We should be aware from the beginning that our idea will be translated concretely by an artificial (vs natural), mechanical process. We need to know these processes, what is possible and what is not. It is a parameter to which I remain attuned, I like to construct objects that are not technically complex. However, one must not be “a slave to the technique” or let oneself be taken by the ease that a process can involve, but use it wisely, so that it can reproduce an initial idea or concept.

some of the designer Antonio Cos creations with glass bottles

From glass bottles to plastic ones, from a design studio to an infant toddler center. Valentina Tonucci is a teacher that recycled some common plastic bottles transforming them into special playing objects for children. Valentina explains that she chose this bottle because it is commonly used, easily recoverable, transparent, light, small and manageable; a container you can experiment with many different contents.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Without water, the bottles become sound objects: by shaking them, the contents hit the walls. But my interest was mainly focused on the interaction of water with other elements. So I thought about what common materials could I put in relation to water (…) I had in my mind the classic snowballs that create an interesting movement inside, everytime arousing great amazement.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Starting from this exploration, Valentina created many variations. In the picture above you can see some of them: (from the left) perforated colored plastic sheet; fake leaves, small stones; silhouettes of sponge fish, plastic strips; a tree with rings that can be fitted into the branches; metallic stripes. Of course, many others could be created… New small enclosed worlds, magical microcosms.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Observing and listening to the material, keeping its aesthetics, form and function connected: I think that this is the key to a coherent and conscious use of materials. In this regard, nature is always our best teacher. What better examples to end our walk?

surprising containerw in nature

On the left, you can see the fruits of a crucifera: these rods of Billeri primaticcio (Cardamine hirsuta) sprout at the end of the winter in the center of the white small flowers. At the end of March, they are dry and yellowish, ready to react to the slightest solicitation with the sudden curling of the valves, followed by the explosion of tiny seeds. It is a strategy of active dissemination of some plants, which manage to throw their seeds even at a distance of several meters.
On the right, here is the rolled leaf of a field maple: it is the trace of the activity of a larva of a “tortricide” lepidopteran. This small caterpillar folds and wraps, with a silken thread, the tender leaves obtaining a shelter that ensures him protection and nourishment. By gently opening the rolled leaves, you can find a surprise: a small green caterpillar with a black head in April and May, then a dark chrysalis of a few millimeters, which will be empty by the end of June… the butterfly will fly away!

surprising containerw in nature

Finally, here is the Capsella bursa-pastori: a herb belonging to the cruciferous family, whose name comes from its saddlebag-shaped fruits. It is very common in meadows, on the edge of roads, in uncultivated land. Its small white flowers appear at the end of winter and, in April, the fruits open up in the middle releasing many seeds.

playing glass bottles

I thank all the people who have contributed to explore so many different containers, including the artist Michele Ferri for the image above and the first one at the beginning of the article (www.micheleferri.net). The initial idea of this “walk” (and its goal as well) is to develop a theme through different disciplines and apparently distant points of view. I think that only with a dialogue between different fields we ​​can deeply know the identity of our specific one, relate it, insert it into a wider complexity, develop it, finding hew stimula. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the tank-shelter idea was born after a visit to the Venice Biennale of contemporary art, where there were beautiful art installations made with the same material. And the presentation of other “surprising containers” could continue… Do you have some experiences on this subject, from the point of view of your field? What next topic would you like to explore?
You are welcome to share your ideas. Let’s create new connections!

Making connections is a creative process

making connections

Where do you start when there are too many things to say, organize, write, explain? Which starting point ensures the best route through all the stages? Any point is ok if we consider those things significant, as they are implicitly connected by our own network of meanings. So there will be no risk of losing any on the way, we can interchangeably switch between them. And if we forget one, it probably was not so important.

The possible connections between things are potentially endless. Let’s look at this image (copied by an illustrious master I will soon reveal) as a visual metaphor. In how many ways, with how many shapes can we connect the red dots?

Of course, if there were more points, the number of possible connections would increase. But the real question is: could a larger number of points help us to create connections? In other words: is the quantity of points (or initial data) a relevant variable for our ability to create relations between them?

The French matematician Henri Poincaré defined creativity as the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations. Thus, the question could also be as follows: does the quantity of starting elements influence the quality of the creative process? As educators interested in the development of creativity, do we wonder about the quantity of stimuli we present to children?

We could also use this graphical tool to visualize the underlying relational patterns of a group. An image can often help us to focus on some aspects of which we were not fully aware: for example, the existence of subgroups, an isolated element, the closure or opening of the structure towards the outside… The representations of the group made by its members will probably be different from each other: common denominators may emerge, as well as individual specificities.

Since these are images, we should not forget the importance of their visual characteristics, of the tools we use for design them. The color, the shapes, the type of line, the disposition and proportions in space: all these features evoke some qualities of the connective structure. Do you see thin, flickering threads traced with a pencil or the strong, massive sign of a permanent marker? A thick and intricate network of angular lines or fluid overlapping areas of watercolor?

Each person will find a different way to connect the same points: in other words, considering the same set of things (or the same items of a problem as well), everyone will “see” different connective shapes. What better metaphor for reminding us that our vision is not the only possible one but one among many possibilities? How does our representation relate to the other ones?

Now it’s time to reveal the author that inspired me these thoughts with his work: “Flight of fancy” is a small, light, precious book by Bruno Munari, published by Corraini Edizioni. The cover of the book has got some pierced points so that readers can continue the game over and over.

In his book “Fantasia”, Bruno Munari develops a similar exploration with a leaf, trying to make its hidden relationships visible, as you can see in his drawing below.

Starting from the tracing of an oak leaf, Munari drew its outline and got out of it a pattern made up of dots. Then he has connected these points in many different ways, creating different relationships between them.

Everyone will find their own shapes but always in relation to the leaf.

We could play the same connection-game with many shapes. For example, the graphic designer Serena Moundrouvalis created a template of starting points for inventing stars. The possible variations are infinite!


Could we apply the same awarness and research of connections in different fields than the visual one? Through some illustrated cards, called Metafore della conoscenza, Donata Fabbri and Alberto Munari (the son of Bruno Munari) invite us to discover the visual metaphors through which we organize and connect our thoughts: is it a labyrinth? Or a tree? A palace full of rooms? How is the visual representation connected to our way of thinking?

Another suitable field for playing with this “connections-game” is the story-telling and the narrative thinking, as connections between characters, things, places form the essence of every story.

This reminds me something I loved to do when I was a child. I cut out figures from magazines and put them in a bag. When I wanted to play, I randomly took out one at a time, put it on the table and gradually invent a story. I think I was designing ever-changing connections between those figures.

It works not only with cutout figures but also with every kind of objects and stuff, like fabrics, leaves, tickets, material fragments, memories, or even words. For example, how could you give value to some pieces of paper as they were precious remains and then combine them for inventing a story?

What other ways of creating connections do you know and use? You are welcome to share for enriching this list… The more connections we can create the more we can choose. Even when the elements we have seem to be few or not interesting, it is the quality of the relationship that can make a difference.

The leaf, the light and I

autumn leaves

I would like to take you in a short walk through a small, wild garden.

What are we looking for?

Just let eyes freely lead you, without thinking, and – maybe – beauty will appear.

Why “maybe”? Wasn’t beauty already there (in a flower, a leaf, a tree) before we came?

Yes, in a way… But the aesthetic experience can only happen during a meeting: between a flower (a leaf, a tree) and somebody who looks at it. The aesthetic experience is a special kind of relationship. Let’s look it closer.

While walking, some leaves attracted me. It was not a generic or naturalistic interest, but a specific imagine that has appeared and caught my eyes because of a certain color, a shadow, a texture of ribs. It is not “any” leaf but “that” leaf, in that moment and place, seen from a precise point of view. Light helps to create that unique picture, affecting its colors and shadows. Thus, through the light, a special connection has established between me and the leaf.

Have we found it or was it waiting for us?

Maybe both, in a kind of synchrony. There is a potential beauty that needs both waiting and intentionality for revealing itself. An empty and receptive space is necessary to make something new come in.

Can we preserve it? Do we give us enough “empty” time?

I think everyone can feel the sensation of being intensely connected to something while looking at it. This is an aesthetic experience. It happens “hic et nunc”, here and now. A small oasis where time stands still.

So why just don’t pick that flower to bring home and put it in a vase?
Because it is an experience of connection, not of possession.
Where does it happen?
Almost everywhere. This is why I took you in a small garden, a few steps from home, and not in a National Museum.

Can we take a picture of it?
This is a central point: photography can be a tool, not a goal. If our objective is catching a beautiful picture to hang on, the camera will be an obstacle for living this kind of experience.
No products, no thinking process… So what’s the point?
A short, intense meeting with beauty: the leaf, the light and I.
Enjoy your walk.