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”?
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!
I would like to introduce you a material I love and often use with children: paper strips, that you can easily ask for free to printing houses as a waste material.
How can our personal artistic research – as teachers and adults – be an inspiration for children processes and not a model to repeat? How presenting the materials in a educational context? Do we show to children some examples or “techniques”? I think these are some central questions that not have only one always valid response.
Now imagine you want to present paper strips to a small group of 4-5 years old children, inviting them to freely play with this material and a stapler. How would you do it? Any prefiguration?
Here is my experience. In my case, I was not the theacher (or the atelierista) and children did not know me. One morning I just shortly introduced myself to the classroom. I told I was a professional, expert in transforming materials (that is the truth). For example, let me show you how I could transform a strip of paper. Have you ever tried?
I slowly pulled out a long stripe of paper and a stapler, as if they were very special things. There were 48 eyes staring at me silently. As I formed a circle, they shout: It’s a sun! A hat! (and I put it in my head) A wheel! (and I made it roll). Without speaking, I went on with other trasformations, letting children being involved in this simbolic game.
Finally, I told I would have liked to come back to play with them with paper strips. When I came back, all the children remembered me and were very excited. We worked in small groups of four children for about one hour. In the beginning, many of them asked me to show how to create a heart, a house or another shape they remembered. But I answered: Well, I am not sure of what I exactly did and how… Please try by yourself, go on, and I will support you as I can. Trying by themselves, children started to develop a personal process and then, most of the time forgot the shape initially asked.
Even if it was a very limited activity from the point of view of the available materials, it allowed the development of many different, rich and unique processes. (Despite limits or thanks to limits?)
I tried to make each child feel comfortable, welcome and free to approach the material. If the environment is “good enough”, if we (educators and teachers) are not worried about educational goals, products or parents’ expectations, every child will express his/her unique potential through materials.
This process is often not a linear, with a clear result consisting in a single, final work, like the ones in the images below. For example, the most significant part could be the sensory exploration, the spoken words, the movements of the body or other interconnected aspects. If a final product is missing or less noticeable, it will be very frustrating for those who consider the product as the necessary proof to make visible children’s learning. I think we should try to have a different, wider perspective. Here is a short story about it.
Alessandro, 5 years old, repeated the same sequence of actions all along: folding a small strip on itself and then letting open it again, observing what happened to the strip. He created many spiral shapes, that were very similar but every time a bit different by chance. At some point, he used this sequence of actions to invent a game: he rolled up the strip, gripped it tightly in his fist, hiding it, then he moved casually near another child without getting noticed and suddenly left the stripe free, with a kind of spring-effect, in order to scare the child.
It was an investigation of the moviment that the spiral shape can produce, then this moviment became a game. Moreover, the transition from closed to open, from compressed to expanded is also significant from a symbolic point of view. You can see as in this case, the product can’t be divided from the process. It also makes us remember the importance of repetition: to consolidate a learning process, to investigate, to observe small differences, to reassure, to be enough sure before doing the next step.
Why is it important to know the characteristcs of the material we offer, to work it with our hands before offering it to children? Of course, not for showing them our beautiful works and skills, but to make the best choice for them: finding the most suitable way to present the material, good relaunches and ideas to manage the most difficult aspects. For example, in the case of paper strips, you would expect that such a serial material stimulates the production of a very big quantity of similar works (specially in the beginning of the activity), so that the available space will become probably full of stuff.
Already knowing it, you will be ready to cope with this kind of messy and overwhelmed situation, trying to contain it in order to support the process. For example, suggesting to join some of the paper works, to collect them, build with them, looking for a story or some kind of composition. In this way, what was overwhelming and cahotic can gain a new meaning.
We should trust both materials and children. There is a reason or a need for whatever a child do or not do, and only from where children actually are, some kind of development can happen. Finally, I would like to end with some words by Nona Orbach, artist and art therapist, from her book “The Good Enough Studio”: A good kindergarten or elementary school educator needs to recognize the specific characteristics of each child. If an educator does see the child’s underlying qualities, they will be able to relate genuinely to each of them, and the children will feel that they are truly seen. If children are acknowledged and have a safe place to be themselves, they will also be less aggressive towards others. Children in such an environment tend to play and work for a longer period of time, and have better social skills. It is a profound need of our human nature to be genuinely seen by others; it assures us that we are loved and accepted as we are. Thus any child, truly seen, will blossom.