by Dr. Gai Lindsay (Lecturer, B.Ed – The early Years,
School of Education, University of Wollongong.
This blog post provokes reflection about the rights of the child to offer alternatives to close-ended and limiting Christmas activities and gifts. The article provides a selection of ideas for quality Christmas visual arts and crafts learning experiences that don’t compromise quality relationships with and respect for children. It aims to challenge prior assumptions about seasonal arts and crafts choices to support early childhood educators and families to celebrate the capable child,while celebrating Christmas.
“This is the right of ALL children…
It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent,
that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests.
This is the image of the child that we need to hold” (Malaguzzi, 1994, p. 5).
Christmas is a most wonderful season. It is a time to celebrate culture, community traditions and family celebrations.
It is a time for giving gifts to celebrate relationships,holidays and important transitions.
However, at this time of year (and to a lesser degree during other seasonal celebrations such as Easter and Valentine’s Day), early childhood educators grapple with (and often debate) curriculum decisions regarding the types of seasonal arts and crafts which best honour the rights of the child.
In the lead up to Christmas, social media forums present a range of posts either suggesting or requesting ideas for Christmas themed arts and crafts.
When seasonal events require the production of gifts and mementos, it seems that adult-controlled, close-ended, production-line activities are sometimes permitted in place of the types of child-centred, open-ended learning experiences usually acknowledged to be best practice. I challenged the proliferation of adult-centred, close-ended activities in a recent blog about the great early childhood hand-print debate and raised the notion that children have the right to experience best quality visual arts learning experiences at all times.
This blog post continues this conversation by considering the challenge of the annual Christmas activity production line.
What do educator curriculum choices say about professional beliefs and knowledge?
Although the planning choices made by educators may seem unimportant to many, I suggest that the Christmas gifts and products made in early childhood services communicate a great deal about educator beliefs about children and childhood.
Rinaldi, president of the Reggio Children organisation, affirms that the beliefs educators hold about children directly influence children’s “social and ethical identity, their rights and the educational contexts offered to them” (Rinaldi, 1998, p. 117).
Malaguzzi (1994, p. 1) also expressed the powerful influence that an educator’s ‘image of the child’ has upon pedagogical choices, stating:
“Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child. This theory within you pushes you to behave in certain ways; it orients you as you talk to the child, listen to the child, observe the child. It is very difficult for you to act contrary to this internal image.”
My PhD research confirmed that the visual arts knowledge, confidence and skills of early childhood teachers and educators, along with their beliefs about children and childhood, directly informs their choices and provisions in the the visual arts domain. You can read more about the provision of arts experiences in my article “Do visual art experiences in early education settings foster educative growth or stagnation?” (Lindsay, 2016).
Planning for the capable child
It is possible, even in the Christmas season, to uphold children’s right to be respected, to be heard, to have a voice, to make their own marks and to express their own ideas in ways that are developmentally appropriate.
Children are capable.
As educators it is our responsibility to support children to be seen, heard and valued rather than have educators objectify, control, replace and limit children’s voices through the production of educator made or educator altered replacements for children’s authentic mark making and children’s potential visual arts expression.
As I type this blog, I can hear the protests…. “Oh, come on!! It’s just a bit of fun! I did these things as a child and it never did me any harm! Why do we always have to think about education?! It only happens once or twice a year…The children love it! The parents love it!…It’s cute!!!”
Santa and reindeer hand.foot craft.[image]. Sourced from https://goo.gl/images/FpG74oer
The choices made by early childhood teachers and educators in their work with children have the potential to either uphold or undermine an image of the child as a citizen with rights, agency and many capacities. As a point of reflection, if you ever find yourself forcing open the clasped fist of a small child in order to manually splay their fingers to create a hand-print, it is time to consider alternative choices.
If early childhood educators, who should be well qualified to appreciate and implement high quality, respectful practice, routinely implement and defend pedagogy that limits children’s agency, who will advocate and uphold children’s rights and defend their right to develop skills and self confidence in the visual and graphic languages?
It may be true, as some say, that the occasional close-ended activity is unlikely to damage a child’s artistic psyche. (Although I do wonder at the number of people, educators included, who believe that they are not artistic….are we kidding ourselves if we think that childhood experiences have not played a part in the shutting down of this intelligence?)
I appreciate that it may be difficult to acknowledge the limitations inherent in adult-centred educational practice and shift routine thinking and habits. Most of us probably have memories of engaging in cookie-cutter activities as children and figure that we turned out OK…
However, I propose that early childhood professionals who exercise an image of the child as capable and who value the learning and growth afforded by high quality visual arts and crafts learning experiences will choose not to waste children’s and their own efforts on experiences that do not support the child and the family to be witnesses to children’s capacities and strengths and that potentially stagnate children’s right to engage in genuine learning experiences.
Surely, if we are bearers of children’s rights, we must carry that responsibility all year long?
Surely, we don’t put down our core values in order to pick up a little Christmas cheer?
The argument that children love structured crafts may indeed be true. Children absolutely enjoy experiences where the adults in their lives come close and work together on a project. However, educators must surely aim for both enjoyment and quality education? The two are not mutually exclusive. John Dewey (1915) articulates the two questions a teacher must ask when making choices about learning experiences with children.
Before justifying any activity, we must question the goal of the experience offered. If any goal requires the educator to put aside their values and knowledge about best practice, perhaps the imperative is to reflect and think about ways to achieve the outcome without compromising our goals or children’s rights?
The Australian Guide to the National Quality Framework outlines that in support of quality practice and child-directed learning,
“promoting children’s agency recognises that children have a right to make choices and decisions, and are capable of initiating their own learning” (2018, p. 117).
This guide to quality practice suggests that evidence of child-directed, agentic learning includes the production of:
- “work developed by children with minimal educator input”; and,
- “use of open-ended resources and materials that allow children to express themselves (rather than using templates, stencils or resources that limit children’s capacity to create, interpret, experiment and explore)”.
So, what does this mean for the season of Christmas arts and crafts?
Gift giving is part of the Christmas tradition. I believe that when educators enact a powerful image of the child they can both honour children’s rights AND support children to make and give gifts that bear witness their capacity, learning and development.
Quality visual arts and traditional crafting materials, methods and processes are enriching, engaging and respectful of children’s rights to express and make meaning using many languages. The products (and gifts) made through quality processes support children, families and educators to celebrate the child, while celebrating Christmas.
An example of quality practice from the field.
In a recent social media discussion Veronica Clough (Toddler Educator) described a the thinking behind a Christmas project undertaken at London Bridge Child Care Services, London, Ontario, Canada.
Veronica’s post and accompanying images of children, are included here with permission:
“We are building our Christmas gift to parents. I look at it this way, the children in our care love to use creative materials. In fact, we are studying the relationships children build through and with materials. Gift giving is part of that—giving a gift of their art, their creation. For example,last year our toddlers created a canvas piece for their parents—it was a long process, in that the children were mixing their own colours—primary to secondary—and layering it in the canvas using different tools—we wrapped the present to give to parents who absolutely loved the idea—I think this year we may do something to hang on the tree!!”
As a parent, I love the idea of a Christmas Ornament to hang on my tree, I still hang my 21 year olds stuff, along with my 7 and 3 year olds stuff they make—just as my mother has my stuff and my siblings stuff on her tree—so as a parent who is slightly Christmas obsessed, I love the idea of gifting something for the tree—or home—if some don’t celebrate Christmas.”
My research suggested that some educators may choose close-ended activities, because they lack the visual arts skills, confidence and knowledge to implement more open-ended, quality visual arts and crafts processes. The tendency to resort to Pinterest rather than interest (Lindsay, 2015) suggests that many educators lack confidence and knowledge in the visual arts domain (Lindsay, 2015).
The prolific number of social media requests for ideas in the immediate lead up to Christmas suggest that many educators may value support to build their repertoire of quality visual arts and crafts learning experiences.
To that end, the rest of this blog will offer suggestions for quality arts practice for the jolly season! Merry Christmas!
Suggestions for quality VA and traditional crafting experiences
(This is not an exhaustive list, but will perhaps plant some ideas for future consideration and extension).
Explore the smells and textures of the season. My good friend and colleague, Evelyn wrote a fabulous blog with many inspiring suggestions and provocations.
Evelyn challenges the template adult-directed, Pinterest approach and instead proposes a range of explorations with natural materials and scents, colours and textures of Christmas.
Projects of inquiry:
Take your lead from the children to explore and extend their ideas, knowledge and questions about Christmas. Share their ideas about family and community traditions and celebrations. A great resource to provoke thinking about exploring celebrations in children’s service is worth accessing here.
Consider creating beautiful concertina booklets for children to draw and record their ideas, theories and stories about Christmas.
There are simple instructions here and plenty of videos if you search accordion books in your search engine.
Drawing and Painting:
Value the processes of drawing and painting. Curate a range of quality drawing implements and a range of quality paints to explore the colours of Christmas and children’s idea about the season. Select quality card stock to draw or paint on.
Go beyond pouring out green and red directly from the bottle of acrylic paint (which may turn into a muddy mix). Instead, mix a range of tints and shades so that no matter how much colour mixing is done the colours will blend or compliment one another. While the process is important, the making of an aesthetically pleasing artwork supports children’s efforts and capabilities to be appreciated by their families.
Create under-paintings with a range of carefully curated colours (or use the printmaking techniques outlined below). When dry, provide children with quality markers and silver and gold paint pens to embellish and add depth to the artwork.
The potential of gelli printing, screen printing, scratch foam printing and block/object printing for deep, open-ended, delighted expression is limitless. Build children’s familiarity with the processes and techniques throughout the year, so that by the time you apply the processes to the creation of artworks to gift to families, children have confidence and expertise. Apply knowledge of colour theory to curate materials for aesthetic results.
Gelli printing is a forgiving, responsive process for children of all ages. Babies and toddlers can make finger and hand marks onto the painted plate and a beautiful print can be taken. Repeated with a range of complimentary and contrasting colours, the result is outstanding. preschool age children, once familiar with the process can take the lead in their own explorations and expressions. Take photos of children engaged in the process and frame these for a fabulous gift.
For those not familiar with gelli printing, the following two videos provide step-by-
- LINK TO VIDEO 1
- LINK TO VIDEO 2
- This blog also proves clear instructions for using gelli-print plate in tandem with scratch foam stencils.
Clay and dough
Using clay or salt dough or baking cooking ornaments are fabulous experiences for making ornaments and tree decorations. The addition of leaves or lace can create imprints that embellish and individualise the design. Very young children could poke their fingers into Christmas shapes, while older children can draw their own patterns and create imprints. Use a straw to create a clean hole for hanging before drying or baking. Another potential use of air-dry clay and natural/found materials is the creation of Christmas Creatures (see image at right from Keiraville Community Preschool, Wollongong, Australia.)
- Instructions for imprinting with leaves
- Instructional video for embossing clay with lace
- Recipe for salt dough
- Recipe for Christmas cookie ornaments
Thanks to Fiona Harris (Teacher/Director, KU Wombarra, NSW) for sharing this image of an Ephemeral design with fallen leaves collected on a nature walk. What a beautiful wreath it would make! Combine with photography to create beautiful cards and/or framed artworks with accompanying documentation of the process! Such experiences may also support conversations about sustainability and reduction/elimination of the use of plastics and glitter. Here is a link to information about the environmental issues with glitter along with alternatives for consideration.
A range of painting and print-making techniques are fabulous processes for children to engage in and to either wrap gifts in or to send home as a gift-pack of wrapping paper and tags that families can use at for their own gift wrapping. Access lots of ideas and processes here.
Pin prick drawing
An extension on drawing, and great for a longer term quiet concentration experience. Children’s drawings can be photo-copied and mounted on black card. Children then use a nail or a thumb tack to press holes along the lines of drawing (some children may benefit from guiding dots to ensure the holes are close enough). when held up against a window or wrapped around a glass jar with candle insert, the light shines through to create a drawing with light.
Sewing and weaving
Traditional crafting processes maintain links with cultural traditions. Curate the collection of materials to lend a Christmas flavour. These skills and processes should be part of the curriculum all year long. My research suggested that traditional crafting processes have been lost from many early childhood environments. While these types of learning experiences can require more intensive instruction and support, children become deeply engaged in processes that require focus and skills development. They are capable and can be supported to develop these skills that keep cultural traditions and artisan work alive. (And for those of you concerned that the babies and toddlers are missing out, stay tuned for a new blog in the new year that will provide lots of ideas about how to adapt open-ended arts and crafts for the younger age groups.)
Paper chains, folded paper concertinas, snowflake cutting, collage. The possibilities are endless…and open-ended.