Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Boy Who Painted Dragons

The boy who painted dragons

Since my first year teaching, we've painted dragons for Chinese New Year (February 3 this year). Many of the children arrive in class with an awareness of the Western tradition of dragons as monstrous, fire breathing, treasure hoarding creatures to be feared and slain, so I like introducing them to the Eastern idea of the dragon as a wise and powerful being, symbolic of all that is wondrous about life. 

We start by looking at Demi's Dragons and Fantastic Creatures, a book that is, shockingly, out-of-print. Demi's paint, ink, and Chinese silk brocade illustrations of dragons on pages that fold out to 3 and even 4 pages across capture the magic of these mythological figures in a way that never fails to spark preschoolers' imaginations. As we look at the Creative Dragon (it flows through your mind as you're painting), the Wind Dragon (it is moving the leaves in the tree outside our windows right now), or the Mountain Dragon (an old, wise, and very still dragon that lies within the mountains we see in the distance) I can see trepidation in the expressions of some of the children. After all, these are dragons: gigantic, mysterious creatures with sharp teeth and claws. They look fierce even while we're told they are good.

As children paint we ask them to tell us about their dragon. Several of the girls painted rainbow dragons last week, using their paint brushes to claim ownership of these fierce beings. I've noticed that many children focus on painting the fangs, often applying so much paint that they wear through the paper, almost as if they're facing a fear.

This year we've been reading another Demi book, The Boy Who Painted Dragons. From Through The Looking Glass Children's Books Reviews:

Long ago there was a young boy who painted dragons. He painted dragons on everything. The odd thing was that he did not paint dragons because he liked them; he did so because he was afraid of them, terrified of them in fact. Now, high up in the heavens the dragons who played and who "rode on the clouds and raced the sun" saw Ping painting his beautiful dragons. The Heavenly Dragon was so pleased with Ping's apparent fondness for dragons that he decided to pay him a visit.

When Ping saw a real dragon the boy, in sheer terror, hid under a chair. Seeing the state of the boy the Heavenly Dragon realized that Ping "painted dragons out of fear."

We used this story to kick off a discussion about our feelings and the feelings of others in our Pre-K class, continuing the work we've been doing on empathy these past several weeks. I find the dragon metaphor to be a particularly apt one for the situation in which some of our older boys find themselves. Naturally, they can identify with Ping, who of course, is petrified by the sudden appearance of a dragon in his bedroom. What I've been trying to do as well is help them draw a parallel between themselves and the dragons.

Many of these older boys have been imagining themselves to be powerful, yet terrifying beings (e.g., superheroes, pirates, monsters), exploring this aspect of their masculinity, just as boys in every preschool classroom around the world are doing. It's almost a rite of passage, I think, this discovery of their power, then the struggle to learn to use these fierce "powers" for good. I asked the boys to consider that as they loop the younger children into their play, they may be dragons themselves, fearsome to people younger and smaller than themselves.

I don't know if they "get it" exactly, but that's okay because the metaphor of mythology doesn't always work by direct means. I've already read the story to them twice, and I'll likely read it again. I want this story to become a touchstone for us for the rest of the year, a reference point for discussing our own feelings and the feelings of others. I've already asked one boy to consider, "Are you a dragon now? Or are you Ping?" He was confused at first, but after thinking, he decided he was a dragon. When I asked, "If you're a dragon, then who is Ping?" he knew exactly who I was talking about and, at least for the time, seemed to tone down the intensity of his play.

When my daughter was a preschooler, people used to tell me that "girls are easy when they're young, boys are harder." I don't know if that's true or not, having never parented a boy, but I think at least part of what they were talking about is the problem with dragons. It must be quite frightening for parents to see their gentle, innocent babies begin to explore this aspect of being male. It's confusing with its sharp teeth and claws, it's size, fearsomeness, and power. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to be a proper dragon. Maybe it seems that they're too young for this, but it's at about this age, 3-5, that children begin to understand this most basic of "divisions" within humanity, the two genders, and come to understand to which "tribe" they belong.

The same people who told me that girls are easy and boys are hard, would also warn me, "But in middle school, it's the boys that get easy and the girls that get hard." I haven't found the metaphor yet that works for me, but as I watch my 14-year-old baby exploring the power of her femininity I think I have a lot in common with the parents of these preschool boys.

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Unknown said...

I have our painting supplies all set up for dragon creating! The kids are playing outside right now, but the minute they come in we are getting started! I am excited. I love when we can celebrate special days! : ) I think they are most excited about the chinese food for lunch!

Unknown said...

My band's name is 'Problem With Dragons'!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of young girls exploring the power of their feminity. Very apt description I think, and a good way to 'frame' those challenging times.

Jessica said...

My name is Jessica Battles and I'm a secondary education/math student at University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL. Reading your post was very informative. I would've never thought of the metaphors that dragons could teach preschoolers about fear and life. All I remember about my preschool days was taking naps, learning the days of the week, and learning certain vocabulary words. Your teaching style is very different and creative and something I have never heard of or would've even thought about.
Here are links to both my class blog and my blog


I love this metaphor Tom. I am sure the children will understand the connection in time. I must hunt this book down... would have been brilliant for the children in my care last year!

wondersofnature said...

Cycles of nature, be they plant, animal or mythical beast(!) related are perfect for all children as they can allow you to discuss complicated and emotional issues without directly addressing the child's behaviour or their life.

I've been working with a young person for several months now weeding and re:weeding the same space whilst they sort out a really complicated life story. We barely discuss the actuality of things that have happened but we talk a lot about how weeds(bad stuff) can appear from nowhere and take over the bed(life) and how you have to keep on tackling the weeds (bad stuff) week after week because if you leave it for too long the whole bed(life) is full of weeds and it can all seem too much...

The same young person has just started a compost heap to turn all of the weeds into something new and positive...