Friday, June 11, 2021

"No Way. The Hundred is There"

"The material world is a language for a child," says Roberta Pucci, atelierista, art therapist, founder of Roberta Pucci Lab Consultancy, and presenter at the fast-approaching Teacher Tom's Play Summit.

She talks about the "grammar of matter," meaning that every material contains within it a set of specific characteristics and qualities that define its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations.

I find this notion thought-provoking, both as an early childhood educator and as a writer. When I consider "grammar" as it applies to literacy, I mostly think of rules, arbitrary really, but rules nevertheless, that dictate the order of the words, the location of punctuation, and proper capitalization. Art, on the other hand, and especially art as practiced by young children, should be "free" from the kind of rules associated with grammar. Shouldn't it?

Then I observe a child at an easel, a brush in each hand, applying paint in frantic swirls: yellow, blue, and red, just using those primary colors, covering the page in whirlpools of pigment. Purple appears for a time, also orange and green, but they inevitably disappear into gray until the paper gives way. Eventually, unless they stop themselves, they will be applying paint directly to the easel itself. 

Whenever these particular materials are available to children, at least one of them engages in their own version of this process, this "dialog" as Roberta calls it. It is in the nature of these tempera paints, when mixed together, to become this color of preschool gray. It is in the nature of paper to become increasingly fragile as more and more wet matter is applied to it. And it is in the nature of brushes, when used in this assertive way to eventually tear the paper.

This grammar is embedded within the materials and tools, and they reveal themselves as children play with them. 

Some children repeat their dialog over and over like reading a familiar storybook, not expecting different results, I don't think, but rather by way of confirming that this is how this particular story goes. 

I often send these children home with a stack of these gray pages, torn and drab, dried to a crisp. These aren't usually the paintings that parents tack up on their kitchen walls. Indeed, I often discover them later in the parking lot dumpster, where a parent has stealthily disposed of them in order to avoid curating them at home. The child, for their part, rarely misses them because what is important about those paintings is already within the child.

Is this really art? Are these really rules? Does it matter? I don't think so. What I find most important is the metaphor itself: that a child's play with the material world is a language, one they learn in much the same way they learn a spoken language, through trial and error, through mixing all the colors until the paper disintegrates under the pressure of the brushes. Roberta is playing with the philosophy of Loris Malagucci, the father of the Reggio Emilia approach, which is contained in its entirely in his famous poem:

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking,
A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to dream.
The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.


To watch my entire interview with Roberta, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!" 

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