Thursday, August 04, 2022

Product, Process, Play, And Permission

I make art in flurries. You can see some of it by clicking here and scrolling down. I've even had a collection of my art on exhibit at the North Seattle College library where it inspired at least one class of burgeoning artists to make their own versions of what I'd done. And, I'm proud to say, that I've even sold a handful of pieces.

When I'm talking about "my" art, of course, I'm talking about the finished product. I'm talking about the thing that someone might display on a shelf or hang on a wall. If you ask me questions, I will tell you about my process

When I made the piece in the picture at the top of this post, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books. I don't know where this idea came from.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop, I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? 

These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. 

Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

In the world of play-based learning, we generally say "process over product." Indeed, for many of us, this statement is the gateway through which we enter play-based learning. The idea is that when preschoolers make art the creative process is where the learning happens. "Process over product," is a reaction to the all-too-common practice of marching kids obediently through step-by-step craft projects that produce cookie cutter results. If we want children to be creative, critical thinkers, instead of rote rule followers, we must value their process over all else, we say. When you see a preschool wall full of matching teddy bear art, we tell parents, run like the wind.

Italian art educator Roberta Pucci agrees that walls full of matching art is a warning sign, but she is likewise suspicious that "something should be over something else." Product, she argues in my conversation with her at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, can be every bit as important as process. Indeed, she says, they cannot be separated.

Roberta, Israeli art therapist Nona Orbach, and Swedish pedagogical consultant Suzanne Axelsson have spent the year since last year's play summit, huddled together over Zoom with their glasses of wine, talking about preschool art, and specifically about scribbles and drawing. The collaboration of these three women, who I've come to think of as The Super Friends, has resulted in an initiative they call The Grammar of Drawing.

"Children are often very proud of their products . . . they are often deeply connected to them," Suzanne tells us, adding that the mantra of "process over product" oversimplifies and can lead us to be dismissive of what children produce.

The Super Friends have gone beyond the framing of process and product to include play and permission as well, the four P's of preschool art, all of which are of equal importance. The piece of art I've pictured a the top of this post is a classic example of how process, product, and play are too intertwined to be separated. I was, all along, inspired by an idea and explored my way through a process that produced something of which I am proud, not in small measure because of the process and the play. But where does permission come in?

As Nona explains, because there is hierarchy in the world, permission, especially when adults and children are together, is necessary. "Permission is an experience between two people, or between two aspects of one's self, characterized by allowing, accepting, and belonging." We ask ourselves, "Am I allowed to be who I am? . . . If the answer is 'yes,' that is permission." 

When I made my piece of art, I gave myself permission to curse and cry and struggle, but when it comes to preschoolers, there is almost always another person involved, an adult who must give permission for the child to be who they are. Nona tells the story of a toddler who discovers a beetle and smiles at her grandfather. When the grandfather smiles back at the child without saying anything, "this is permission." We know we're in an environment to of permission when the child is likewise giving permission to the adult.

It is only within the environment of permission, a place where we know we are welcome to be ourselves, that we can fully and honestly engage in the playful process of producing art . . . Or anything else that is personally meaningful. It is in this context, says Roberta, that we can share or unique individual potential with society. "You can't truly be yourself without community" says Suzanne, "You can only try be your unique self together with others." This is why permission is essential.

These Super Friends are engaged in an ongoing process under the heading of the Grammar of Drawing. They came together with the idea of collaborating to "make an idea," which is, in the end, what art is all about. And they want you to know that you have permission to join them. 


To watch my full interview with "The Super Friends," please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together, with permission, is the only way we will change the world.

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