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A river runs through it

2 Oct

riverA while back, I was sitting in the car, waiting for my husband. In the parking lot was a man and his assistant, busy mending shopping carts. I am a great supporter of the small entrepreneur being involved in creating his or her own workspace. This man, however, opened the storm water drain and all the plastic scraps and other broken pieces from the cart were thrown into the storm water drain. Now, my town has a small river running through it. As the crow flies, the Hennops River is about 2 kilometres from this shopping centre. With the rainy season imminent, those plastic scraps will go straight into the river.
The Grade 6 and 7 learners in our school did a research project on the level of pollution in our little river. We walked around the school block, took photos, collected water samples and conducted an interview with a man living on the banks of the river for the last 18 years. The learners asked questions about the level of pollution. We also tried to see how much animal life was still in the river. Their research revealed shocking facts. The little river has in the last few years become a raging river in the rainy season. It overruns its banks, closing streets and endangering the houses of people who have been living next to the river for the last 20 years. When I was a child and when my children were teenagers this river was a source of pride and joy. My sons fished in it, and caught enormous fish. There were huge crabs and numerous small water animals in the stream. Several species of birds lived on and next to the stream. All this have changed. All we have now is a sewage-polluted river with plastic waste hanging on the dead branches of trees. The banks of the river are eroded and consequently the abundant plant life of the past has also been eroded and damaged.
How did all of this happen? It does not help to point fingers. Many people blame the municipal authorities. Certainly the raw sewage is their responsibility, but can we really make a difference by pointing fingers? This little river is a priceless asset in our environment. There are concerned groups like church youth groups that occasionally “clean up” the most obvious waste. This, however, makes very little change to the sad plight of our river.
I read in one of the recent National Geographic Magazines about the plight of the Yellow River in China. This river is the stuff of legends –  a famous concerto is dedicated to it. The sad thing is that this river, the lifeline of China, is, like our little river, for all practical purposes dead. The last river dolphin in the world was declared officially extinct a couple of years ago. The Yellow River porpoise is in the process of becoming extinct. It is as if people, ordinary rational people, are turning away from the environment. If you talk to them, they share your concerns but no one does anything.
I do not have an answer. I only know that if we cannot raise the awareness of the plight of rivers, small or large, we will suffer and our children will turn around and ask: “Why? Why did you not do something?”
I did not get out of the car to talk to the man who was throwing his waste in the storm water drain. I looked at him and knew that I was only going to get a torrent of abuse for my interference. Maybe that is the reason why we do not organise ourselves into active groups to put pressure on the authorities, on companies and on individuals that are ignorant and do not care. And the river keeps on running sluggishly; smelling of decay and neglect.


The Development of Creativity

23 Sep

creativityLast week we looked at the development of the important scribble phase in young children’s art work. Today we are going to look at the development of creativity and ask the question whether the scribble and head-foot men in our children’s art work have a meaning. Is it just play or is there a higher issue at stake here? The head-foot man grows from the random scribble and the growth in the young child’s spatial knowledge as well as the increasing control over large and small motor movements. This stage of development is as important to the overall development of children’s art as the scribble phase. At our school – the Regio Centurion School in Centurion, South Africa – we organise an annual art exhibition of our students’ art works. The school has a preschool (babies to kindergarten) and a primary school (Grade 1 to Grade 7). We exhibit everyone’s work, from the babies to the Grade 7 learners. This year’s art exhibition opened on 21 September.

Research that was done on the level of creativity in people, showed that preschool children have the highest level of creativity. This level of creativity starts to fall in the primary school and is very low amongst high school students. Creativity is not a genetic trait. Everyone has the potential to be highly creative. Creativity is not only about visual art and the performing arts. Creativity is about using skills and talents to identify problems and to solve those problems in a novel way. Truly creative people look at reality in a different way. Creativity is a dynamic state. By trying, failing and trying again, the creative process grows and develops exponentially.

How can we help our children and ourselves to become more creative? When we allow young learners to explore and discover without placing emphasis on the end product, we help them to grow in self-confidence and develop the ability to try again. I read somewhere that Edison said that before he discovered the light bulb he discovered a hundred ways in which it did not work! The process of exploring and discovering is always more important than the end product. Through being involved in the process of discovery,  you also discover your own abilities and develop your own skills. This is exactly what happens in the process of exploring and discovering art. If the scribbles, the upside-down head-foot man and the purple cows are not accepted, the self-confidence to develop and learn is undermined and the small, tender plant of creativity withers. Thinking differently, even if it is patently not possible, is an important aspect of a young child’s development. Our role is to accept, to ask questions and show interest.

Loris Malaguzzi of Reggio Emilia fame, believed that visual art plays a very important role in the development of general creativity. His view is supported by the creativity guru of our time, Sir Ken Robinson. Ken Robinson believes that the emphasis on academic subjects at the cost of visual arts and drama in schools undermines not only creative thought, but also the skills young people need to be functional, successful adults in the future. The future will be a place where creativity, problem-solving skills and the skill to communicate across cultural divides will make the difference between success and failure.

How can art in the preschool make a difference? Cultivating a sense of self, believing in yourself, looking at reality in a different way and accepting other people’s way of doing things are the skills we learn in a good preschool art programme.

Yes, though the scribble looks the same today as yesterday and the head-foot man is still lying on his back, remember that even Picasso started in this way and Chagall loved floating figures!

The development of children’s art

16 Sep

Little girl scribbling

Children’s art has a universal developmental character. The problem is though 

that, as adults, we look at the scratches and marks on paper and wonder if 

there is something wrong with our toddlers. Surely they can see that it does 

not look like anything resembling reality?

The development of art goes hand in hand with the child’s motor development 

and also the child’s perception of space. To get an idea of a baby or toddler’s perception of space we have to 

go down on our knees and even down on our tummies to look at the world and 

the space around us.

Horizontal marks

The first marks on paper is almost by accident. The baby will move the crayon 

on the paper in a horizontal fashion, even looking away while he/she is doing it. It 

sometimes looks as if the baby is as surprised by these marks as the adult.


The next phase is round scribbles that will cover the piece of paper and 

sometimes even go over the boundaries of the paper. Remember the young 

child’s awareness of space? This is the embodiment of the child starting to 

experience that there are boundaries. At first this is done in one colour; and 

day after day the child will make the same scribble usually in the same colour. 

Even if the adult provides nice thick paint brushes, the round circles will still be 

there. The only difference here is that the paint covers the circular nature of 

the paint scribble.

Scribbles with more than one colour

One morning the young artist will let go of the one colour and start using more 

than one colour. It is still a scribble, but the fact that there are more colours 

tells us that this child is in fact starting to look at the scribble. Many colours might be used.

Making smaller round shapes

The next stage of the development of children’s art is getting more and more 

exciting. The big round circle is replaced by smaller round shapes, often in one 

colour, but also sometimes in more than one colour.

Naming the scribble

The next phase is truly fantastic. One day your toddler/young child will say: 

“Look, I made a car”. You will look at the “car” and you are obliged – no it is 

your duty – to say: “Wow, I can see it is a car. We can write “CAR” underneath

 your picture”.  

Just the fact that you show appreciation inspires the young child to do it again 

and again. In this process the young child starts to draw recognisable features. 

Next time the car might have a round shape somewhere!

Head-foot men

Head foot men grow out of the small circles children draw on their art work. 

It usually starts with round shapes with maybe one eye (often the eye is 

outside the round “face” – remember the spatial perceptions?). Gradually 

the figures get facial features, while legs, feet, arms and hands are added over a 

considerable period of time. As the child becomes more proficient, more detail is 

added. A characteristic of this stage is that space is used in a floating manner. 

The head-foot man may be upside down or lying on his side. This is also an 

indication of the emerging spatial insight that will eventually be good enough 

to enable the child to read and write by the time he or she is 6 or 7.

How can you as parent, teacher or adult contribute to this fantastic, exciting 

process? Well … very little. Your task is to be like Sugata Mitra’s proverbial grandmother, saying: “Did you make this? Can you do it again? Show me.” There is no 

better reaction than this. Do not interfere, show your appreciation and stand back.

Next time I will look at the following aspects: development of realistic art, creative problem

solving as part of art, how time and space are portrayed in young children’s art 

and the role of experience as well as the art curriculum.

Remember: “Did you do this on your own? Can you show me?”


In awe of playing

12 Sep
free play

Children should be allowed to make decisions and take risks when playing

I had a conversation with a group of mostly young people working in preschools. The topic of the conversation was play, and more specifically, outside free play. Considering the wide acceptance of the benefits of play, and vigorous outside play, I was perturbed to hear that:

  1. There are not enough teachers to supervise outside play (in some of these schools the ratio is 30/1).
  2. There is not enough physical space and equipment for the number of children playing. On most of these playgrounds trees have been removed as a “safety measure”.
  3. There is very little space for ball play and the typical fantasy play boys participate in, e.g. robbers and good guys, cowboys and crooks, running around with wooden guns and building places to hide in with tyres and blocks.
  4. In one school the boys are prohibited from playing rough games “because they might hurt the girls”.

There are several consequences arising from these circumstances. Some of these consequences are very serious and many of them have a long-term effect on the well-being of our young men. In the above mentioned discussion, considerable time was spent on the level of aggression among these preschool boys (but also the level of meanness among the preschool girls).

General aggression on playgrounds is not an automatic indication that there is something wrong at home – although this could be the case in isolated instances. General aggression on the playground is usually an indication of the health of the preschool programme and the relationships within that programme.

Maria Montessori said that we must follow the child when planning our programme. We are today in a privileged position as far as knowledge of children’s needs and learning is concerned. None of this is guess work. We know exactly what a good programme should look like and what the teachers should do to promote maximum learning and participation in any preschool.

The sad thing is that money and status have very little to do with what happens in a preschool. Parents tend to be dazzled by the bling in the classroom (We used to call it “window dressing” when I was young.) I must say, I do get a little impatient with parents who do not do thorough research before placing their babies, toddlers and young children in outside care. After all, raising your child is one of the most important and enduring things you will undertake in your life. Just the financial implications should be enough to make you do some research before you make the decision where to place your child. A researcher once said the decision to place your child somewhere, means that you are giving the responsibility for the development of your child’s potential, future success and lifelong well-being, over to someone else. Most of us will not even do that when we are buying a car!

We know today that vigorous movement and imaginary play are the two developmental necessities for the development of reading, writing and maths in the primary school. More than that, imaginative game play develops symbolic thinking. Symbolic thinking cannot develop while playing digital games or sitting in front of the television, or by colouring in or completing worksheets. Symbolic thinking includes things like the ability to form relationships, empathy, reading a book and feeling the emotions of the characters in the book.

The other important aspect of learning is the fact that young children need the opportunity to be involved in their own learning. Self-initiated learning is, according to 3 separate research projects, a better indication of academic success and success in adult life than high marks or a high IQ. Self-initiated learning is what happens when young children can plan their own games, use their bodies to take risks, make mistakes and try again.

I want to stand on the corner of the world’s streets and shout: “Let the children play!”

Let us declare play the holy grail of childhood; untouchable, something to look at in awe. We are wasting our children’s learning time if they do not have ample opportunity to play.

Our special children

19 Mar


The pain of parents whose long awaited baby is born with some sort of genetic disability is one of the things that breaks my heart. I regularly see parents who bring their children to us in the hope that we will have the magic formula to make the nightmare go away. In South Africa, presently there are not an abundance of care for children experiencing special needs.

Often parents do not take their children for evaluation, or if they do they make use of non-specialists. Many parents cling to doing nothing because they hope that it is just a “phase” or that their child is a slow developer. Most preschools and even primary schools have very little knowledge about issues such as seemingly wilful disobedience, aggression, an inability to show social skills or an inability to communicate needs.

We see more and more children on the Autistic spectrum. The sad thing is that these children often come to us when they are already 5 or 6 years old. Of course there is always hope, but the younger you start, the greater the potential for success.

I recently read an Afrikaans poem about a father, sitting with his little Down’s syndrome boy on his lap. He prays to God and accepts that this child was given by God. However, the poem also heartbreakingly asks “Why?”.

Of course this is sad and I often wonder if parents ever get to that stage of acceptance and resignation that brings peace. Even more sad, is the other side of the coin. The parent with an intelligent child who pushes this child to play high-level sport or do ballet or be an academic giant, when these children are still at the age where they should be playing and establishing positive relationships. Children equate their parents’ pushing them into all kinds of competitive situations,  to their parents’ conditional love –  even if this not at all what the parent intend.

I often have this deep abiding gratitude working with children on the Autism Spectrum. Like all children, they have immense potential, but the keys to unlock and develop that potential are mostly not your usual keys. Like all children though, these children need to have trust in their environment and in the people working with them. The immense satisfaction when we have a breakthrough creates a wonderful feeling of accomplishment,  that can last you a long time.

Every parent should have this deep abiding gratitude for their beautiful  children. Of course we need to have expectations, but our expectations should always be restrained by our love and gratitude.

A river filled with crocodiles

5 Nov

Children are truly amazing. I am, once again, teaching a 4 to 5 year old group. It is a learning situation for me as well as for the children. I spend a long time every night preparing for the next day and yet their interest is often caught by the unprepared things that happen in the class. The unprepared, spontaneous discussion on what should we do to be a good friend. These children very seriously declared that you should not hurt someone, you should always speak kindly and share your toys. Profound wisdom that they can take into adulthood with them.

I also started with a programme to help them focus and increase their self-control. Every morning we start by sitting with crossed legs and breathing slowly in and out. We greet each other with a morning song and talk about what happened at home. In the three weeks that we have been together, I have learned that laughing and playing are powerful tools to get children to focus. We sing and dance every day. We listen to stories and do art, and they play. Playing is so precious at this age. They are willing to do all the things I ask of them but in the end their question is, “May we go and play?”

When we were small, we did not need to ask. In fact, we were chased out of the house to go and play. When we were in primary school, no one ever asked where we were going after school. You only had to be back when the sun went down. I know the world has changed. I also know that I had an incredible childhood. It was filled, not with possessions, but with experience. I can remember one day discovering  a shallow pool filled with enormous bullfrogs. We went back there to observe and watch the bullfrogs until they mysteriously disappeared. Today there is a huge hospital built on this site.

I know we cannot bring back the carefree days of our childhood. However, we can make it easier for young children to be children. When I hear that children as young as three have to do ballet, formal music classes, mathematics and learn to read and write, it fills me with sadness. They should, like the troop in my class, go out and play. The other day they built a river, filled it with water and swung over the river with the rope swing in the tree. I do not think that anyone of them has ever done that in real life, but their imagination enabled them to live that experience. And who are we to say they do not learn?

We should allow our children to create memories for the day that will surely come when they are sad and alone. Then they can remember making a wide, dangerous river, filled with crocodiles and swinging over this river with the help of their friends. Is that a waste of time? No. As long as we know that we need friends; and that you must not hurt your friends; and share your time and resources; we know that we learn for the future.

2 Oct

Rethinking Childhood

Here’s a video of a young boy being taught to ride a bike. (It’s in Dutch – but you really don’t need to know the language.)

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