Children’s Drawing Experiences: creating well-being and belonging in the classroom
“Not everyone puts on a costume at Halloween but some of you do,” the teacher began. “Who is dressing up for Halloween?” The teacher was genuinely curious. She wanted to create a new class book with each child illustrating one of their ideas.
A previous class book had been inspired by the reading of “Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message” by Chief Jake Swamp. In this book Chief Jake Swamp had expressed gratitude for the gifts of Nature. The children had then been invited to think of and draw something about nature for which they were thankful. The children’s illustrations had been bound together with staples and cardstock covers and placed among the selection of books the children could look at independently at school. When I joined the class a couple of weeks after they had created this book, I was struck by how often some of the children passed over professionally published books in their book bins to pick out the one they had created.
“Read this to me.” Xaviour held out the class-published Giving Thanks booklet. “Please?” I was surprised by the request. In the midst of busyness while most of the 26 children in the classroom were constructing or pretending, Xaviour wanted to sit quietly and read. At the back of the room, we sat together looking at the pictures with care. He turned the pages and I read the words that had been scribed by an adult.
Well-being and belonging created through book-making
This slow and careful read deepened my appreciation of their work. The page that showed thankfulness for the wind held swirls of colourful crayon markings and reminded me of wind dancing with fallen leaves. The page that showed thankfulness for the forest was filled with long vertical lines that seemed to invite me into its grandeur – a place where I might walk and feel overwhelmed by the height of the trees all around me. Xaviour couldn’t interpret other children’s drawings to guide his understanding of the words printed on each page, but when we turned to his illustration and I read “I am thankful for rain and puddles” he smiled and nodded his head.
I mentioned my observations to the teacher who had created this meaningful bookmaking experience for the children. “Well, the pictures are mostly scribbles,” she replied, “but they do seem to like it.”
It was now the end of October and the North American tradition of Halloween was almost upon us. It was time to create a new book, this time with photocopied pages that sported a pumpkin vine border and the beginning of a sentence that the children would complete “On Halloween I am ….”
Setting the stage for a new book
So when the teacher asked for a show of hands about who was dressing up for Halloween, she was relieved to see everyone’s hand shoot high into the air. She then asked each child in turn what they planned to dress up as on Halloween. Almost every child replied with the name of a superhero, Disney or video character… except for Jacob who said he was going to be a ghost.
Jacob: The meaning of scribbles and mark-making
It was hard to hear Jacob’s timid voice. His speech delay and the face mask he was required to wear for protection against COVID-19 made it even more difficult to hear him say ‘ghost’. We handed out the expectant photocopied blank pages to all the children. Then I went back to Jacob. He had his pencil in hand and had put a couple of light pencil markings in the centre of the page. He looked up at me.
“How’s it going Jacob?” I asked.
Jacob turned the page over to the completely blank side of the paper. Questioningly, I flipped the page back to his pencil drawing. “Is this your ghost?”
He flipped the page to the blank side of the sheet again. “Are you wanting to start your picture again?” Jacob was trying to tell me through actions and his eyes something important. I was fumbling to understand.
The thought occurred to me that his desire to draw something on the opposite side of the page could be for a whole variety of reasons. A ghost is something you don’t see. His light pencil markings might be his idea of how a ghost moves almost invisibly through the air. The other side of the paper might be where the ghost travels. On that side of the paper his bright crayon markings showed a flurry of movement. Alternatively, Jacob (who was just three and had never dressed up as a ghost before) might have been completely overwhelmed by the task. What do ghosts look like? What experiences or relationship has he ever had with ghosts? Could he draw his experience of being a ghost better after Halloween that before?
Amy: The role of colouring sheets and children’s confidence as artists
Amy had excitedly announced that she was going to dress up as Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen”. When I squatted down beside Amy, her pencil lay lifeless on the table in front of her, her drawing page unmarked. “I can’t draw Elsa,” she told me with troubled voice and eyes.
It was a dilemma. Typically, the children were asked on Mondays to draw something about their weekend on a blank page in their journals. During the rest of the week almost all their drawing experiences were offered through worksheets and colouring pages. Every day at school Amy was presented with adult-designed images of her world. There were dark lines to colour inside or to trace over with little or no room to express her own feelings or perspectives. Elsa was an adult-designed cartoon character too…. and now she had no dark lines on the paper to tell her how to draw Elsa correctly. She had no strategies or confidence to lift her pencil.
“Hmmm. Well Amy, there is no right or wrong way to draw the idea you have in your mind,” I said. Amy furrowed her eyebrows doubtfully above her COVID-19 face mask.
“Let’s start by imaging the Elsa that’s in your mind. Does she have a head?” Amy picked up her pencil and drew a circle.
How about her hair? Is her hair a certain colour or style? Does she wear it long or have bangs?” I continued.
“She has a braid that goes down.” Amy said this while stroking one of her pigtails and flowing her hand past its tip to her waist. She hesitated. “I don’t know how to draw a braid.”
“When I think of braids,” I offered, “I think of three parts that weave overtop of one another. I quickly scanned the table area for string or something flexible to demonstrate. Seeing nothing ideal to use, I placed my hand next to her paper. “The parts overlap a little like this,” I said, demonstrating how my two index fingers and one middle finger could fold over one another to begin a braid.
Amy’s eyes lit up. She sometimes wore braids in her hair too. She drew three long squiggly lines from the top of the head.
“What else do you see on her face? Does she have eyes? What colour are they?” I continue to prompt Amy to search her memory, experience, and imagination for guidance.
“I don’t remember the colour of her eyes.” Amy admits.
“Eyes are more than colour Amy. Eyes show emotion. How is Elsa feeling? You can show that through her eyes and mouth.”
Amy paused to think about the feeling of her drawing and then drew two large, all-seeing eyes. She no longer needed me beside her. Her image of Elsa was forming in her mind and she drew with confidence.
Christopher: What do children learn when we teach drawing skills?
I made my way to the other side of the room to find Christopher similarly stuck. He too was sitting with a blank sheet of paper in front of him. “What are you thinking about Christopher?” I began. “Did I hear you say you plan to dress up as Spiderman on Halloween?”
Christopher nodded. It wasn’t unusual for Christopher to sit with uncompleted worksheets in front of him. “I can’t draw it.” Christopher muttered. Amy, I realized, was not the only child in the room who was struggling with confidence.
“Well Christopher, I don’t know exactly how to draw Spiderman either, but when I think of Spiderman I think of certain colours. Do you see red and black in your mind too?” I asked. “I also imagine him using amazing powers to climb walls and swing through the air. What do you see?” I prompted.
“He’s climbing a big building.” Christopher replied, his hands slowly raised up from their hiding place beneath the table to show me how Spiderman’s arms and fingers would be outstretched.
Christopher reached into his crayon box and pulled out his red crayon and began to draw. When I circled back to Christopher there was a bright red spidery looking creature in the middle of his page. “Oh Christopher, it looks like your Spiderman is clinging to a wall!” I commented. “What are you thinking about your picture?” Christopher tells me there was an explosion and his Spiderman had to swing fast to that spot on the page.”
“Do you want to add more to your picture? You could add the building, or what Spiderman sees from way up on that invisible building perhaps?”
Christopher shakes his head. He’s satisfied with his drawing. It’s a picture, after all, of what he is dressing up as. It’s not a story scene. I smile and give Christopher a thumbs up. I move to another child. In the background I hear the voice of another educator in the room telling Christopher he must do more with his picture. Drawing with only one colour is not sufficient. His picture must include five colours. The teacher has raised the bar for Christopher. He needs to ‘bump it up’ – a term that guides many educators to direct children to add more detail to their drawings.
Other children in the classroom had finished their illustrations and were moving on to free play. Christopher and the teacher, however, sat together for ten more minutes while Christopher picked out other colours and drew more details.
I will never know if this final version of his picture was more satisfying to Christopher than his first. Was he pleased to have been able to show the ideas in his mind more clearly… or had his picture become an expression of someone else’s criteria of illustrations that are book-worthy?
Zara: Cultural diversity and inclusion
Zara, whose family speaks Urdu at home and for whom Halloween is not a customary celebration, had been one of the first children in the class to be asked what costume she was going to wear on Halloween. As a senior kindergarten student in a predominantly Eurocentric classroom, Zara knew how to offer responses that would blend in with the dominant culture. “Cat monster,” she had declared. Her voice had been decisive and clear. The teacher affirmed her choice and shifted her gaze and questioning to the child who sat beside Zara. And now Zara’s illustration of a cat monster was complete and destined to become a highlight of this newest class book.
But Zara had just confided in me. The enormity of her words hit me. The idea of a creating a class book had been to offer the children an experience that included each child’s contribution – to create a sense of belonging. But did it? Had this seemingly simple group activity white-washed Zara’s identity? Instead of creating belonging, had Zara experienced exclusion, a denial of diversity, a message that she and her family didn’t quite fit into this classroom or school?
Preconfiguration – a Reggio Emilia Approach
I was first introduced to the word ‘preconfiguration’ by Tiziana Filippini, an internationally respected teacher of teachers of the Reggio Emilia Approach. She pressed those of us studying with her to do hold back from replicating ‘tried and true’ activities or eye-catching ideas discovered on Pinterest. Instead, she urged us to think deeply about what we believe about children, what we know about each child, what we anticipate our offerings will achieve, and how we can enter into unique learning experiences with intention founded on observation and deep listening to children.
The Reggio Emilia Approach is one that teaches teachers that preparing for children’s drawing activities isn’t about photocopying or sharpening pencils.
It’s about asking ourselves questions that are rooted in observations and wonderings about our children. Preparing children for drawing begins with thought-filled reflection and intention.
In classrooms in which preconfiguration seems overflowing with assumptions, goals and intentions to demonstrate children’s reading and writing skills, is preconfiguration really necessary?
Or is this precisely where preconfiguration is needed most?
The answer is closer than we think. There is a Jacob, Amy, Christopher, and Zara in every classroom and program. If we are willing, they can open our eyes to new ways of seeing their world – through marks, scribbles and drawings.