The place of artistic expression in young children’s lives
Reshu’s little niece is almost five. She has a strong sense of what she likes and is particularly creative with sketching. She is the younger of two sisters and displays a fiercely independent sense of her five-year old self. Reshu lives nearby with her own daughter and the three cousins spend a lot of time together. On weekdays, the three girls and their two mothers spend afternoons together after school hours during which drawing is a popular engagement. In this expression as well, the little one is unique and assertive. Perhaps her position as the youngest of three cousins was instructive in further developing her self-confidence. She refuses to be defined by others’ ideas about how she should look and what she should do. She insists on doing her work on her own because she believes others can’t fully understand how she likes things to be. For instance, in the pictures below, she interprets ‘swinging’ in her own way each time, choosing to sit in many possible positions except the conventional one. At home, she is often indomitable. It was on one regular afternoon at home, the girls busy with sketching and conversations, that Reshu came across this sketch made by her. Although the girls regularly approach their mothers, this one sketch was lying unattended, and instantly captured Reshu’s attention. It seemed like a composite drawing of two faces, perhaps a male and female? “Mummy and Papa” the little girl said in passing, sounding quite mysterious. Despite Reshu’s persistent questioning (or may be because of it), her imagery remained inscrutable, “Bas, mere man main aaya, maine bana diya” (It came to my mind and I drew it, that’s all!).
There are so many questions about her sketch. What was it that she was trying to communicate by the union of the two faces. Interestingly, the black dots that could be mistaken for signs of a beard are in fact some marks she always draws on her mother’s otherwise clear face. Apparently, the older sister tends to picture her mother thus, and the younger one has taken that from her drawings. The male-female sides are distinguishable by the eyelashes and slight thickness of the lips (lipstick). For sure, this is a happy image with the “I love u” and bright yellow floral decorations. As we tried to examine the elements of this sketch, several points of discussion emerged regarding the significance of children’s sketches. We know that drawings have been used to study children’s representations and developmental differences. Piaget used drawings to examine how much children understood about the machinery of cycles, for example. The details of the drawings were used to initiate conversations with children about their understanding of the workings of cycles and the source of momentum, for instance. The Draw-A-Person (by Goodenough and Harris) test is a well known one that is used as a measure of children’s intellectual maturity. Pinterest has a wide range of posters about stages in children’s drawing that are very interesting to scan. Also, Heidi Keller and colleagues have done several studies about cultural differences in children’s representations and use of paper. See Notes section for a references.
Children and art
Left to themselves, children freely use materials for self-expression. However, the significance of artistic expression, and the place of artistic forms in our social lives has undergone many transformations. For children’s learning, the dialogue between art and education has seen many theoretical and practical shifts. The place of Art Education remains a complicated matter, and seeing it as superficial, entertaining, extra or optional hasn’t been favourable for developing self-expression. Children’s drawings are special, because aside from all the different functions the activity serves, it provides us with a small window into the child’s mind that is otherwise so inaccessible. A precious resource in this discussion is: ‘Art: The Basis of Education‘ by Devi Prasad, a must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about the place of Art in everyday life. I will be using several portions from the book to construct this commentary.
Prasad writes that: Art and life were not separated in the traditional Indian understanding of education. The broader purpose of education, beyond the accumulation of information, includes “wisdom, capacity of discretion, control of ego, humility, truthfulness, self-dignity, social service, and creative skills. Art education fulfills several objectives: Creative expression and development of skills with material, measurement and manipulation, and also provides access to the workings of children’s minds. The “play of harmony and rhythm in nature” needs to be introduced to children early in life because these elements “penetrate deeply into the mind and take a powerful hold on the fresh and open mind of the child” The source of creativity “is in nature” and we discover it as artists, sculptors, dancers, carpenters……(pages xxxii-xxxiii). See Notes section for soft copy of the volume open to public access.
Further, he writes that: “Gandhi and Tagore had a vision of a liberated human being. That vision can be realized only through an educational approach based on creativity in which the aim of every activity is the affirmation of the unity within the individual’s personality and, at the same time, the unity of all humanity. In other words, art has an essential role to play in the educational process, the aim of which is human unity. Emphasizing the role art plays in liberating the personality, Herbert Read says: “A child’s art, therefore, is its passport to freedom, to the full fruition of all its gifts and talents, to its true and stable happiness in adult life. Art leads the child out of itself. It may begin as a lonely individual activity, as the self-absorbed scribbling of a baby on a piece of paper. But the child scribbles in order to communicate its inner world to a sympathetic spectator, the parent from whom it expects a sympathetic response. “Too often, alas, it receives only indifference or ridicule. Nothing is more crushing to the infant spirit than a parent’s or a teacher’s contempt for those creative efforts of expression. That is one aspect of a process which disgraces the whole of our intellectualized civilization and which, in my opinion, is the root cause of our social disintegration. We sow the seeds of disunity in the nursery and the class room, with our superior adult conceit. We divide the intelligence from the sensibility of our children, create split men (schizophrenics, to give them a psychological name), and then discover that we have no social unity.” (p. xxxi).
When we treat Art only as entertainment, as a hobby in which we engage to overcome fatigue, it becomes “an object of recreation rather than a life-giving force”. As a result, Art has become understood as an indulgence, a luxury only the wealthy can afford rather than a way of life! This is a tremendous loss that we can only hope to recover. When we give priority to expensive lab facilities at school and reject the importance of art and craft studios, the choice we make breaks up children’s worlds in ways that are hard to repair. What children need is encouragement, material, class management and companionship in their artistic journey. Just as the separation of work and play is meaningless for children, so is the separation of Art and Learning, Art is in fact, the basis for a wholesome education!
In Sanskrit, Mandala literally means circle, and Mandala art is considered a form of concentration, a tool for spiritual guidance and control. Guided by traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Shintoism, Mandala art is a chart or geometric pattern symbolizing the cosmos meant to represent wholeness and the organisational structure of life depicting our place in the universe, both within and beyond our minds. In the diagram below, we see a traditional Mandala painting, a colouring sketch based on Mandala art and a five year-old’s representation of one. We can see how art can provide continuity between these different interpretations of our place in the world in a way that is hard to capture with language.
Construction of gender
In this post, we have seen how children’s expressions can provide us with a brief but significant glimpse into their worlds. The sketch of the composite face done by this five year-old can inform us about her understanding of unity, continuity and fluidity with an openness that we seem to have lost, or are in the process of losing, Prasad argues. This is perhaps another important function of children’s expressions, that they can provide us with unconventional ways of understanding the truth about human relations, of which gender is an important part.
Children’s understanding of gender emerges over the course of the childhood years and results from an active consolidation of experiences and biology, making the development of gender identity one of the most complex domains of development in humans. Both nature and culture are in constant dialogue as a child gains her understanding of masculinity and femininity. It is impossible to isolate specific antecedents to children’s expressions to pin down specific exposures to a life-long predilection. Our psyche is far too complicated to be solved by algorithmic sequences. Yet, when we see a form like the one drawn by Reshu’s niece, somethings become clear. Children make-up their world all the time. We are intrigued about the child’s creative expression, as well as the ideas behind such an expression. We are challenged and want to know more, but beyond a point, children’s minds are inscrutable. Our responsibility, as Prasad writes so succinctly, is to provide the integration of art with life in such a way that facilitates children’s expressions as they attempt to make sense of the world through the activities of self-expression of which art is an important form. This is one of the ways in which we can have at least a small entry into their minds that otherwise remain elusive to us. In their world, as well as in ours, gender expressions cannot be simply divided into male and female. Sexual development, personal preference, and gender identity can take multiple forms. There is still much work to be done regarding the social acceptance of gender fluidity that can take many forms, and there is much we can learn from children. Pattanaik writes:
“I have a man’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.
I have a woman’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.
I have a man’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.
I have a woman’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.
I don’t know if my body is a woman’s or a man’s. I feel I am a woman.
I don’t know if my body is a man’s or a woman’s. I feel I am a man.
I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire women.
I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire men.
I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.
I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.
I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire both men and women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire both women and men.
I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.
I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.
I am a man. I desire only one woman.
I am a woman. I desire only one man.
I am a man. I desire only one man.
I am a woman. I desire only one woman. I am neither male nor female.
I am both male and female.
Prasad, D. (1998). Art: The basis of education. New Delhi: National Book Trust. https://archive.org/stream/Art-TheBasisOfEducation-DeviPrasad/art_djvu.txt
Pattanaik, D. (2014). Shikhandi and other tales no one told you. New Delhi: Penguin.
Heidi Keller and colleagues article about children’s drawings: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022022110363475
Developmental stages in children’s drawings: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/132996995232654863/?d=f&mt=signupOrPersonalizedLogin