Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Listening for Stories: Childhood Studies and Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Listening for Stories: Childhood Studies and Art Education

Article excerpt

Never has it been more important to position the ways in which children are educated in broader cultural and social contexts. (Vecchi, 2010, p. 23)

The faux-satin capes and masks were made by a craftsperson in our small university town; we found her on the Internet, and ordered enough for the kindergarten class that I co-taught last spring with Madeline, a senior majoring in art education. In this third week of Saturday art class, Madeline invited the children to design costumes for their superheroic personae, embodying the identities they had developed in previous sessions. There were fabric markers and paints, sticky foam letters, and glittery gems to complete the look. And there were strips of felt and Velcro dots available for those who wished to add armbands, or bracers, as they are known in the official lingo of superhero society.

I had spent the morning unclogging glue bottles and searching for letters to spell out "Bunny Bun'' or "Elsa" (who qualifies as a superhero among kindergarten girls, who seem to relate more easily to a Disney princess than to Wonder Woman). I was working with recalcitrant materials when Jeremiah approached, garbed in cape and mask, with two strips of white felt in hand, Velcro dots attached to each end. His frustration was plain. "Somehow," he said, "I can't get these to fit!' The felt strips, cut far too generously for kindergarten-sized wrists, dangled from his fingers. "Let's try this," I suggested, wrapping the band more snugly around his wrist, using one bit of Velcro to attach the felt securely, and trimming the excess. Jeremiah nodded his approval. As I repeated the procedure on his other arm, he mused quietly in a statement not addressed to me, "Now, I look like the kind of impressive superhero I want to be." Satisfied with a job well done, he moved to the comic book center, sifted through the books on offer, and was soon absorbed in the world of Axe Cop.1

For many years, this is how I have spent my Saturday mornings, among young children in art classes, traversing again and again the imperceptible line between the reality of clogged adhesives and the fantasies that are so much a part of young children's experiences, one of the "three Fs" that early childhood educator Vivian Gussin Paley (1986) identifies as the preoccupations of the very young. The other more quotidian concerns are friendship and fairness. In Jeremiah's experience on this particular morning, many of the threads that bind my interests in young children intertwine. Not only did he follow the dictates of necessity and inspiration in the production of his costume; he did so in the company of other children and adults, using multiple and interwoven symbolic languages, moving seamlessly from his own engagement in playful making to immersion in a popular cultural text.

Joseph M. Hawes, known as the founder of the children's rights movement in the United States, tells us, "Childhood is where you catch a culture in high relief" (Marten, 2013, p. 52). The values of a culture-local, regional, national, universal-are seen in attitudes toward children and childhood expressed in legislation, popular sentiment, media representations, even policies governing school attire and restaurant seating. The status of children in American culture is distressingly peripheral: architectural critic Roy Kozlovsky (2013, p. 14) notes that "the children's table" is an apt metaphor for the marginal spaces that children are allowed to inhabit: within sight, under constant surveillance, but removed from adults, who are left in peace to enjoy their own pleasures and to engage in serious pursuits. The state of exile that is the children's table does not confer freedom for the exiled to act as they please; as Kozlovsky notes, "childhood is the most intensely governed stage of personal existence'' (2013, p. 125).

Art education maintains a problematic relationship with childhood, symptomatic of our membership in a larger culture that never quite knows how to feel about younger human beings (Duncum, 2002; Leeds, 1989). …

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