Our household has an interesting relationship with Disney movies. Our older son (8) has numerous artistic and political objections to their work, so while we do watch some of them, our viewing is usually accompanied by a short lecture on what they are doing wrong, and how Dreamworks is an infinitely better establishment.
So you can imagine my surprise when I started a series of classes with a five year old girl whose feelings run just as passionately in the opposite direction. In our first class, she saw a shell and wanted to paint Ariel on the inside. She talked about Elsa and Frozen as we looked at the plaster snowflakes I had made, and spoke animatedly about the two princesses.
I will admit, I was taken aback. My brain screamed “NO!” and while I went along with her project, I struggled with the feeling that control of her imagination had been wrestled away from her, colonized by a huge media corporation. I was disoriented, not knowing how to work with these ideas: ordinarily, I introduce a method and the children simply experiment, explore, ask questions, develop new projects and revel in their discoveries. In this case, I wondered, what was there to explore? The colours, the characters, the feeling, the narrative had all been determined by some people in a room across the border.
This week, though, the young lady in question showed up with a paper towel roll. I had set up the class outdoors with easels, water colours, play dough, a box of plaster, a giant roll of paper and some little gems.
In walks mademoiselle declaring her wish to make a spyglass from Jake and the Neverland Pirates. I was less startled this time and showed her the paints. She proceeded to paint perfect rings in two colours around the spyglass. When it was finished, she asked for a circle of paper to colour blue, for the glass at the end.
During the course of our 90 minutes together, I talked to her in French (she attends an all-French school, not just Immersion), but we discussed her plans in English. She also sang us a love song in Arabic, the language spoken at home.
And during the course of her project, I found myself saying no to the following things:
- GLITTER. That was last week
- USING THE SPYGLASS AS A SPYGLASS. It won’t work.
- INSPIRATION BY DISNEY (but just to myself, of course). I longed to draw her away from prefab ideas so that I could find out what really made her tick.
And then I wondered what would happen if I said YES instead. I listened carefully to what she said as she worked, as she exclaimed loudly, with pure joy, at the glitter (see, I did it) on the floor. She praised the other student vigorously, telling him how lovely it looked, how pretty it was. I heard her say over and over again, the words pretty and lovely and started to use them myself. They might not have been the words I would have used before, to praise her work but I now find that they are her words – and they mean a great deal to her.
Why? Because she finished making her spyglass and peered through it delightedly. I pointed out that the end was made of paper so it wouldn’t work because it was supposed to be clear, but she contradicted me. “No, no, it does work!”
Guess who was right? She’d coloured the paper blue and we’d used green tape, so when you looked up toward the sun, you saw a circle that looked like stained glass, of blue crisscrossed with pale green. Looking through it, I found that I was just as excited as she was. “I made a puppet show!” she said.
And we had. We held up maple seeds, leaves, flowers and another little treasures we could find, all of which made crisp, dark shadows on the paper screen. I made my own “spyglass” with a giant tube I just happened to have around (because, yeah, I like to hoard cardboard stuff), then took out some stencils. I gave one end of the tube to the kids and passed stencils over the paper end, as the brilliant fall sunshine created butterflies, bees, dragonflies and spiders with the stencils. The children exclaimed with delight.
So yes, art was made, leaves were glittered and paper was scribbled on. We made “cake” with a tray of play dough, little plastic gems and seashells and we ate some real cake, too. There was art – and there was music, problem-solving, mutual encouragement, cake and – what else? – physics.
And.. yeah. About that Disney. Turns out that saying no is a lot more work than yes. In future, I anticipate a lot more of that yes.
And instead of planning ahead with all my brilliant grownup ideas, I’ll just get the kids to show up with a toilet roll.