Adding Arts to the Equation

Posted by Susan Harris MacKay On March - 19 - 2013
Susan Harris MacKay

Susan Harris MacKay

Every day, in every aspect of curriculum, Opal School students are invited to work with the arts to express their interpretations and growing relationships with the world around them.

Inspired by the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, Opal School began 12 years ago with the intention to pursue the question: What are the implications of these approaches for the American Public Elementary School?

Carlina Rinaldi, has written, “We are all researchers of the meaning of life. Yet it is possible to destroy this attitude of the child with our quick answers and our certainty.”

We ask ourselves daily: What assumptions need to shift if we are to sustain curiosity and preserve this attitude of research? What would school look like if it intended to promote the development of the kind of healthy brain architecture our citizens need to support a healthy planet and democracy?

What happens if we withhold quick answers? What relationships become visible? What tools and strategies become of value?

In TED prize winner, Sugata Mitra’s recent talk, we hear him ask similar questions. While I agree with his equation/response to these questions: broadband + collaboration + encouragement, my experience tells me he is missing a vital part: the arts. 

If you read “broadband” as a wide opportunity for relationships, and you add the arts, this equation transports you to the aesthetic dimension. It is this dimension that has been so fully developed in Reggio Emilia’s preschools. The pedagogy of listening and relationships that supports it was born to promote long-term investment in democracy, social justice, creativity, and sustainability.

The aesthetic dimension includes:

  • the development of empathy through relating self to things and things to others;
  • an attitude of care and attention and a desire for meaning in all we do;
  • non-conformity;
  • participation;
  • emotion;
  • seeing connections;
  • maintaining sensitivity to perspective and interpretation.

The use of the arts supports a kind of thinking that naturally crosses boundaries, makes new discoveries visible through the production of images, makes shared meaning possible, and at the same time validates the presence of multiple perspectives.

When young children are immersed in educational environments that support this dimension, their brains develop habits of focus, connection, empathy, and critical thinking. The arts force a crossing of the boundaries that studies of single disciplines define. The arts promote an expectation that those boundaries can be crossed.

As David Hawkins has written, “Some things are best known by falling in love with them.”

The languages of the arts support children, who are all natural scientists, to fall in love with ideas and with the community of “other” that they come to rely on for inspiration.

Students study the concept of lines in clay.

Students study the concept of lines in clay.

These 6-year-olds explain:

Jade: When I was done painting, I thought of some words, like what I want people to feel when they look at it. And think about the things they like, stuff they did for the first time…

Micah: Mine reminded me of the mountains and the rivers.

Kaia: I was just going to draw some connection to nature, then I decided to draw about my feelings in nature.

River: Materials give you new ideas better than your old idea.

Amelia: Materials don’t only want to make you want to make a story, they make their own story sometimes and tell you.

Ezra: I have an idea of what it does when you use a material: it surprises you!

Senan: It’s important to use materials because if you just started writing, it might not be as interesting as if you tried dramatic play or watercolor.

Ace: Some materials are good for getting unstuck: finding things; words; or bringing up your story.

On the Opal School Blog, you can find many stories and images of children engaged in classroom structures that support this kind of capacity for reflection and thinking. Our Story Workshop structure, for example, was created as teachers researched the question: What is the connection between literacy and the arts? It is a structure that continues to evolve, as everything we do. Our blog helps trace this evolution.

I invite you to take a short visit to our preschool classroom. In this video, you’ll find a five-minute window into a long-term project that supported the children’s joyful and developing relationship with the natural world.

Their teacher, Caroline Wolfe, shared these reflections:

“Perhaps the children think of these materials as friends. It is in each child’s unique relationship with the materials that their composition reflects this connection. A child comes to know himself through these materials. In this way the relationship is transformed. So who or what was the transformer and who or what was transformed? In these experiences a child’s empathy grows for the natural world.

By manipulating the materials, they have a concrete, tangible, and engaging experience with this idea of transformation, both as witness to how materials transform, but also, as doer—the transformer. We believe that these ideas are imperative for children to explore and understand and offer us a beautiful analogy to how a community is created.”

These experiences help us understand that we can talk about aspects of creativity that are learned habits of mind.

Is it possible that by expanding our expectations the role the arts play in developing healthy habits of heart and mind, we can also generate a commitment to their use in school?

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.