Fertile imagination

28th February 1997 at 00:00
I'd bought some daffodils from the market on a Saturday in early March. A bunch of them should have been enough, I suppose, but still in tight bud they looked rather sparse, so I'd bought a second bunch. They were still stiffly closed up on the Monday when I took them into school. I'd told the four-and five-year-olds in my reception class what they were and to keep checking them for change each day. They listened politely but looked pretty unimpressed and moved on to more interesting things.

That is, until Wednesday: Andrew pulled at my sleeve, his face an indescribable mixture of delight and excitement "You must look, you must look, quick, over there - the daffodils - they're singing!"

And indeed they were. The sun streaming in through the window was catching the full glory of a newly opened bunch of daffodils.

It wasn't difficult to share his delight and I had an extra pleasure in Andrew's choice of words. It is thus that poetry is born. As one of the Government's "desirable outcomes" in creative development we are asked to encourage a variety of responses to what young children see, hear, smell, touch and feel.

Sounds simple until you come to ask underlying questions and then they are anything but simple. But they are questions that any professional working with young children should be tangling with, if quality rather than superficiality is the guide.

For example: How do we recognise such responses? Are they the same for each child? Do boys respond differently from girls? Does culture have an effect? What form can the responses take? And what can we do to encourage such a personal responsiveness?

It may help to look at the resources that would seem necessary if children are to "...explore sound and colour, texture, shape, form and space in two and three dimensions" before looking at specific responses. Taking "sound" for example, many nurseries and early years classrooms have,laudably, a music corner with instruments. But will those be the only sounds that the children are allowed to explore? What of the dripping of water on different surfaces? The ripping of paper and material? The fall of gravel in a rainstick? Discordant sounds? Tuning a radio?

Where would they be allowed to do this and for how long? Not only are there time and planning implications but children will have different styles of exploration.

We have to go beyond the simple level of noticing that Johnny and his pals look enthusiastically absorbed when it comes to banging the new drums or that Julie smiles when she strokes the guinea pig. Analysing the quality of their response tells us so much. Our response to their response is particularly important as it may be that we are actually only allowing certain responses and discounting those we consider "unsuitable" even if we have not actually verbalised this to ourselves. If we do favour only a certain response, is it for a good educational reason or have we never really thought about it? (Overheard: "I'm not sure I can put a purple sun up on our display, Thomas, can you do me a nice yellow one?" - thus ignoring the fact that the only time the child may, sensibly, have been allowed to look at the sun was probably at sunset.)

The "desirable outcomes" also stress the development of young children's imaginations through such things as dance, stories, music and their own imaginative play.It is as if the imagination were a delicate plant. Too little fertiliser, which translated into daily practice means not enough resources, time or real interest being shown, and it withers. Too much, in which the children become over dependent on the imaginative input of the teacher, and the plant can become surprisingly sickly.

If anything, the latter is the most common phenomenon. Teachers and their assistants frequently move in on the imaginative worlds within the classroom feeling, perhaps unconsciously, that they themselves, at long last, are being given permission to be creative and imaginative. It may also have something to do with finding it hard to believe that the children will show or become imaginative without such stimulus, or that they somehow owe it to them to offer "entertainment" and "fun".

Whatever the reason, the opportunities for the children to show and develop their own imaginations can become quite restricted if it is in response to the teacher's set agenda.

Children have a way of telling you about their real needs though. I shall long remember a reception class much praised for its temporary but total conversion to a travel agency. The "Wendy house-dram a corner" had been transformed into a booking office and was manned by two young clerks. I asked them what they had to do: "Well", said the girl clerk, giving me a conspiratorial look, "..actually I'm the mummy and he's the daddy and we hide the baby under this box." Government targets on creative development for children turning five.

These outcomes focus on the development of children's imagination and their ability to communicate and to express ideas and feelings in creative ways.

Children explore sound and colour, texture, shape, form and space in two and three dimensions. They respond in a variety of ways to what they see, hear, smell, touch and feel. Through art, music, dance, stories and imaginative play, they show an increasing ability to use their imagination,to listen and to observe. They use a widening range of materials, suitable tools, instruments and other resources to express ideas and to communicate their feelings.

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