For nine years Amelia Fysh asked her nursery pupils to draw a man. Her collection of 300 'attempts' have now been put on display, as Elaine Williams reports
Amelia Fysh and I are peering at a child's drawing of a person, no more than a centimetre high, with a squiggly head, two dots for eyes and stick legs. It gives minimalism a new meaning. Next to it are two other people, also with squiggly heads and stick legs, but at least 10 times larger and far more animated. The drawings are by the same boy, but, Mrs Fysh explains, the first is a morning drawing and the second an afternoon.
"That boy was the sixth child of nine, and his mum had to get five siblings off to school before she brought him here to nursery. On arrival he would fling himself on to the Wendy house bed until he felt ready to surface and face the world. He came to life in the afternoons."
I am following Amelia around an exhibition of drawings by three to five-year-old children, her own collection, now housed and on display at the National Arts Education Archives, Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire.
But keeping up with this impassioned 76-year-old is no easy task. Gesticulating and exclaiming, she moves from picture to picture, driven by memories and the desire for people to see children as they are, individuals with their own character and history.
Indeed, gazing at these hundreds of line drawings brings an overwhelming sense of the ghosts of their infant creators. Although the pictures display universal elements of child development, they are also intensely individual. Amelia Fysh is emphatic on this point. She wants the pictures to stimulate parents, students and teachers to observe younger children "more closely" but without "pigeon-holing them to suit any theories".
For 17 years between 1956 and 1973, Amelia Fysh was head of Beech Green nursery school in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, a pioneering institution established by Save the Children in 1942, initially to support mothers helping with the war effort and to cater for the needs of evacuees.
Mrs Fysh had become an emergency trained teacher after the war, working in primary schools in Grimsby, Humberside, where she was born, the daughter of a docker. After a year's diploma course at London University's Institute of Education, where she was inspired by theories of child development, she took up the headship at Beech Green.
As the years went by, the school became renowned for the way staff helped children learn and socialise through imaginative play, and for the way it integrated children with special needs. During her headship, she nurtured a deep fascination with the nature of children's development as well as maintaining an intense interest in the personalities of her pupils and their families. Her mind remains peopled with memories of them, possibly because she has been carrying their work around with her for the past 25 years.
In 1964 she started her own research, but with the simplest of frameworks. Armed with a felt-tipped pen and a 6in by 9in piece of paper, she would ask a child to "draw a man" whenever the opportunity arose, although never breaking off other activities for the exercise.
She wanted just two samples a term from each child but the children grew accustomed to the habit and would ask Mrs Fysh if they could "do one" whenever they saw her out with her special paper and pens. No child was refused a turn, so many made additional drawings and their comments were recorded.
She kept this up for the next nine years until she retired, ending up with 300 sets. These mapped 300 children's attempts to "draw a man", from the time they entered nursery to when they left. The drawings show, Mrs Fysh says, the subtlety of child development. "It shows how lots of things start happening suddenly, the child makes leaps, but then there are points of regression - that's when the child needs to mark time and assimilate, to sit back and enjoy his or her achievement. There are thrusts and pauses, and children develop at different rates and go off in different directions. When they do, you just have to go with them, you have to be where they are."
She offers the collection, not as fodder for interpretation and theorising, but for observation.
When she retired, Amelia Fysh set about looking for a publisher. To no avail. After 20 years of trying she began to grow agitated. She had used her drawings in lectures on early years development to teachers and students, and their enthusiastic response had convinced her of their worth.
She says: "I was trekking around with these blasted drawings, getting desperate and getting old. This is my life's work. I was frightened they would be lost to people who might benefit. A single drawing won't tell you much about a child, but a longitudinal collection reveals a great deal."
In the end she decided to publish them herself and, as she had always been interested in prison reform and had been a prison visitor, she finally called on the publishing services of the inmates of Spring hill open prison, Buckinghamshire. But she had also sent her collection to Dr Maureen Cox, reader in psychology at York University, who specialises in children's drawings. Dr Cox was struck by this study and used it as a basis for her own book, Drawings of People by the Under 5s (Falmer Press Pounds 12.95). She also ensured that Amelia's collection found a home in Bretton Hall's National Arts Education Archives.
Amelia Fysh's simple but rigorous methodology meant her work was valid for researchers. Dr Cox says: "She standardised what she did. Each child was given the same in- structions and she avoided leading questions. Each drawing was done under the same conditions."
But many parts of her collection would not be found in a straightforward piece of research - incidentals that lend poignancy to the whole exercise. Additional information includes comments the children have made while doing their drawings, snippets about their families and what happened to them when they left nursery.
She also took photographs of children dressing up, painting, eating, making things, playing make-believe. Her 600 slides present a nursery that offered the best in developmental play and creativity.
She leads me to one photograph of a boy dressed in skirt and fur hat with dustpan and brush in hand standing by a guinea pig cage.
"At first that boy used to bite. His mother sent him to nursery to learn his ABC. When I told her how well he was doing she said 'Yes, I think he's ready for something more substantial'. Little did she know his main interest with us had been cleaning out the guinea pigs. It must have been therapeutic because he stopped biting. When he left us he was self-controlled and happy as well as having an extensive vocabulary and command of language.
"Quality play is hard work and that is what these drawings come out of. It's not about cramming. Children have to internalise things before they can learn. This is about progression without pressure."
'Discovering Development with the 3-5s - A longitudinal study 1964-73' by Amelia Fysh. Available from Amelia Fysh, Broughton Close, Bierton, Aylesbury, Bucks HP22 5DJ. Enclose Pounds 1.25 in stamps for one issue, Pounds 2.50 for two or Pounds 3.50 for three