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Occasional Paper Series 31
BAnk Street College of Education

Art & Early Childhood: Personal Narratives & Social Practices


by Kris Sunday, Marissa McClure, Christopher Schulte

Young children are explorers of their worlds—worlds filled with unfamiliar things, first experiences,

and tentative explanations. As Lowenfeld (1957) recognized, art originates with children’s

experiences of their immediate surroundings. Young children’s encounters with art provide a means

to explore ideas and materials, invent worlds, and set them in motion. As a language and mode of

communication, art offers children the opportunity to play with ideas and generate conclusions about

themselves and their experiences. The communicative nature of children’s artwork suggests their

desire to be heard and understood by those around them.

In this issue of Bank Street’s Occasional Paper Series, we explore the nature of childhood by offering

selections that re/imagine the idea of the child as art maker, inquire about the relationships between

children and adults when they are making art, and investigate how physical space influences our

approaches to art instruction. We invite readers to join a dialogue that questions long-standing

traditions of early childhood art—traditions grounded in a modernist view of children’s art as a

romantic expression of inner emotional and/or developmental trajectories. We have also selected

essays that create liminal spaces for reflection, dialogue, and critique of the views that have heretofore

governed understandings of children and their art.

We draw from current perspectives on children’s art making as social practice (Pearson, 2001). In

framing our understanding of children’s art within larger conversations about contemporary art, we

move beyond the modernist view. Contemporary perspectives recognize that making, viewing, and

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interpreting art must be considered within the contexts of the interrelated conditions that encompass

art practices. This is to say that making, viewing, and interpreting art emerges from an understanding

of the links between broader cultural discourses and when, where, and how an artwork is made,

viewed, and interpreted. Individuals bring their local and personal narratives to an artwork and, in so

doing, reveal the contradictory and unstable nature of meaning.

Contemporary perspectives give voice to the realities of children’s lives in the family, school,

community, and broader culture. These wider contexts provide children with both consistent

and contradictory information and experiences upon which they draw to make meaning. As both

consumers and producers of culture, we see children as people who continuously negotiate a

multiplicity of messages, interpreting, integrating, and performing those messages within their own

contexts while being shaped by and helping to shape the discursive and cultural experiences and

expectations of being a child.

We want to attend to the ways that children move between inner and outer realities, sometimes fluidly,

and at other times with trepidation and caution. In this process, children create spaces for themselves

in which the instability of knowledge can be temporarily suspended. Within smaller narratives, they

generate connecting points between that which is mastered and that which has yet to be mastered.

Art makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. It is a source of meanings that reveals the

inescapable dimensions of context, prompting both makers and viewers to engage the senses to think

beyond the immediately visible. Art has the capacity to stretch boundaries and to provoke us to re/

think what once seemed ordinary. In abandoning the familiar, art prompts the question, what next?

Art has the capacity to confront, disrupt, and to challenge the world as we think we know it. The

contributing authors to this issue of Occasional Papers unpack the affordances of the arts for taking

up the familiar in new ways. They ask us to re/imagine our images of children, the contexts in which

children grow and learn, and our approaches to teaching and learning in/through/with visual art.

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of everyday societal norms and states

of being; they “take place ‘elsewhere’”

(Foucault 1967/1984, p. 4).

As discussed above, childhood is a

heterotopia, a countersite set aside from

and exterior to—yet directly related

to and entirely dependent upon—the

construct of adulthood. While the

playground is quite literally a space set

aside for children and could therefore

be considered a heterotopia on that

basis alone, below I elucidate additional

criteria and instances of heterotopic counternarratives located within and about the playground.

Repurposing, misusing, reusing, and reappropriating—climbing upon or onto equipment and

exploring it in irregular ways—are all means through which children interrupt institutional control and

create spaces of their own cultural production, whether intentionally, accidentally, or spontaneously.

Yet these productions are viewed in relationship to or as a reflection of—and different from—

the “intended” or institutional purpose of the space. As such, these sites of reuse, misuse, and

reappropriation are counternarratives that reflect the institutional narrative. They are heterotopic.

For example, the slide is a piece of equipment that is recurringly

misused or, rather, reused. I prefer the term reused because it

implies that children have reappropriated the slide and created

multiple possible uses for it, rather than that those alternate

uses are inferior or improper. The towheaded toddler depicted

below (see Figure 4) is testing her physical boundaries by using

her whole body to climb on a metal slide. This action is just

barely within her physical limits and, balanced on her belly, she

explores and accomplishes. While we may dismiss her actions

because we consider her too young to climb any higher or

normalize her actions as merely the explorations of a toddler,

she is nonetheless ascribing her own purpose to and offering a

different use for this apparatus.

Figure 3. Music-themed watchtower play structure

Figure 4. Towheaded toddler on slide

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The following photographs (Figures 5 and 6) depict the

enactment of counternarratives to adult prescriptions of safe or

predictable playground play. We see a young girl climbing up

the exterior of a slide. She is exploring its form and function in

a manner that is consistent with her ability and agility. In fact,

her actions might be considered quite tame given how capable

and careful she is. However, in relationship to the “intended”

or “agreed upon” use of the apparatus, this kind of behavior is

often deemed by adults to be unsafe, unwelcome, objectionable,

or even out of control. While the photograph allows us to view

the counteractions of a young girl perched on the exterior of

an enclosed twisted tubular slide, what we do not see is the

child’s point of view. Not only is she reinterpreting and reusing

the slide, but as she does, she is also changing her vantage

point and viewpoint. If she used the slide in a conventional

way, her vision would be obscured by the shape and enclosure

of the tube. By crawling along the exterior of the slide, she is able to reenvision and reestablish her

perspective. Vistas, views, scenes, and sites open up to her.

The following observation offers another example of heterotopia:

When the “age-appropriate” or “size-appropriate” swings are already occupied, and therefore

unavailable, two seven- or eight-year-old girls opt to play on the baby swings. One child plays the

role of mother, the other of baby. Their conversation reveals that they both are conscious of the

constructions and restrictions that the

apparatus places on their play and on

their bodies.

First, the girl who plays the baby

exclaims that her “butt doesn’t fit”

in the baby swing, and she swings,

perched with her legs bent over the

edge of the bucket, as the second girl

pushes her as a mother would a child.

Later, after repositioning her body, the

girl on the swing is able to sit inside

Figure 5. Young girl perched on slide

Figure 6. Young girl twisting to look around

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of visualization inherent in becoming an effective reader and writer. The ability to visualize is naturally

and joyfully fostered through the habits of mind of the artist. The mental processes involved in

reading, writing, and creating art go hand in hand. Our students will be much better served once we

recognize this truth.


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