Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wild Things with Wild Imaginations

In Maurice Sendak's fantastical children's book Where the Wild Things Are, a mischievous young boy named Max is sent to his room without dinner for behaving wildly. But this does not prevent Max from imagining himself voyaging by sailboat to a lush, exotic island far away from home. On the island, he is crowned king of the wild things, a pack of googly-eyed monsters with pointed teeth and hooked claws. Spike Jonze's 2009 film adaptation of the story was inspired by revelations that Sendak's monsters are metaphors for a child's fierce emotions and the mysterious island is like the extraordinary dreamscape of his imagination. A scene from the movie portrays Max lying solemnly on his bed following an argument with his mother and finding solace playing with a toy boat he has fashioned out of sticks. There are other signs of imaginative play in Max's bedroom, including a tent made of blankets and a worn wolf costume, that are reinterpreted and exaggerated in Jonze's surrealistic movie version of Max's daydreams.

When my son, a wild thing in his own way, first handed me an invisible morsel of food and smiled when I pretended to eat it, I knew that we had reached an important milestone in his development. Children typically show signs of imaginative play by 18 months of age according to an article about the brain in a recent issue of Discover magazine. Pretending is a blend of knowledge and imagination that demonstrates "a uniquely human kind of intelligence". It is critical that parents foster this development in their children by providing age-appropriate toys or other materials and scenarios suitable for pretend play. For example, when AS and I play with his stuffed animals, I give each one a name and a voice and start to enact a short narrative with it. Sometimes these narratives are based on children's stories or fables we have read. More often than not, AS will take the animals from me and enact a different narrative with his own actions and made-up voices. The ability to think imaginatively and ultimately transcend traditional ideas helps children gain knowledge, generate meaningful new ideas, explore cause and effect relationships, and find solutions to problems that will facilitate their progress into adulthood.

The shelves of toy stores are stocked full of playthings, such as dolls, hand puppets, princess dresses and craft kits, that are intended to encourage imaginative play in children ages 2 and up. But these toys can be prohibitively expensive for parents regularly seeking fresh ideas. While spending more time outside enjoying the Spring weather, I have been reminded how much children love to explore the natural world and play with simple rocks, leaves, and sticks. These objects are free and plentiful in Washington, DC's parks and may be applied as materials or tools in craft-making. Nature crafts provide lessons in cost-effective creativity and in recycling as the materials may be re-used for another project or returned to the earth again once a child has outgrown his or her use for them. Children tend to value these types of crafts and playthings more than store bought items because they have had a hand in making them. Also, they feel empowered knowing they have employed their imaginations to "make something from nothing" and found ways to share their original ideas and vision with others.

As an art teacher, I was gratified to see my creative colleagues and students use found materials from nature in lieu of expensive art supplies. In one lesson, students created color wheels with Fall leaves collected from the school yard to learn the principals of color while observing the changing of the seasons. This exercise also introduced young artists to the natural landscape as a primary source of artists' inspiration, theories and art-making media. Another art teacher distributed small twigs affixed with pencils at one end for drawing on large sheets of paper. This unconventional tool compelled her students to make looser, more abstract images on paper and consequently introduced a different style of art-making to teenage artists accustomed to rendering drawings realistically, copying directly from life.

One approach to nature art that I especially love is to allow the distinctive shape of a found leaf, stone or stick suggest how the object should be used in the artwork. A Native American sculptor I once met said that the individual soap stones he carved suggested to him what animal form they wanted to become, such as a bear or seal. Family Fun magazine featured a whimsical drawing game, "Foliage Friends" based on a similar idea. Leaves are glued to pieces of drawing paper and children use pens, pencils or crayons to add heads and legs, using their imaginations to transform the leaves into animal characters. A birch leaf becomes a bird's wing and a leaf from a rose bush becomes a turtle's shell. Another great craft idea from Family Fun includes making a simple pinecone photo holder. Take your camera along on a nature hike and document the adventure as you search for the perfect pine cone to display your favorite photo from the day!

Of course, simply being in a beautiful setting like a state or national park with your child has its own rewards, not the least of which is to watch a child demonstrate how truly inventive he or she can be. Outdoor activities can engage your child's senses, help them make relationships between themselves and the natural world, and teach them to respect the natural environment. So get outside, and let your imaginations run wild!

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