In small places


What is imagination? I asked a group of 4 year olds.

“When you wake from a dream and then you have to go back to bed.”

“It’s when you dream and you’re awake.”

“It’s when you pretend.”

“It’s what you think up.”

In the past two weeks I have been struck by the importance and beauty of imagination. The Kindergarten students continue to work slow and steady on their dream houses. paintdreamFinally they are becoming autonomous,  persisting as the challenges of creating a 3d dream house from a 2d sketch become real. They work until they have completed what they are able for the day individually, and then move on to free time. One student was painting on her dream house, another was making a whirly plate and chatting, when I realized that I had not heard a peep nor seen the four other children. I walked into the common area, and it was quiet. I opened the shutter to the playhouse and found 3 children lying on pillows with their feet up, while one sat in a chair with a cell phone. I had happened upon a small private world.playhouse2

“Hi.” I said

“We all have broken legs.”

“We’re in the hospital.”

“Grace is the Doctor.”

“No, no, she’s not the Doctor, she’s the nurse.”

I interjected, “Well Grace can be a Doctor too.” Thinking I was sending a message about gender.

“No! No! She’s the nurse. Nurses are the ones that are there!” I smiled, knowing, that their observation was correct. Several of the children in this play narrative had hospital experiences recently.

I am currently reading Secret Spaces of Childhood (Thanks to Anna Golden, the Atelierista at Sabbot School) and want to share some of the author’s thoughts:

“Why do babies play peek-a-boo ? Or children hang by their knees and capture insects in small cupped hands? Reframing the universe teases their brains to claim their true dimensions. Schools exhort pupils to seek, but children know the importance of hiding out, of finding ‘just for me’ places where they can’t be seen. Without a corner to build a world apart, they can’t build…the ‘small crop of self.’ Without freedom to play , they can’t be King of the Castle or shout ‘I win!’ because no one found them. Without time to incubate , they can’t find their niche.”

And without  access to and experiences with a multitude of languages (media, music, movement) their “self,” their “story,” their “srength”, their “gift”, might never emerge. What a loss to society.

Self-portraits are commonly sketched throughout the year at SWS. I decided to do something different with the Pre-K’s first representation. First we talked about imagination, pretend, and dreams. I then asked them, “If you could be anything, anywhere…real or imaginary, what would it be?” Then, I asked them to use a mirror and sketch their face, but then transform themselves into what they imagined.

Their ideas were diverse, but offered insight into what it means to be 4. So many were the fastest, the tallest,  and possessed magical and powerful qualities (including being pretty.) From here they will create their own models of this transformed self.





Some magical moments and spaces within the  imagination happen spontaneously, as in the playhouse. Some planned, as in the dream house project or the transformed self-portraits. And some start out as an experiment, or provocation.

Last Friday, I set out baskets of tulle, lace, and netting echoing the colors of a Washington, DC Autumn.  Plastic deer fencing was attached to the loom. The shadow screen was filled with the image of bare fall trees, projected through the loom. I invited Julia and Ruby to give it a go, as they are staff children, and up at school before the others arrive.slyweave Soon Ms. Sly joined in. Then Julia’s sister, Emma. As children began entering into school, many joined the movement, colors, shadows and light. Soon, there was a cacophany of hands and materials.  I watched in amazement as  this unplanned collaboration changed space and time for a small moment, on a very rainy day.



Artists are very adept at changing time and space for the viewer. They also are thoughtful and imaginative in changing material, form, meaning  and symbols. For these very reasons, each Kindergarten class spent an hour to an hour and a half in small groups, with a chaperone, sketching and having conversation about the work of Brian Jungen redat the National Museum of the American Indian. He is an artist who uses consumer goods to create tribal imagery. His material and symbols question who has the right to name  culture, and how is culture fabricated and reproduced. The children read the symbols and art through their own lenses.

In the sculptures made of stacked golf bags clearly reminiscent of totem poles, the children found many faces. However they said the totem poles were made from backpacks.jungentotem

In the enormous all red hanging textile entitled “Peoples Flag”, Bridget poetically stated, “It’s called Peoples Flag because it is everything people need. The clothes symbolize that people need to wear clothes, the heart symbolizes that we all need love, and the teddy bear symbolizes play, because all people need play.”

I just read a fascinating article in the NY Times, Can the right kinds of play  teach self control? supporting the work and environment at SWS. I think Bridget is very wise.

The visit to the exhibit at the NMAI continues to challenge and promote new ways to use materials in the studio and beyond.bflyholesjungenholes The idea of objects  telling stories is another road to observe and travel.

So many stories, but I will end with images from a special visit with musicians and dancers (Ms. Shannon, Ms. Agie. and Ms. Laura) who involved the children in an Irish tale through sound, movement, music, shadow, and song.

All these rich and varied moments are both fleeting and prolonged. Many are observed, while others remain private. All are important, as windows into what is, and what may be.

“Where, after all, do human universal rights begin? In small places, close to home-so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” Elanor Rooservelt, address to the United Nations, 1958