Image by Donald Iain Smith

On kids and imagination

We don’t have to teach them how to play

Artillery Row

Alyosha was the sort of child who always asked for the black pencil in his English lessons. Colouring in mini flashcards representing fruit vocabulary? Black. A flip-book of animal vocabulary? Black. A worksheet about cleaning your teeth and having a glass of milk? Black. Here you are. Thank you.

I taught a class who had a plastic chair named Joe

You may be picturing Alyosha as a miniature goth, a four-year-old with an eye for life’s serious side. If so, you have probably not noticed how fun the word “black” is to say. Try it. Exaggerate the plosive /b/, lengthen the lateral /l/, put the vowel somewhere between /æ/ and /e/, and follow up the /k/ with a jubilant chuckle like you’re really pleased with yourself, which, of course, you are. Repetition makes it even more hilarious. What colour would you like, Alyosha? Black. What colour would you like, Alyosha? Black. What colour would you like, Alyosha? Black. (Hobbes the tiger: “don’t knock my smock or I’ll clean your clock. Actually I just like to SAY smock. Smock smock smock smock smock smock smock.”)

It’s fun to thwart the teacher, who has given you a choice of pencil again, by relentlessly asking for the same one. It’s fun to be different: the other children’s worksheets are an artist’s palette of different colours, but yours is defiantly monochrome. It’s fun to be absurd, like when you learn to say, “I like iinnn-fin-ite bananas”, because the teacher taught you “I like bananas” and you started spreading your arms in a big circle, saying “I like ba-na-nas-byez-ko-nyech-nos-ti”. It’s fun to have a catchphrase, like Polina does who makes a joke when we play guess-the-flashcard of always saying “strawberry juice?” — which is a fun phrase to say slowly, too.

One time a friend of mine, who had been reading Theodor Adorno, phoned me and said, “Radical art is synonymous with dark art. Its primary colour is black.” And I said, “what?”

Kids make great jokes. Kids make great, simple jokes. They are easily pleased. I taught a class who had a plastic chair named Joe. Another class balanced a similar chair diagonally on the edge of its squat plastic feet and screamed with joy. Another class accidentally threw the bouncy ball out of the window and still talked about it a whole year later. Kids are creative. I worried over the preparations for a Polar Express Christmas lesson because I wasn’t sure how to turn a cardboard box into a convincing train. Don’t bother, said the senior teacher. You don’t need to spend hours pimping up a box to look like a train when they can use their imaginations. All you need is the box. (I could have learnt that from Calvin and Hobbes, too.) 

If you are an adult, it is your job to be boring

If you are a kid, it is your job to get inside a cardboard box from time to time and pretend it is a train. It is your firm responsibility to notice that the chair could have a persona and the ball flying out of the window is an absolute riot. It is up to you to be silly. What you need from the adults around you is safety, appropriate input for your age and ability level, and structure. You need to be in the right environment: a six-year-old, terrified in a standard classroom, shifts to the rainbow murals and toys of the kids’ room and relaxes like the proverbial fish in water. This is because the kids’ room is for the kids, not for the teachers. The teachers’ role is to be mindful of this.

It’s understandable that adults working with children try to be entertaining. Perhaps we all have the instinct to join the kids in jolly colours, silliness and generally larking around. This isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s natural to want to make people laugh, to enjoy absurdity, to like brightness and spectacle and sparkle. Playing the clown is an innocent hobby, popular with all ages. (“Can I, a grown woman, buy this stripey t-shirt with different coloured sleeves?” “Of course, you teach kids.”) 

You might even think that you’re fully obliged to play the clown a bit, lest the children find it all tedious. But. But but but but but … no, not really. If you are working with kids, it is their job to be jolly and silly and lark around, not yours. Their job is to play and learn and create; your job is to provide boundaries, routines, clear expectations, scaffolding, controlled choices, sensibly set-up activities, stories, space, safety. If you use a children’s classroom (or, yes, a library story hour) as a venue to showcase your own entertainingness, well, for one thing it will be a classroom management nightmare (take it from me), and for another it will miss the point. 

Good boundaries around children’s spaces and activities do not only protect kids from harm. Good boundaries also protect them from innocent time-wasting. Good boundaries restrain the foolishness of grown-ups, who think that radical art is synonymous with dark art, or that strawberry juice frankly sounds vile. Good boundaries create a space where the kids can express themselves, not the adults; where the kids can make jokes and experiment and be nonsensical, not the adults; where the kids can learn, because the adults have the dull practicalities under control. Good boundaries ensure that the kids’ room is theirs. 

If you are an adult, it is your job to be boring. I really, as they say on the Internet, cannot stress this enough. 

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