As young children, we became conscious of our hands in infancy, when we watched them travel in front of our faces or studied them in the waters of a bath - our fingers floating and causing patterns - or later in school, when we tried to glue with sticky fingers one piece of paper to another. The sensation is still clear: Our hands and fingers were alive and wondrously moved and changed things.
For myself, I experienced a major discovery when I first learned that the solid white ivory keys of the piano made tantalizing sounds when my fingers touched them - or sometimes with my rounded fist, I banged on them. My intoxication with the sounds I made was endless. I soon found out that my fingers and hands were not isolated extensions of my body, and that, because the sounds were a language, they could speak my feelings. For a long time, playing the piano was my most serious childhood task.
Years later, when I began working with very young children in a classroom, I marveled at how they grasped their pencils and with the same determination I had at the piano, wrote letters of a word onto their pieces of paper. They were totally absorbed in the new shapes they were making. I was equally captivated when the same children moved to a corner of their classroom and assembled and disassembled wooden blocks with an intensity of builders making something unique.
It is difficult not to wonder where this desire to create was born. How did it manifest itself in these children with such seriousness, spontaneity, and ease? What force in children needs to master the materials they work with so these materials take on a character they did not initially have?
I think of the mounds of mud and sand that have been molded by children - and I remember my own feelings, as a child, when at the beach. With time set on its side, I busily occupied myself digging a hold in the sand. Gathering layers of sand to protect the hole, and cutting a small entrance, I waited for a wave to creep in. Soon a small river was seeping slowly into the hole. Completely absorbed in what I was doing, I carefully fixed the entrance so the water flowed more easily. My world had shape and function, and I was totally responsible for what I could make the sand do. I played, not knowing the outcome of my play, except in the way my satisfactions were guiding me towards something more to be revealed.
Our impulse to play - at first with our tiny fingers in the air or in the water, and later on with fistfuls of sand - has everything to do with our desire to create. None of us, at an early age, knows the meaning of art or calls herself an artist. Our concern is the material in front of us, its textures, shapes, sounds, and smells inviting us to discover what is there. And from images and forms from our exploring comes yet another dimension: what we perceive of as our world. We make things in play from the simplest of elements, crisscrossing twigs to make a house or wrapping a cloth around a popsicle stick to make a doll, and the practical usefulness of these things is contained within play. Our craft is our play - and when we play, we partake of a knowledge that only the imagination knows when fully engaged: a knowledge when the object of play and our imaginative life are seamlessly merged.
When children create through their play, they receive their first hint of what creating can mean to them. Their concern is not to make an object, as the adult craftsman does, with the disciplined care of practicing an art. To a child, the pleasure derived from making something, simply to see what paint or clay, a piece of cloth or a twig, can do, is reason enough to continue one's playful investigations.
The desire for play is an instinctive human attempt to uncover what happens only when we play. If we couldn't experiment with a paintbrush, as do very young children, to see what glorious splotches of colors and rhythmical curves and circles appear on the paper, then we would be imprisoned in monotone surfaces of a one-dimensional experience. Play is the great discoverer, and its discoveries are the frontiers and landscapes of our imagining mind. While our hands play, the inner realms of our imagination grow. We literally learn to see through playing and imagining, a world not only in front of us, but a deeper world suggested by the dance of our imagining self. Listen to this six-year-old child talking about a picture she has painted:
I have painted some tulips. I have painted them red, yellow, black, a tiny bit of white and a green stalk, and a white pistil, and yellow stamens, yellow and red petals, and black pollen. And there is a tiny bit of red on the end of each petal, and it looks like bubbles, and it feels like some satin, and it looks like a rainbow, and the petals look like hearts.
The child's sensory world has come in to being - and bubbles and satin and hearts and a rainbow are quietly made a part of her experience of tulips. The possibilities of paint were brought to life by her hand, but it was the full sense of play that allowed the child to enlarge the image of the tulip. In effect, when our hand and our imagining mind are mutually at play, we have what is our first attempt to craft our creating. No longer are we spontaneously reacting to materials; we are attempting to change them into what we imagine them to be. How this process, as we grow in years, ultimately tantalizes us, is how some of us decide to spend our time carving, editing and changing clay, wood, colors, gestures, sounds and images into what the eye of the imagining self perceives them to be. The adult artist is still the child, happiest (and most curious and anxious) when the materials of our craft - are awaiting metamorphosis into meaning and expression. But it is in the actual creating - in the play of thoughts and ideas and elements of our craft that the satisfaction we had as children is closest to us - when we were keenly aware that our hands and the things they could make and do were an enchantment we could not be without.
The reverential spell of quiet that came upon us as children when we were engrossed in making something was a meeting with what we were making. To be this absorbed was not often encouraged, for we were thought to be doing something that had little to do with learning. In retrospect, it was the creation of a story, a poem, a toy boat, or a building made of blocks that we remember now. We remember them because what we were at the moment was engaged in the initial attempts to fashion ourselves and our world.
A few years ago I spoke with children in the first grade who had never been given the opportunity to make this astonishing discovery of themselves. We were speaking about trees, and since there were no trees in the classroom, I asked them to imagine a tree. I encouraged them to feel the bark of the tree, to watch its leaves moving in the wind, and to hear what the tree's roots might sound like drinking the moisture in the ground. How excited the children became when they realized their imagining self - now allowed to play - could picture their own special tree. How eager they were to share their trees with one another. So with paper and crayons they quickly drew pictures of the trees they saw.
The reverential spell I spoke of settled over the classroom as each child moved his or her hands, feeling the evolving trees taking shape. When they were finished, each was proud of having created something real and personal.
When we asked the children to share their trees with one another, one of them said:
I made a tree with
a lot of colors.
It is just beginning.
It is very small.
And another child said:
The roots said how they liked how I drawed them.
They feel warm and they are cousins
and brothers and Daddies and Mommies.
And finally one child, beaming all over, said:
This is my tree,
I made it by myself.
Who would have believed that the small and clasping infant hand we once held in front of us would someday, like all human hands, hold a pencil or a paintbrush, turn clay over, or press guitar strings and piano keys - speak them as a gesture in space or let them be touched and moved by what we are saying? Who could have foreseen the joy when these same hands made something, changed something, or brought something into being - joy because we found that our play was asking us to take the smallest of things - a pebble, a string, a clump of dirt - and see what we could do with it?
We played and became artisans of play. And, if we are patient, our play will continually instruct through our lives, telling what we are able to express and create of our lives - still playing.
Richard Lewis is the founder and director of The Touchstone Center in New York City. The Center, since its founding in 1969, has been concerned with implementing programs in schools, which nurture the imaginative lives of children through the arts. In addition to his work as a teacher, he has edited and written a number of books among them being, Miracles: Poems by Children of the English-speaking World; When Thought Is Young: Reflections on Teaching and the Poetry of the Child; Living By Wonder: Essays on the Imaginative Life of Childhood - and most recently, In the Space of the Sky (illustrated by Debra Frasier) and The Bird of Imagining (illustrated by children from New York City Public Schools).
© September 2002
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