How Do You Define Beauty?

While I’ve read a lot of books for personal enjoyment this summer — just follow along at #avivasummerreads on Instagram to see — a couple of professional books have also made it into my stream. I love Susan Stacey‘s thinking around early childhood education and emergent curriculum, and my Instagram posts show that I highly enjoyed both of her books that I read recently.

There are many blog posts that could come out of these books, but this had to be the first. In Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments, Stacey spent some time talking about “beauty.” As we begin to set-up classrooms and organize supplies, I think it’s important to ask,

  • Who are we doing this for?
  • What role does the child play in this classroom design?
  • How does our definition of beauty compare to a child’s definition?
  • What are we willing to “let go?”

Recently, I went through my Instagram photographs and videos, and I pulled out these pictures. Stacey’s book has me asking the following questions underneath each photograph.

Do you see the messy paint pumps and stacked glass jars, or do you see kids that created their own colours, labelled them, and made them accessible to use? Are you drawn to the messiness or the independence of this space? Can the two co-exist?

Do you see the crowded area with the paper on the floor and the signs hung at an awkward angle, or do you see kids owning the space? Can you see the reading, writing, oral language, and dramatic play that is part of this area? Would it happen as authentically, in a child-directed way, if we had them tidy-up first?

Do you see the mess on the floor and the children that moved the blocks to the wrong carpet, or do you see problem-solving and collaboration in action? Does it matter if the blocks have been relocated?

Do you see the child standing on a chair, or do you see the many children accessing the same space in different ways? Can we look beyond the climbing if we see it instead as Self-Reg in action (for this child) and communicating through art? Is this where viewing children as “competent and capable” matters most of all, or is this enough?

Do you see the blocks on the floor, the path that’s blocked, and the mixing up of materials that may never get sorted properly again? What about the labels on the blocks, or the time that the labels were forgotten, and ink went right on the blocks instead? What about re-framing this as mark-making, literacy in action, problem-solving opportunities, and independence over the environment? Would you need to go and pick up that paper on the floor, or can you hope that when children tidy-up, it will come up with the rest of the materials?

This last picture needed the inclusion of the entire Instagram post. How does it make you feel? Should we interrupt the drawing to go and clean up the block mess? What about having the children relocate so that there’s a wider path? How will we get over to the door, through to the block carpet, and around to the eating table? What about that LEGO box behind the chair? Won’t someone fall? Or is this all part of how materials have been relocated to meet different needs, allow for different social interactions, and create different play? What if we just trust that in the end, the tidy up will happen … even if it takes a while?

I know how I would answer these different questions now, but even a year ago, I might not have answered them in the same way. But it was regular conversations with Paula, as well as with our kids, that changed these answers for me. Plus it was watching the children in these spaces, and what they did with these materials, that had me reconsidering how and when I respond to them. Last night, I saw a tweet from The Groovy Teacher, which made me think again about this blog post.

Here’s my reply.

I think I love our beautiful mess. What about you? How might our new students help redefine beauty for us, for their parents, and for themselves? Now I think that it’s time to take a deep breath and embrace the beautiful mess.


2 thoughts on “How Do You Define Beauty?

  1. Aviva, I love the photographs and thought-provoking questions. We might ask ourselves ‘Whose classroom is this anyway?!!’ Only when we are prepared to truly share the environment can we let go of control and collaborate instead. Collaboration has led me to some incredible thinking with children!

    • Thanks for your comment, Susan, and your very inspiring books! What a great question to ask. Until this past year, I’m not sure that I asked this question enough, and even when I did, I’m not sure that I always thought about what it means if I say, “The children’s.”


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