So what’s wrong with Clifford?

Posted 05 Aug 2010 in environment

Did you notice that on August 1 the light changed? The air changed? Summer is waning and this week I began working with early childhood teachers at Walker Jones Elementary School (WJES) to organize their environments (store rooms, classrooms, studio, dining room…). This is such an exciting time of year full of new energy, possibility and anticipation. At WJES, the early childhood program has a number of teachers new to the school, as well as a new building, so in terms of setting up it is more like moving in. Besides the daunting physical challenge of unpacking dozens of boxes and arranging furniture, is the consideration of the environment in connection with the philosophy of the Reggio Approach.

Teachers are asking important questions, wondering for example, how the role of the teacher will influence the physical arrangement of the space. What to do with the teacher desks? How many tables need to be in the studio? How many things should be accessible and available to children for the first weeks of school?

Somewhat more of a challenge for me personally has been fielding questions regarding the aesthetic of the classroom. As of last year, the early childhood program (in another building) had pretty much eliminated commercial, purchased props such as cartoon alphabet boards, or graphic, scalloped borders. But the big question is still out there–why this way and not that way? Why not bright colors, it livens up the room? What’s wrong with a purchased birthday calendar or the Clifford chair children use to wait for the bathroom? They love sitting in that chair! I both love and dread the ensuing discussion that comes with making these choices and decisions. But why is it so difficult? Maybe because aesthetics is subjective…or is it?

Last year at an Inspired Practices in Early Education workshop, I asked participants to mix their own palette given the primary colors plus black and white tempera paint. A classic color-theory 101 experience.

I think the differences, and the similarities, are fascinating. Not just the unique hues, but also the way individuals made their marks-some filled in the squares completely, some made a rough circle, some a dot…each hand is evident. Is one more ‘correct’ than another or more beautiful? Can a person’s personal palette be…wrong?

These are tough questions that I am struggling with when I try to defend an aesthetic different from the norm in terms of early childhood–which is, in general and in my opinion, simplistic, condescending and garish. What makes one person’s sense of color, design, beauty, better than another? Are there rules to follow? On what do I base my choices and decisions? I would say that I rely on values and beliefs of a school about children and education. So for example…

…if I believe that children are intelligent, how does the environment physically embody that belief? With environments that are complex, challenging and provoking.

If I believe in a strong image of the child, then I want children’s thoughts, ideas and theories to be visible. I want the walls to speak their words, not the words of Discount School Supplies. I want to see the work, not the borders or the bright blue bulletin board covering.

If I believe children are capable, then I will have fragile, delicate, real materials in the classroom, not plastic replicas and substitutions.

If I believe that parents are a vital part of their child’s education, I will create a place for them where they can have access to information. I will make children’s learning visible through displays such as panels and books.

So the question becomes not about whose sense of beauty is better, but:

What do you believe about children and education?


  1. Jocelyn Khalifa

    I am loving your blog, Jen! It’s energizing me for this fall – setting up the environment – and reminding me why I love to teach. Inspiring!

  2. Exactly Holly,
    And when for all of your life you have been fed a particular image of what preschool should look like and be like, I think many people have a defensive reaction to the environments in Reggio. It’s like when I heard Pluto was not really a planet–it takes a while to even allow the ‘other’ into your intellectual and emotional space. But the more you hear about Pluto and start to understand the reasoning behind the change in thinking, the easier it is to eliminate it from the MVEMJMNP (my very excellent mother just made nine pizzas) acronym.

  3. Holly

    I am very appreciative that you have brought the topic of personal aesthetics to the forefront and stated your beliefs about how aethestics could be interpreted in the classroom based on a set of beliefs about the power of the environment. It all seems so logical and transparent; it also assumes an understanding of that set of beliefs and therefore what they “look like” in a preschool environment. I think that some of the struggle, when one begins, is the evolution of understanding and embracing those beliefs and balancing that with “doing the right thing” and not really understanding why. Ah, a challenge as we move forward.
    I wonder about the discussion when the palattes were mixed….

  4. Kathryn

    so beautifully written, Jen!

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