Taste Colour With Your Ears: the sensory alphabet

Few things make me happier than theory and practice coming together. I love it when ideas are explored through both language and action, and each understanding brings light and knowledge to the other. I saw this beautifully illustrated when I visited Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I had interviewed Leah Hanson, Manager for Early Years and Family Learning at DMA about her work, and on the following day I shadowed one of her Early Years workshops. It was wonderful to see how the ideas that we discussed were manifest in the session.

Leah is a natural-born teacher and has a great rapport with young children. Like anyone who’s really good at what they do, she also makes it look easy. What feels like a casual, friendly chat with a large group of toddlers, parents and carers has been carefully constructed. Leah glides seamlessly from one mode to another: she riffs off the kids’ observations to draw them in; she promotes observational skills by focussing on details in the artwork; she switches it up with a combination of drawing, writing, movement, discussion and storytelling activities; and she peppers the whole experience with bite-sized and interesting factoids. It’s a joy to watch. The session I observed focused on colour and was fully booked (18 under-fives plus their carers). We spent an hour in the galleries, exploring one painting, Wasily Kandinksy’s Murnau, Burggrabenstrasse 1 (1908), and for the remaining 30 minutes the group experimented with paint in the Art Studio in the Center for Creative Connections.

leahcolourworkshopabove
Families exploring colour at DMA – the Kandinsky painting is on the far left.

When we’d met, Leah had told me about New World Kids: The Parent’s Guide to Creative Thinking, a book that has been an important influence on her work at DMA over the past eight years (the New World Kids website might also be of interest). Authors, Susan Marcus and Susie Monday, argue that just as we have to learn numeracy and literacy so that we can decode the symbols that form numbers and letters, there is an equivalent sensory alphabet (shape, colour, sound, movement, etc) that supports creativity. Rather than thinking about creativity within the narrow parameters of the arts, New World Kids encourages thinking more laterally and recognising that a child’s creativity can take many different forms and makes use of a wide range of media. The book is particularly strong on mixing up the senses to generate new ideas, something that really appeals. I’ve always been fascinated by synaesthesia, and envy those who can go to a concert and see the music in vivid colour.

Leah’s workshop made the most fantastic use of synaesthesia and I enjoyed making the connection between how she did it and what I’d read in New World Kids. About mid-way through the gallery-based part of the session, when the group were comfortable with each other, the space, and the ideas that she was introducing, Leah held up some A5-sized laminated arrow-shapes that were the same colours as those of the houses in the painting. As a group, the children helped her arrange the arrows (pointing north so the shape replicated a simple house silhouette) so that they were in the same order as those on Kandinsky’s street. We then imagined going into the pink, yellow, blue and green houses and everything in there being that one colour. We pictured having a meal in these different homes and discussed the kinds of food that would be on offer (corn in the yellow house, candyfloss in the pink house, etc). It was funny and surreal and the kids were totally hooked.

After eating our fill of imaginary candyfloss, Leah introduced the idea of a crayon factory – and the fact that it’s someone’s job to come up with the names for the crayons. She read a few out from a brochure  (wild watermelon…) and then handed out a template, covered in crayon shapes, and coloured pencils, inviting the children to blend existing colours to invent something new, and then come up with a name for their colour. Parents were encouraged to take an active role in discussing the children’s thoughts and sharing their own views on colour. Not surprisingly, this was a task that the kids tackled with great enthusiasm and they confidently bounced across the senses as they developed their ideas. My absolutely favourite comment – and the words I want to end on – was from a young girl who told her mother she wanted to invent a crayon colour, “like the sound of the ocean”.

Header image: Murnau, Burggrabenstrasse 11908, by Wasily Kandinksy

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