This week I had to transfer all of our work on “Self-Love and Self-Observation” into a bigger binder. That is a good sign. The children have genuinely latched onto the concept I hoped to drive home: it is important to know what we are capable of and just as important to love ourselves for it. Also, as always, the children led me down some unexpected avenues. It turns out our extensive work on learning to love ourselves has led us to love each other more, too.
One of my favorite art projects to begin each year with is self-portraiture. It is an introductory project that helps preschoolers see themselves as a unique individual within a larger community. This is especially important for children as they enter school and a group care setting. Children start to develop an identity during their earliest years and a positive and accurate self-image is crucial for having positive self-esteem in the future. I encourage the children to be as objective or “scientific” as they can while they do their self-portrait. For example, I instruct them to look into the mirror and try to find colors that accurately match what they observe. Of course, some students still draw themselves with pink hair or a butterfly face tattoo, but it’s a start. And on a more practical level, self-portraits introduce children to my personal style and philosophy for guiding art-based curriculum. I acquaint children with a number of special art materials (permanent skin tone markers, sharpies, skin tone graphite pencils and multiracial crayons) in an intimate small group setting.
The children are welcome to use these art supplies freely during our more focused groups. In my experience, providing children with fresh, beautiful art supplies in a quiet setting helps them produce meaningful art. After familiarizing children with the process of self-observations through self-portraiture, we began our next project. An elementary school teacher, Wendy Ewald, created a project called “The Best Part of Me,” which I adapted for a preschool classroom. In this project the children took the next step in self-awareness. Not only did they need to objectively know what their bodies can do, but subjectively know what they loved most about their bodies. Once again, the children made astute observations about themselves and expressed their observations through poetry. This is no small feat for three, four and five year olds. The children were thoughtful, positive and witty while choosing and writing about the best part of themselves. Our daily practice of positive self talk and writing in our “Self-Love” binder had paid off in abundance. At this point, I personally started to think about how we could bring this love and positivity outside each individual. I foresaw the possible downside to our singular focus on the self. Would I be encouraging these children to be self-centered? To not notice each other’s strengths? To not care about each other? So part of our “Best Part of Me” challenge was to let a friend photograph their “best part.” During the photography process, the children asked each other questions about how they wanted the final photograph to look and often gave advice on how best to showcase their body part.
The collaboration and positivity made me sigh in relief. I had not yet created tiny self-absorbed humans. On the contrary, I discovered that this group of children cares deeply for each other and truly does notice the special things about each other. That is the juicy stuff that keeps me teaching; that is empathy. Unfortunately, humans are not born with empathy. It is something that begins to develop around preschool age and it does not always come easily. But this group of children does not shy away from a good challenge, so I put their care for each other to the test one more time. I assigned each child a peer to observe and draw. We used the same artistic process as our self-portraits: careful observation, objective and non-judgmental language followed by detailed drawings. We spent focused time in small groups, matching each other’s skin tone, eye color and hair color to the color palettes I made from our relevant art supplies.
We participated in collaborative discussions when there were disagreements or questions about colors. We celebrated the fact that some of us had the same colors. We celebrated when we did not. These small groups were completely void of judgment and full of empathy, love and kindness. We are not perfect. But if we take time to look back at how far we have come, it is truly an extraordinary sight. I honestly believe that building positive self-esteem now will be an indispensable asset to these children later on. I believe they will be the next generation of change makers and positive leaders in our world. It has become clear that loving ourselves unconditionally frees up a lot of brainpower to love each other, too. I wish I had realized this a lot sooner, but it is never too late to start practicing. This love is clear in the portraits children drew of their friends, each labeled with their friend’s name painstakingly written with care.
Curriculum and writing by Natalie Stroud in the Green Preschool