The Many Languages of Toddlers

Scribbles. A vertical line. Some dots. These are the early marks you can expect to see on drawings from a toddler, such as the children in the Silver Room. Each child makes their marks in similar and yet individual ways. Some will sweep from the shoulder making long vertical or horizontal lines. Some will push with force on their crayon or chalk so the colors are vivid and lush. Some will make light dots. 

Each of these marks tells the teachers a little story about how a child makes their mark in the arts, how they are expressing themselves in that moment. It tells us if they have the muscle strength to create vivid lines, if they move more from the shoulder or from the wrist, or if they are more interested in color or form. 

These are the beginning stages of a new language for them, a way to express how they feel in a way they can see and touch. They can reflect on what they see, remember it later by looking at it hanging in their classroom or at home. 

One day at the easel a child says “Draw you” to a teacher and makes 3 vertical lines. The child turns to look at the teacher, who replies “Look at me! You made me green and I’m standing tall!”. The child is realizing that drawing can represent a real three dimensional object in her everyday life. She had an idea, shared it, and then executed it. 

Children in the Silver Room have been exploring bingo (or dot) markers. This is completely different from “regular” markers and much more challenging. The markers have to be held at the right angle and a certain amount of force is required to make a mark. But it also holds space for loud, rhythmic percussion with each dot. We created our own song that changed with the pattern of each child’s dot making. We could feel and see the music as we created a physical piece of mark making!

There is more to learn in any language than just vocabulary. And in the language of the arts, before we can express ourselves utilizing them, we have to know how they work. 

Children will squeeze the tint from markers, scrape their fingernails along oil pastels, taste paint. They will draw on paper, on walls, on floors, on themselves. Right now there is very little context for “how art supplies are used”, so experimentation is natural.

Puzzles are a language too! Puzzles have an outline (the frame) holding images that might suggest a story: animals from the American Midwest, buildings and animals found on a farm, a train going through a tunnel. 

The imagery is often the most compelling part of puzzles when children first encounter them and they often are drawn to imagery that interests them. Exploring these images is the first step in puzzle solving, noticing the details or the commonalities, the curves or straight lines. 

In the Silver Room, puzzle image exploration is the stage we’re at. Once we’ve become familiar we’ll move to the next stage: making connections between the shapes on the frame and the puzzle pieces. 

“Math” is more than just recognizing numerals and counting things. It’s about shapes, same and different, greater than and less than, spatial relationships and so much more. Puzzles bridge the interests of storytelling and mathematics.  

One child likes the feel of the puzzle pieces on his feet. He takes them out and walks across them, then walks across the frame. So curious! I wonder if he can feel the shapes in his feet. 

Another child re-visits the same puzzle many times. He seems to want to experience it deeply and know it well. 

When we know the materials deeply, know what they can and cannot do, how they feel when we use them, our use of them can become more nuanced and creative. We won’t be stuck in “how do I do this” and can move on to “what will I create?”

We will continue to watch these new languages emerge in our toddlers, with great interest and excitement. As part of our Reggio Emilia inspired approach, we believe that children communicate in many, many languages, all we need to do is listen!

Reflection by Susan Missett-King and Zoe Wolfe, Silver Room Co-Teachers

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