What defines beauty

Inspired by a conversation with a friend and former colleague about recent observations I have made of my own children, I have taken time to reflect upon how we each determine beauty in something we see or we hear and how we give words, actions and gestures our own meanings.

Children begin life without bias, without any preconceived notion of how things should look, feel or behave. Children begin life without words, or labels, or the idea of something having a purpose. Instead, children begin life with thoughts and an imagination. It is this curious nature, the ability to look at the world through innocent, even innovative, eyes which I believe we need to grasp, hold tightly and never let go.

Everything a child sees or hears has meaning, as possibility. Not meaning in the sense of what a dictionary or an encyclopedia might tell you, but meaning in terms of how a child makes connections between knowledge and experience. These connections are made through rigorous testing and exploring, just as a scientist in a laboratory or an engineer using a computer programme, would change variables in order to make sense of, or seek a solution to a problem they face.

In isolation, what a child sees or hears when they begin their journey of exploration, an adventure without a fixed duration or destination, starts with tiny pieces of a jigsaw. It might be that they focus on lines, shapes or colours, all of which come together once knowledge has been obtained, to create an image or a composition. A child might also begin to observe and sense emotions, the feelings of others and those which come from within. As a child gets older, the connections they make between the things they observe and the way these objects, materials and people make them feel becomes more prevalent. Only this week, my son looked up to the sky on a sunny day and said “the sun makes me warm…can we take the sun inside?” In this moment, he made a connection with something far away, something he could not touch or explore physically, but something which remained within his metaphorical grasp, the heat from the sun touched his consciousness and he seemingly wished to hold onto the giver of that warmth, taking it with him into his house, the place which provides him with identity and a sense of security. He saw something in the sun which he wished to keep with him, a star which, despite being the centre of our solar system, most of us never give a second thought.

At home,  I am frequently reminded of the significance of the beginnings of mark making by children. My daughter often refers to her brother “just doing zig zags” on a piece of paper, and yet, these markings ought to be ascribed far more meaning than simple lines. A line in itself always has a direction, a type of continuum, controlled by the mark maker. It will always “be” something, always “mean” something to that person. These marks represent the thoughts and the imagination of the child, demonstrating that which a child cannot yet communicate or wishes to express. A child might wish to share the beauty of what they draw or write, or remain silent, holding these thoughts close to their chest.

Our bias as adults, consciously or not, often leads us to hold or express an opinion or a view about something we see or hear. We already have preconceived ideas about how things ought to be, either for our personal reasons or for the benefit of others. I see this in the way I guide my children, in my gestures or even in the intonation of my voice.

More recently, once my son has completed his mark making, he will scrunch up the paper. The first time I witnessed this, I almost intervened to say “oh, that was such a wonderful drawing, why don’t we keep the paper as it is and not spoil it by scrunching it up?” Instead, I watched and waited and my patience was rewarded… having scrunched up the paper, my son approached me and said “mummy, a present for you. Unwrap it”. The action of manipulating the paper into a ball bore meaning, each crease was not intended to spoil or destroy the attentive mark making, but was intended to represent a gift of love, of thoughtfulness, quite the opposite to my presumption. My son saw a possibility, creating a moment of beauty, capturing his thoughts and imagination tightly within that ball of paper and presenting it to someone of his choosing.

Not only do children see the world in a different, almost enlightened, way to most adults, they are perceptive and open to the sounds they hear from the moment they are born. Just as objects, materials and people are yet to be given meaning and context, sounds too form the basis of every child’s building blocks on their path to knowledge. These sounds will have a unique meaning to each child, provoking thought and emotion based on experience and the behaviour of those close to them. A sound might be calming or take a child by surprise, they might provoke intrigue like an echo or mystery like a whisper. Every sound has an impact.

As adults, we have already determined which sounds we do and do not like, those which provoke a reaction and those which conjure up a memory. We might express our dislike of a particular noise, change our facial features in response or cover our ears. These are all actions which a child will sense and interpret. Once more, I would urge you to be open, to avoid stepping in and listen and you are likely to hear more than you would expect.

One day in my daughter’s bedroom, she decided to turn on her CD player. As she did so, the room was filled with white noise as the tuner was between radio stations. I initially moved quickly to stop the noise, but before I could reach the radio, my daughter asked “why has the sea come into my bedroom?” She did not feel a sense of irritation, instead she marvelled and wondered out loud as to how such an expanse of water could be heard in her bedroom, perhaps whilst imagining it was speaking directly to her. To my daughter, this was a beautiful moment, a sound not a noise, a time to stop and reflect.

In sharing each of these experiences, I am reminded of a quote by Loris Malaguzzi:

“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.”

We must learn to watch, listen and wait. What we see or hear might be different from before.





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