Changes: Facing the Strange at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This week’s blog is written by Phoebe Cos.  Phoebe is a support educator at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. She spends most of her time working with the three and four-year-old classes at the National Museum of American History campus.


“Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes. Turn and face the strange.” – David Bowie

Changes. Life is full of them starting from the day one comes into the world. With life experience that they carry with them, young children encounter change on a whirlwind level with a swirl of mixed feelings that can be hard to unpack. Eating solid food for the first time, entering a new classroom, losing teeth, meeting a new sibling, all have conflicting joys and concerns that accompany them. Although it sometimes feels uncomfortable, having direct conversations about change in children’s lives can help young minds “turn and face the strange,” in the words of David Bowie. The strangeness of change is bound to be much less scary if you have been presented with the space to talk about your fears and given the tools to face uncertainties.

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My first experience crafting a lesson specifically on life changes was last May while working with one of the pre-kindergarten classes at SEEC. It was the end of the school year and many of the children in the class were leaving the school they had attended since they were infants. Mixed emotions filled the classrooms. In an attempt to unpack and reflect on the change that was about to take place as our students moved onto kindergarten, I took the class to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The children were familiar with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as it is one of the many museums we visit often in our daily museum visits around the National Mall. At SEEC, we use objects to discuss and learn as we explore galleries and cultural spaces around Washington, DC. An object, image, song or texture can be a great way to engage children in a complex conversation, as both adults and the children encounter the space with a shared point of entry.

In this case, I chose the collection of photographs entitled The Brown Sisters by Nicholas Nixon, which documents the images of the photographer’s wife and her three sisters over forty years. We began the lesson talking about portraits and why people get their portraits taken. Then, in a single file line we slowly looked at the pictures. “What do you see?” I asked, broadly opening up the floor, unsure myself at what they might have picked up on. Many hands go up.

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“I see a bunch of girls over there,” one four-year-old said pointing to the early photos on the left.

“There are old ladies over there,” another child said pointing to the right side.

“How do you know they are old?” I asked.

“Because they have gray hair,” the child answered. “That means they are going to die soon.” This led to an outbreak of conversations and a few tears from children who worried that their loved ones were going to die because of their hair color. My colleague and I assured them that while hair color can determine age, it doesn’t determine death. We named multiple people in our school community with gray hair that were healthy adults.

After this period of analysis, I told the class the women in all of the pictures were the same; that they were four sisters. “How are the pictures of them different?” I asked.

“They look like they are at the beach. Though they look like they are in the country in that picture” a five-year-old observed. We talked about why they might be in different places.

“They look further away in that photograph,” a four-year-old observed. “Maybe she’s mad at her sister.” With each observation, children used their cognitive reasoning to build connections on how these women’s lives changed overtime.

What tools did this exercise provide for the children as they were grappling with their changing identity as they moved from being preschoolers to kindergarteners? By reflecting on the sisters’ changes, the children were ready to look analytically at their own past and the physical changes they had gone through over the last year, or for those at SEEC, from infancy. I passed out the youngest photograph of each child that I could find in their portfolio, a binder full of projects and developmental write-ups that follow each child throughout their time at SEEC (for more on these portfolios, look below). These photographs provided a tangible layer to their experience. Next, I placed a mirror next to each child. Then, I asked everyone to hold up both the picture and the mirror and compare what they saw. “My cheeks are less puffy. They have kind of flattened out,” one four-year-old observed.

“My hair is more blonder here,” another four-year-old boy stated, pointing to a picture of his two-year-old self, surprised that his own hair color had changed. “And [my baby brother] now wears those shoes. My feet won’t fit them.” Children were picking up on their own signs of aging. It was at this point that I told the children that although they might not feel ready or old enough for kindergarten, they had all changed in many ways over the past year. My colleague and I assured them that we had seen them grow over the school year and that their bodies and minds were ready for all the things to come in a new school. Sometimes to face change, you need to see and hear that you are ready for the change to come.

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Later in the day, a dramatic play “photo studio” was set up where children had the option of trying to replicate these photos of their younger selves. Children used their analytical and language skills to position each other to match the photograph, while remarking on changes to their classmates’ physical appearances, like shorter hair or lost teeth. By discussing these changes through play, children were able to share their fears and excitement in a social setting with their peers.

Over the course of the next year, we will delve deeper into specific life changes and how to discuss them with children. From transitioning out of diapers and into underwear, to talking about death, to moving to a new house, we look forward to sharing our ideas and stories with you, and hearing about your successes and challenges in explaining and discovering this constantly changing world with young children.


Portfolio Close Up:

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When a child enters SEEC, their teachers create a portfolio that follows their journey throughout their time at the school. The portfolio consists of a binder that contains artwork, photographs and anecdotes by teachers that document the development of the child over time. The children love to look through their portfolios with peers, sharing about past experiences, and self-reflecting on their young lives. Portfolios serve as a tangible representation of how a child has grown and changed over the years.