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Child-like, Childish, Child-friendly: is there such a thing as children's aesthetics?

This text is not a philosophical or scientific discourse, but an account of my own experience and knowledge which help me to recognise, in my daily work with children, the contradiction between their feelings and adult thinking.
Do aesthetics form a set of natural rules which are universally valid and have an absolute value? Or can they be perceived in a variety of ways, and are they changeable? Theory for theory's sake is not my mission; I am pragmatically inclined, and attempt to apply knowledge in real life. There is no arguing about taste, they say. But since parents and educational theorists now need only take evening classes in painting to consider themselves competent, and Josef Beuys' smudged bath rubs are sold as works of art, taste and the definition of aesthetics have become the subject of debate, even in the nursery. Graffiti or smudging, beautification or destruction, artistic brilliance or vandalism, aestheticism or kitsch - where do we draw the line?
Even though we may nor always be sure about aesthetics ourselves, we claim that children do not know what is beautiful, and that we as adults must instil a sense of aesthetics in them. Bur how do we define aesthetics? We interpret it as beauty, bur the word, which originates from the Greek, means "perception". Children, of course, have a natural sense of perception: they do not need to learn how to perceive. Simplified, perception works as follows: everything we see, hear or feel is transferred to our brain by our senses; an impression is registered by the brain, where it is compared and interpreted. We find it difficult to recognise things that do not fit into our experience pattern; 




in such cases we try to construct a link to other, non-related experiences, which can lead to misperception. It is also possible that certain things fit into several experience patterns at once, which can all be recognised and interpreted in a variety of ways. The well-known alternative images of the vase and the face are a good example. When, however, we see something chat we cannot interpret on the basis of our experience (a face with four eyes. for example), our system of perception becomes disturbed.
Of course, a newborn baby does not have a body of experience at its disposal. But its brain is structured in such a way chat it accumulates the new experiences that it hears, feels or sees every day; the more frequent and varied these experiences and impressions are, the better and faster the infant will develop its Structure of understanding. This continual integration of perception into the process of understanding is called learning. The child does not need a teacher, nor does it need to be prompted to learn - it learns automatically.
The natural, child-like form of learning is play, where the child accumulates impressions and modifies them. As with many things human, learning is governed by motivation: acquiring new skills is fun. 
To perceive and experience new impressions makes the child happy. Therefore it will learn eagerly and on its own initiative, provided it is not put under pressure by adults, which can turn motivation into a burden.
Children choose, reject or are indifferent to many things long before a sense of aesthetics is instilled in them. Why is this so? Is there such a thing as an instinctive feeling for aesthetics? Let us look at the things children reject. A baby is not prejudiced: it will grab anything within reach and put it into its mouth to increase its sensitivity to its environment. If adults are inattentive a baby may be burnt or poisoned, or may choke on something, but it is the baby, none the less, who perceives what is good and what is bad. These recorded impressions help the infant to recognise and categorise things. Based on its own experience and understanding, it believes rejected objects to have bad qualities. When it rejects something unknown, it has either confused it with something else or constructed a link to something with which it has had a bad experience.
Another question is raised by why children appear to be indifferent to certain things. Why do they often not notice what adults consider to be important, remarkable, astonishing or beautiful?
We have to realise that our senses are exposed to a flood of impressions - we are able to absorb only a minute fraction of them, and we more or less automatically filter out everything that is for the moment uninteresting or irrelevant.
Since a child does not have a fine-tuned structure of perception, it is not able to recognise and interpret things as quickly as an adult. Everything that lies outside its world of experience is, to the child, a miracle - but when the entire world is full of miracles, they become ordinary. Is Superman a miracle when there are thousands of planes in the air? When you can receive images in your living room from television, and you have the power to make them appear and disappear, why should it be a miracle for a ghost to appear, or for Scottie to beam the crew anywhere from the star ship Enterprise?
Hereditary structures in the brain influence certain behavioural patterns independent of experiences, yet these patterns can be shaped, structured, neglected or suppressed by experiences. One of these basic structures is the need for tenderness, cuddling, snuggling up to someone, warmth, softness and bodily contact - which leads a child to like cuddly things such as teddy bears, soft toys and security blankets. The adolescence makes experiences that re-route this craving into difference channels, and it is eventually eclipsed by different needs.
A second basic structure is the need to protect the young and helpless. This is shaped in adolescence, and emerges in adulthood as care for the weak and the responsibility, that parents feel for their offspring. This tendency already resides within the child - it is why it likes things and creatures smaller, weaker and more in need of protection than itself. Ir is the difference in bodily proportions that helps us determine what constitutes a creature in need of protection. The overall size is not as important in perception as the proportion of individual body
parts to the whole, and how these differ from those of an adult: large eyes, small nose, small mouth, short arms and legs - in short, the proportions of a baby.
A third basic structure that influences children's needs is gender-specific identification. Children behave in "typically male"' or "typically female" ways from a very early age. The search for their own sexual identity leads children to play with gender-specific dolls that symbolise the desired identity: girls play with Barbie dolls with firm breasts, long hair and slim legs, while boys play with manly, muscular action dolls whose tools, weapons and accessories are the attributes of a macho world.
A fourth basic structure one that adults often fail to comprehend - is the need for children to toughen themselves up against fear by confronting the sinister. Adults are disconcerted by children's intense fascination with gruesome, repellent and eerie things.


The appeal of the unusual, the new and the uncertain surely plays a part in this tendency, which so often makes adults shudder. Monster-dolls and frightening comics, films and books are not typical only of our rimes; the most gruesome fairy tales have always been the most popular. The attraction of many games lies in the spooky and the uncertain, which have a titillating appeal - this is why adults reject such games as unfit for children, and try to prevent them. There are further influences. The need to belong to a peer group, to be part of
a family, is another basic structure. Children are indiscriminate in their imitation of their environment and me behavioural patterns found within it, whether good or bad. Things that are frowned upon or forbidden, bur are nevertheless apparent, are copied just as much as things that are permitted and accepted.
When the child grows up and gains access to other groups through kindergarten, school and friends, it wants to identify with new group behavioural patterns. The child adopts the symbols and behavioural rules of different groups, and is shaped most strongly by the group it considers the most important at any given time. In order to attain a strong and recognised position within this group, the group member (i.e. the child) will attempt to acquire possessions and behavioural patterns that are considered prestigious within the group. Items of clothing, dyed hair, earrings and .tattoos - as well as behaviour and expressions - are group characteristics, and they are considered inappropriate and annoying once the member finds itself outside the group. Thus is the group member bound even more strongly to the group, because the symbols and behaviour are recognised only by that group. Group identity behaviour is very much ruled by fashion, and the symbols will change accordingly. Adults do not necessarily need to know what these symbols are, but they should know and accept that they exist and they should tolerate them (graffiti is one example).
A basic structure that often leads to misunderstanding between adults and children is me highly developed fantasy world of the latter. They are able to "transport" themselves into other worlds; they can change their environment. In their imagination, a tree trunk turns into a motorbike, a rusty drainpipe into a horse, a dinosaur, a space ship, a boat or even a witch. These imaginative games - children's interpretation of objects - have led to adults devising games and similar things for children based on preconceived ideas. A small house may thus be built in the shape of a mushroom, a tree trunk may be transformed into a tractor or a dragon, a seat into a car. By using these figurative preconceptions, however, adults fall victim to a misunderstanding. First, they rob the child of the freedom to interpret its environment on its own terms, especially since the child will use its imagination according to its mood, and the kind of game it is playing. Furthermore, the preconceived tree trunk is rarely shaped like a nice, detailed tractor or dragon, bur rather indicates only a symbolic copy. We thus demand too much of the child, who finds it hard to recognise abstract forms: imagining that a block of wood is a motorbike complete in every derail is easy; it is more difficult for the child to recognise as a motorbike an abstract wooden object with two wheels.
When a child has the choice between a cheap plastic motor bike with dearly defined detailing and an expensive and slightly abstract motorbike that has been beautifully crafted from precious wood, it will almost always choose the cheap plastic bike. The child is interested in detail, not in abstraction. After playing with the plastic bike for a while and becoming bored with it, the child will then, however, imagine that it is a rocket, a plane, a boat, a horse. . . Adults think that they can inspire the child's imagination through abstraction, bur instead they manipulate it by forcing it to follow their own preconceived ideas. A child does not need aids to imagination.
Another adult misconception is the creation of things large and out of proportion for our children. They live in our world, a world shaped by adults for adults. In this world of giants, children are the gnomes, the Small Ones who are simply tolerated. Things are generally too large for children; they would prefer a miniature world. When we think back to our childhood, we realise that everything was rather big: the living room, the door, the garden, the bench, and the teddy bear which was almost as tall as us. When looking for a present for a child and feeling sentimental, we will buy a huge teddy bear because we remember that we also had one of those large, furry animals. But the child is frightened of this huge, soft creature: it is difficult to handle and rather too heavy to play with. If we come across our very own teddy bear that we used to play with, we realise it is just as small as most other teddy bears - we only thought it was huge because
we were still small ourselves. Children prefer proportions that correspond to their own; they like a miniature environment which they can easily oversee and manage.
Children and ,adults often experience colour differently. The perception and experience of colour is undoubtedly a very subjective matter which is governed by fashion and periodical influences, by daylight, artificial light and personal moods. When we imagine the vast amount of outside impressions flooding the child's perception, we will understand why children become insensitive to these impressions, despite their curiosity. Only things unusual, bright, curious and loud will get the child's attention. Strong colours, contrasts in colour, and colours that interact with each other prompt children into action. Whether these colours are beneficial for children, whether children feel at ease in a constantly stimulating environment, cannot however be gauged by their spontaneous reaction. Often, the subtle and unspectacular, the things they only notice the second or third time round, arc more beneficial for them.
Another crucial influencing factor, which is experienced differently by children and adults, is time. For a five-year-old, one year amounts to one-fifth of its life, and its vast reaches back to the beginning of its world: we understand that children
interpret terms such as "in those days" differently from adults. Children have no notion of time: they want everything now, instantly and immediately. Expressions like "But just half an hour ago you. . .", "Wait until the evening. . ." and "We only have two miles to go . . ." represent an eternity - for children they are unfathomable values. And when they cannot see the whole distance or schedule they start whining. Attending a dequately to children's needs means recognising and respecting the distances and time schedules mat correspond to their desires and abilities.
The idea that old people live in the past and adults in the future, while children live in the present, casts some light on why we often misunderstand children where time is concerned. Six months ago, a child was smaller and unable to do certain things; six months from now, it will be taller and able to do these things, and many more. Being a child means undergoing constant change. The immediate built environment becomes smaller as the child grows, bur its ability to see and think further with increasing age means that its overall surroundings expand. Knowing more today than it knew yesterday also leads the child to become more daring. While it ventures our to discover the world it is held back time and again by barriers, learning along the way that today it is able to overcome the barriers of yesterday. Children are "barrier-busters". Because many barriers are symbolised by bans, such as "You're not allowed to do that yet. . ." or "When you are older you may. . .", the child has to ignore these bans. Being disobedient is part of being a child. Being a child is a floating process.
Adults shape the world for their children according to different criteria from those they use to shape their own world. When we create something for children, we; have the feeling that we can finally express ourselves creatively, that we can let go of the demands of adult aesthetics. When creating for children, we fall back on an aesthetics that we consider to be funny, imaginative, unusual and also educational, that reminds us of our own childhood. We hardly take into consideration whether our children actually like what we give them, and whether it meets their requirements and needs. The shaping of the children's environment - the nurseries. children's furniture and toys - is symbolic for the way in which
we deal with children. They are not allowed to create the objects they need for their own purposes; they are hardly allowed even to select them. In the end, it is always the adult who decides.
Children's environments, furniture and toys are always a reflection of the way a culture reaches our to its young, and of how far it meets their needs, and whether it supports, suppresses or ignores them. A rich and plentiful world is not necessarily a good environment for children; on the contrary, it shows rather how much adults strive to be the centre of attention. A child-oriented environment allows children the freedom and space to create, shape and form things - it allows change and decorations that we might consider destructive, ugly or kitsch. A child-oriented world has its own aesthetics.
The children of today will be different tomorrow, and they will change more quickly than we might want them to. If they want to be independent, they will have to liberate themselves from our constant attempts to make up their minds for them. They will provoke and shock us, they will deliberately do things differently from us. They will create their own world; their own aesthetics. This is, essentially, what being a child is all about.

 
 

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