“Babies”: imagination, diversity, and cooperation

It all started with imagination, the powerful force that can turn a piece of a plastic PVC pipe into the most gentle and cherished being: a baby. The girls held the pipe, passed it to one another, and rocked it gently in their arms. When I asked them about it, one girl said “It’s our baby and we are taking care of it”. It was a bit chilly, so I suggested that “the baby” might need a blanket. With great care, “the baby” was wrapped and the play continued for a few more days.

Sometimes, “the baby” was just a pipe to be filled with rocks and mud, but I noticed that this name stuck with me and that I would refer to it as such, for example, during clean up time, “I see ‘the baby’ over there, please don’t forget it”.

Living creatures were nurtured outside, too. Numerous caterpillars, frogs, bugs, spiders, and lots and lots of “wormies” were observed, discussed, captured, fed, transported, shared, and released safely back to nature, to their “home”. The focus was on building relationships of stewardship and care, rather than on scientific exploration that is often a “go-to” in the early years practice in terms of learning about anything that is alive. It was intentional: to leave the room for emotional connection before we start classifying and analyzing, to practice curiosity, gentle touch, and keen observation without using magnifying glasses and plastic bug catchers, without cutting off the connection between the living things and their habitats, without putting a barrier between us and them.

Winter came and went, with its usual anticipation of holidays and snow. Snowmen and “snowbabies” (just a head and a torso) seemed to be short lived, just like the snow this year. Children moved on and the idea of meeting their need to have a “being” that can be nurtured outdoors was put on hold, but not forgotten.

However, our regular baby dolls indoors were never without care. The COVID-related restrictions limited the amount and types of materials that convey softness but children were as creative as usual to overcome those obstacles. No blankets? No problem. The girls would use felt and small fabric pieces from the art area, as well as puzzles and wooden blocks to keep the babies comfortable. The babies were regularly fed and read to and things were going well… until they weren’t. The exploration took a different turn.

It started when a child said that dark babies were not as beautiful as light ones. Since I wasn’t present at the time of the conversation, I wasn’t able to figure out what was actually on the child’s mind. Was it just an opinion, free from the context of racial relations? Was it a bias? Would I have the same reaction if the child stated that they liked dolls with curly hair more than those with straight hair? In either case, the first lens was the lens of empathy and how such words make other people feel. The second was a lens of equality and rights, maybe less obvious to children: everyone has a right to feel emotionally safe in our environment, regardless of how they look. It was clear that we can’t just brush it off so we decided to explore the concept of skin tones together with children. We mixed the paints, compared the markers’ colours, made playdough in different shades, and read many books with direct and indirect messages that we are all different and beautiful in our unique ways.

I have to confess that I didn’t have the heart to tell our 4- and 5-year old students that many adults might say it but they don’t always believe those messages, that they created systems and structures where people are treated differently based on how they look. That often even well-meaning people absorb messages and ideas that are hurtful to others, without realizing it. I didn’t tell children that just because I am comfortable in my skin, I think everyone else is. I didn’t tell them what I feel whenever people who hear my accent ask me where I am from… or that I am discovering Canada’s hidden past and present through the voices of Indigenous people and people of colour. I guess, what I did tell them is how it should be, although after reading many books and articles, I know that we have a lot of work to do to get there.

These reflections and conversations revived the “babies” project in my mind. It seemed that working together to create a diverse family of “universal people” would provide a canvas for many more conversations with children. Through their play, we can see their ideas and the big questions they are trying to answer. Also, I know from experience that when children make something themselves, it creates a sense of shared ownership, it becomes “theirs” and they tend to take care of it. I imagined “people” to be somewhat fluid, different in shape and colour but not too articulated, so children can fill in the notions of gender, race, age, as well as role within a family. I was looking for a shape that could be both “a being” and “a thing”, an object that can be considered “loose parts” and fit a variety of play scenarios.

I approached a local toymaking company, The Toymaker of Lunenburg, and we designed the prototype over a string of emails. I was very happy to get our blank “babies” so we could paint them together in different colours. Before I was able to pick them up, we were in the lockdown, battling the third wave of COVID, which came with the message that the schools will remain closed until September. We switched to online learning, and the “babies” were still in the woodworking workshop.

Then suddenly, things started moving fast. As soon as I heard about the reopening in the beginning of June, I rushed to pick up my “babies”. The first week at school was about readjusting to the new routine, finishing children’s portfolios, and setting up for the warmer weather. When I finally got to research safe methods of painting natural wood, it seemed that my only reasonable options were tea, coffee, and food colours. I tested a few samples and realized that the food colours had to be concentrated (not diluted with water), and the wood needed to dry to be coated with hemp oil, which would protect it from water and other elements outside.

Since we don’t have buckets of food colours, I decided to test it with a small amount of strong tea first. Children did an excellent job applying the first coat but we ran out of tea fast and had to match it with some food colour mix that made wood look pink when it dried up. Bummer!

I was running out of time and was worried that the school year would be over before we even got to use the “babies”. So I had to take matters into my own hands. After some experiments, I figured that the most aesthetic solution would be to match the colour to natural wood colours. I mixed food colours in different proportions to get shades that looked like pine, birch, maple, cherry, mahogany, and elm wood to my eye. After being coated with a thin layer of hemp oil (food grade), the pieces became darker and shinier.

I was happy to finally put them in children’s hands, even for two short weeks. Predictably, they were used in many ways, as people and objects. They were mommies and daddies, kids having a sleepover in bunkbeds, they were rocked in a crib, carefully washed with pieces of bark, and of course, cuddled! They were also weapons to run around with, and sometimes just heavy objects that are tricky to carry, two or three at a time.

The school year is over, these “babies” will have new “caregivers” in September. I know they will be in good hands.

I am getting ready to start over at a new location and I will order more “babies” for my new crew. Now that I learned about the technical process, I will involve children in all aspects of creating our “universal people” to engage their minds, hands, and hearts. We will take our time and work on them slowly, one step at a time, weaving our conversation between the tasks, listening, asking, wondering, and making important decisions as a group. There is so much we can learn about one another in the process and I can’t wait to see what we will discover together!

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