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Collage in early childhood

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As we move steadily past winter’s halfway mark, in many parts of Australia the days are not only longer but also sunnier and much more inviting for outdoor activities.

In previous articles, Amplify has looked at different aspects of winter for early childhood education. This story gathers inspiration and resources for an artform that, while available year round, is a particularly good incentive for heading out into nature (and then heading back inside where it’s warm!)

Classic collage

Collage is taken from the French verb coller, ‘to glue’ and, in a very simple explanation, it is an artistic technique where items are combined (typically glued and layered) to form something new.

Collage art constructions are notoriously open to interpretation and availability. You might use flat sections of fabric, paper, or crushed eggshells; textured sands, soil, or lint; chunky pebbles, seashells, or gumnuts. Imagination and access are your only limits – along with the versatility of your glue or background for the work.

Introducing collage

While collage can be a very quick and simple activity, it can also be brought into a richer discussion by including the ways collage can be seen around us.  For example:

  • Nature – look all around, and especially down, as natural objects create their own collages stories in the way leaves fall across each other, or a rock stands out above others, or a flower bed is layered in colours, shapes and textures.
  • Clothing – items of children’s clothing may be decorated with layers of fabric and beading in abstract or illustrated forms.
  • Books – many children’s books make wonderful use of collage and one of the most famous must be The Very Hungry Caterpillar. See how it was done, here, in this special 45th anniversary video from Eric Carle

  • Famous art – look through gallery websites like Canberra’s National Gallery, Sydney’s Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in the United Kingdom, or your regional council art gallery for collage artists and their exhibitions. It might spark ideas for an excursion. Some names to follow up include Joseph Cornell (think about boxes for holding collage) and Fred Tomaselli.
A Joseph Cornell box: Untitled (Tilly Losch), c1935-38.
Fred Tomaselli (b. 1956) Organism. Leaves, photo-collage, acrylic, gouache and resin on panel

 

Respect

While popular in early learning, nature collage is out for some educators based on an environmental philosophy that might be summed up as take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.

For adherents to that code, bringing fallen leaves, sticks or even soil into art and play can be problematic.  For those less strict, it’s an opportunity to bring discussions of nature and sustainability into a rich conversation leading up to an art project.

Here’s some advice on the topic from the New Zealand Department of Education:

When using natural materials for collage, it is important to talk with children about respecting nature and sustaining the environment. For example, only use leaves, flowers and twigs that have fallen from the tree. Natural materials should be collected in culturally appropriate ways. For example, by leaving the central shoot and leaves either side when harvesting flax.

Impermanence

If you’re still uncomfortable with transporting natural materials for an art construction, you could think about collage as an outdoor, ephemeral artwork instead.

When you take this approach, you may still gather up interesting leaves, rocks, sticks and other natural objects, without permanently removing them from their ‘homes’. Rather than using paper, cardboard, cloth or canvas board as the background for a glued collage, the children may layer and build pictures in situ using the earth, the playground surface, or a handy park bench as their frame.

Children can become attached to their art and anxious about the fate of impermanent works. This is an opportunity to talk about growth and change, nature’s cycles, the role of wind and rain, and then to capture the art in a photograph which is easily shared.

Safety

Making nature collages, whether indoors or out, comes with some safety considerations.

If you’re collecting materials on-site at your service, most of your garden and landscaping items will have been selected for their non-toxic properties. However, it’s possible that other materials have been dropped in by birds or blown onto the premises, and if you’re out in a local park you will want to check unfamiliar leaves, berries, flowers and so on.

There are apps that allow you to take a photo of a plant for identification against a database. Alternatively, invite a council horticulture specialist to visit your service or accompany you to the park the first time you have a collage activity to help you identify what is safe to handle.

Expectations

Collage art – like any art a child engages in – should be free from adult expectations.

Children may well see ‘real’ pictures in the shapes they find in leaves, wood and stones, and may visualise large items – like houses – when they handle small items like broken sticks.  Or they may follow a pattern of their own making, as part of a conversation with others or under their own imaginings.

If the purpose of gathering leaves is to create a specific, adult-generated idea of art (eg below), however, you may miss a wonderful opportunity to follow along on children’s individual imaginative journeys as they see, touch, smell, and create with natural found objects.

 

Drop your expectations and leave children free to imagine their own art, rather than create a pre-set image

CELA WRITERS

Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.

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