Permission to Play: Birthday Parties

Two of the most popular posts on this blog are: SuperMom: DIY Barbie Shoes and A (Few) Photo(s) a (To)Day: We Make Things. Both posts reflect to the DIY ethic we strive to embrace as a family. It’s a foundation of me and Dan’s relationship which dates back ten years to the first kid’s birthday party we planned for George’s 7th birthday.  I was still in grad school, had no kids of my own, and had never hosted a birthday party for a child before. I wanted it to be awesome. I had a subscription to a short-lived Martha Stewart publication – Martha Stewart Kids – which illustrated many of the things Lara Lackey found wrong with Martha’s ideas for kids in her 2002 NAEA presentation “Martha Stewart and Art Education: Is She a Bad Thing?” Step-by-step instructions, overly aestheticized displays of materials which an art educator or parent knows wouldn’t last five minutes around a group of kids, and examples that only an adult could replicate. But the article that’s relevant to this post wasn’t for kids per se, it was for parents. Parents who wanted to throw the best birthday parties on the block.

The section on building a backyard miniature golf course caught my attention. I showed it to Dan and George and they liked it too. Little did I know what I was getting us into.

Dan and I had been dating about ten months and this was the first big project we did together. It tested our skills (mostly Dan’s abilities to build things) and our creativity. We spent a lot of time figuring out a theme for each hole, using as many materials as we could find around the house as inspiration as possible. It was a creative challenge and we learned a lot about one another building through the process.

Dan motorized the windmill and we used baking dishes to create sand and water traps.

This weekend we marked our tenth year of planning birthday parties together with a Harry Potter-themed party for Cora’s sixth birthday. Our schedules are a lot busier than they once were so I did a lot of the initial planning and gathering of supplies. But as we hung out together the night before the party pulling together the potion making station, I was reminded of how much joy and satisfaction we’ve found over the years putting ourselves in the minds of the kids we’d be hosting and imagining how they would play with the prompts we set out for them.

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While the point of the planning was the party, the process was equally important for me and Dan. We laughed as we made up names for the ingredients and shared high fives over one another’s ideas for potion combinations and other activities we’d be setting up. Making birthday parties has provided us an annual opportunity to spend time together, playing around with ideas and materials to create something.

Realistically we probably only have a few more years left of planning parties for children. When the time comes, we’ll have to find some other excuse to pick a theme and plan some fun and games for our own friends.

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Parenting Perk of the Day: Vicarious Flow

Cora has been so busy lately it’s been hard to keep up. Even harder to find time and mental space to sit down and write about anything that’s been going on. She’s at this truly amazing stage where everything is interesting to her and once she sets her mind on something, she will pursue it with her full attention until she has exhausted her interest in it, or I cut her off because it’s time to drive her brother and sister to school, mow the lawn, go to bed… She has become a process artist.

In art education, we often talk about process versus product. In short, what we learn and experience while creating things isn’t always evident in the final product. This is especially true for performance artists and young children. The work of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, to site some well-known examples, cannot be understood through a single image or description of their performances. They mean and are experienced differently by each viewer of, or participant in, their projects. Similarly, a piece of construction paper covered in glue and cottonballs made by a toddler means much more as evidence of a process the child engaged in than a work of art of itself.

DSC_0119Shortly after Cora’s first day at school, I was raiding the basement for new materials to experiment with. I pulled a set of brightly colored rolls of tape out and she immediately ran to another corner of the room and pulled out an empty wrapping paper tube. She told me she wanted to put the tape on the tube. She sat for at least 40 minutes taking small strips of tape I cut for her and covering the tube with them. Turns out she got the idea from some kids at school who had done something similar. So, while I had to admit this wasn’t her original idea, I was still impressed that she was able to tell me what she wanted to do and then to execute it with such focus. In retrospect, I think it was really important for her to act out something she’d only watched others do. To experience it for herself.

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Like so many toddlers, Cora’s creative work is mostly about process. Marilyn Kohl (1994) writes in an authentic and informed manner on this subject in her introduction to Preschool art: It’s the process not the product which is full of ideas for initiating process art with young children. Many of these ideas could be scaled up for older audiences. 

Cora’s not concerned with the look of a drawing when she is finished with it so much as the processes she engages in making them. For instance, the other morning, she dumped out a bin of crayons and oil pastels then picked them up one at a time, made a mark on her paper, then lined them up. It was like the rules Jenny Bartlett sets for herself while painting. I have long been a fan of process art so I find this really amazing to watch. It also, reminded me of Helen Molesworth’s exhibition for the Wexner Center Work Ethic (2003) which highlighted artists who tested the definitions of what it means to work as an artist. Cora rarely makes a drawing of anything. Rather, her drawings provide a record of something she was doing.

When a toddler is involved in process art she is experiencing the state of flow creative practitioners strive to maintain. It brings us peace and pleasure to be so absorbed in an activity that we are focused only on the moment at hand, on the process we are engaged in. Watching Cora in flow brings me to a parallel space, engaged by her engagement. Next up, finding more opportunities for me to find such moments for myself.