Imitation – Not Just Flattery!
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing – Salvador Dali
They sit side by side painting. He is 7 and she is 4.
She begins painting her (almost trademark!) rainbow flower, each petal a different colour, while he begins with a series of black circles. She completes her flower and stops to watch him for a moment. She can see his circles beginning to form something. She retrieves another piece of paper and washes her brush. As she begins the black circles on her page he says “she’s copying me!” to which I respond: “she must be inspired by you.” This simple explanation satisfies him and they both quietly return to their work, he creating his vision and she replicating it.
We see the scenes often in early childhood settings. A child sits building a tall tower with the blocks, arranging them in a specific way before another arrives and begins using the same approach to tower building. Elsewhere, a child has adopted an accent and is “playing mum” in the home corner, giving away all sorts of “family secrets” as they imitate her behaviour and language!
Children are natural imitators because the world is new to them.
They imitate to make sense of things that they may not understand.
They imitate to process ideas.
They imitate to try new ways of playing and working.
They imitate because they see another child experiencing enjoyment or success.
They imitate because their experiences of the world are still relatively limited.
Many years back, I was working in a preschool room team. We were still exploring our own identity and at times that meant imitating.
We imitated because we thought someone else knew better.
We imitated because we saw what worked for others.
We imitated because we were learning about new ideas and ways of doing.
We saw ideas in books and we tried replicating them in our program. We saw photographs of experiences and environments that inspired us and altered ours accordingly. We imitated and we played with ideas and we observed and asked questions.
And then we made it our own.
Its the same for children. Often they will imitate others, but the end result varies. Perhaps they just needed a little inspiration to get going. In our preschool room, we often observed children peering around the side of the easel to see what their friend was working on before even picking up a paintbrush. As they painted, they would take breaks every few minutes to peek around the side and check on their friends progress, returning to their own to make adjustments. When we established an art studio in our space, one of the key elements was that children were able to paint and create side by side. We began to see even more of this artful imitation. One child’s idea could lead to a whole group exploration!
Another feature of our art spaces was often the inclusion of a provocation. An idea that stemmed from our understanding of the work in the early childhood services of Reggio Emilia, Italy. We would place an artwork, book or an object or jar of flowers beside the painting area. At times we questioned if this was too prescriptive, if it led children to create only in a particular way. Yet, we found that while some children were inspired by the provocation, others chose to ignore it and set about bringing to life their own vision. For some children the provocation was merely a start point, while others chose to replicate it in its entirety. So how is this different to “today everyone is going to paint on this stencil of a bird”? The key is in the choice. That and the ability to make it their own. Just the same as how we adults took what we were seeing in exemplary programs and approaches, imitated and then adapted to make it our own, no two artworks will be the same, even when the inspiration is the same or where one child imitates another.
She had watched as he painted the white frame of the bicycle, yet she chose yellow. While she was clearly imitating his work, inspired by his vision, she had a vision of her own – a vision of a yellow bike! His arched rainbow became a flat rainbow for her (who usually, interestingly paints arched rainbows!).
In this case, the imitation was a great example of scaffolding. He, an older child, unwittingly supported her to go above and beyond what she had previously been able to create. While rainbows were already in her repertoire, had you asked her before this to paint a bicycle, you almost certainly would have heard “But I don’t know how!” Yet , during the process of imitating him, she found that she could in fact paint a bicycle, she expanded her skill set, and no doubt – these new elements, such as the carefully crafted wheels, will make their way into other artworks of hers.