What's At Stake When a Child Draws

It’s where we all first realize that there are other people out there who recognize themselves in our work. And we in turn recognize ourselves in theirs.

Below is a drawing that my professor Michael Armstrong shared with our class on his final day teaching. It was made by his young grandson:

Here's what I notice: it's a drawing that depicts two kids playing. The father figure sits with his back turned, contemplating the smallest thing that the backyard has to offer (“Look! The snail,” he says in lower-case letters) while his wife calls out to her son (“NO GIO!!” in all-caps, punctuated by a double exclamation point) as he slides down the bannister. The figure of the boy in motion interests me greatly: at this moment, halfway down the staircase, he is decidedly mixed about the state of his affairs. Toward his sister, who is tauntingly splashing him with the hose, he offers a portrait of cheeky cool, all tongue-wagging and slacked posture. At the same time, he calls back to his mom for “HELP!” matching her all-caps. The softening single exclamation point hints at an acknowledgement of the necessity of her protection. The figure revels in the thrill of runaway speed and, at the same time, anticipates his impending crash into the spiky plant below. This is the inherent difficulty of growing up. That we simultaneously crave the novelty of the bannister slide and protection from the collision is a big part of what it feels like to be a kid.

Now look back to the picture’s horizon. The boundary between near and far is marked by two parallel rows of grape vines and the tangled foliage of a tree at the garden’s center. The shift in perspective from foreground to background allow scenes from various fairy tales to play out: from left to right, Rapunzel lets down her hair atop the castle turret, two figures riding a horse escape a chasing horde, Cinderella fits into her slipper, and Sleeping Beauty seems ready to awaken. Notice how the precision of the drawing increases as the scale decreases. Off in the distance, these fairy tale figures are “stick-like” and flat compared to the messier, less-assured execution of the rounded figures of the family up close. We can still recognize these fairy tale figures from far away because we learned these stories long ago. I keep coming back to which, if any, hillside character the boy is imagining himself to be as he slides down the bannister, or whether he has rehearsed all these roles enough to risk going out into the world and seeing what it has to offer without adopting a definitive one. Maybe he has the entire repertoire of heroic possibility on-demand?

Fairy tales and childhood stories are what allow us to venture out for the first time free from adult protection. It’s where we get the idea to risk it in the first place. Learning the logic of how fairy tales operate allows kids to unbundle their elements (like character, plot, and setting) so that they can be re-combined in infinite variation and tried out in kids' own lives; indeed, these stories function as maps of imaginative possibilities for future selves. That's why writing and drawing original content is so important for kids. They get to internalize characters and see what happens when they get to be the ones making choices as an author. That's powerful!

The faraway fairy tale figures on the hills serve as constellations by which kids navigate and extend invitations to playful co-conspirators IRL during recess. It’s where we all first realize that there are other people out there who recognize themselves in our work. And we in turn recognize ourselves in theirs. It’s collaborative entrepreneurship at the pre-pre-seed round of financing. It’s what first pricks our solipsism that we're the center of the universe, and then, with our friends, we’re off to the races. That's the power of play, teamwork and creativity, which happen to be the 3 pillars of Story Squad's design.

Across eras and geographies, the spirit of playful imagining is bounded by the timeless stories we grow up hearing, enacting, making our own, and ultimately sharing with others as we make our way in the world. Preserving access to this literary imagination is a project worth championing for everyone, especially now.  Serving this mission is why I started Story Squad.