Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Color is History?

February 12, 2010

“I’m ready for you to write my memories,” a pre-K student announced to Ms. Kearney on Tuesday morning. He presented her with a large sheet of white paper that had been divided into quadrants, each labeled with the name of one of the seasons. Ms. Kearney listened carefully, transcribing his words into captions to accompany the colored slips of paper he had glued onto the sections of the page. “Blue is for when I go swimming in the pool,” he said, pointing to a teal rectangle. Around the room, groups of children sat at the work tables, arranging collages of colors to represent their own mental images of the seasons.

This scene provides a glimpse into a remarkable aspect of young children’s cognitive development; specifically, the structure of memory. To begin the activity, Ms. Kearney re-read a book that the children have come to love: Leo Leonni’s classic story Frederick, about a group of mice who work all year to store food and supplies for the winter. The hero of the story is the title character, who does not gather nuts and corn; rather, he collects words and images to share on cold nights. Frederick’s stories are rich in color and detail: “When he told them of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their own minds,” says Leonni. The mice are cheered by the memories that Frederick calls forth, and his role as the historian is celebrated.

Our children also build memories by combining sensory experiences with language. Their season collages are filled with mental snapshots from their life stories, and the deceptively simple materials belie a complex symbolic process. As they get older, they will develop more and more sophisticated skills to organize their thoughts, but their work this week is an indicator of how much they already know about the formation of narrative. There is a story behind each slip of paper: “The yellow is my Grandpa’s dock,” mused one child. A blue strip on another collage represents “the bright blue sky on the way to New Hampshire.” A splash of purple is a reminder of the short-sleeved shirts of summer, and two gray stripes represent snow falling on a cloudy winter day.

The philosopher John Locke described memory as a power of the mind to revive past perceptions. As our youngest are learning, the ability to recall and retell details from the past is an important element in building the foundations of historical knowledge.

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