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The Significance of Toddler Self Portraits + Our Reggio Inspired Portraits

Reggio inspired self portraits at How we Montessori Otto 2 years

I've been feeling inspired by Reggio style children's self-portraits. The Montessori and Reggio Approach have a lot in common. Both are child-led approaches that respect and trust the child.

"Right at the heart of the Reggio Approach is the very powerful image adults have of children. Every child is seen as strong, confident and competent. Strong children have their own ideas, express opinions, make independent choices and are able to play and work well with others.

This powerful image of the child needs adults who listen to children and trust them to make responsible decisions. In the Reggio Approach listening to children involves paying careful attention to what they have to say and think, and taking their ideas seriously

In Reggio the adults are willing to learn alongside the children. They work together in partnership rather than the adult being 'in charge' and having all the answers. The role of the adult is to plan starting points for the children to explore and to provide open-ended resources which encourage the children to develop their own thinking and ways of learning. The adults watch and listen carefully to what the children do and say and use their observations to guide and extend each child's learning." - Bringing the Reggio Approach to Your Early Years Practice by Linda Thornton.

On the topic of self-portraits, we can plan and provide the open-ended resources so the child can develop their own thinking. But why would we want to explore self-portraits with such a young child? One of the ideas of exploring portraits of any kind is to provide a point of interest or stimuli for the child to look deeper at the subject, to notice and observe finer points and details. Then to transform that through their own lens, onto paper. 

"When we invite children to create self-portraits, we offer them mirrors and encourage long, sustained study of their faces from this unfamiliar perspective. Then we ask them to re-create themselves on paper, weaving together the image that they see in the mirror with the person they experience themselves to be. Their portraits are eloquent statements of self.

A self-portrait is an intimate, bold declaration of identity. In her self-portrait, a child offers herself as both subject and artist. When we look at her self-portrait, we see a child as she sees herself. The story of self-portrait work is a tender story to tell."  - The Language of Art: Inquiry-Based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings by Ann Pelo.

Ann Pelo goes on to say that we can prompt our children by pointing out in the mirror the child's unique physical features, how their face moves, how they express themselves, noticing the shape of the child's face and all of their physical features including things the child may not notice like eyelashes, the shape of their eyebrows, the shape of their cheeks, the openings in their ear. It's special sharing this with a toddler as it's possible they are noticing these things for the first time.

My toddler loves to look at himself in the mirror and he loves looking at photos of himself so this is an opportunity for him to look deeper, spend time observing. Rather than telling or showing him how to draw he is learning through self-observation. He is drawing as he wishes with pleasure without preconceived ideas on what he should draw or what his drawings of himself should look like. This is a time for reflection and documenting observations on paper - even if this is simple mark-making, scribbles or basic outlines of figures. I think it's a lovely idea to keep these self-portraits and form a collection to look back on. In most Reggio self-portrait activities I've seen the child has used a black marker on paper which in many cases is followed by water-colour paints. But other ideas I like include collage, drawing on clear transparencies over an image of the child or on a mirror direct. 

Drawing self-portraits is about self-identity, perception of self.  This is me, this is who I am. I am unique and special. Over time drawing self-portraits can also help children tap into their emotions. We can examine why we look different or have different expressions on different days or in different photographs. 

In Art Workshops for Children, Barbara Rucci suggests talking to your child before their self-portrait and asking "How does it feel to be you?" she suggests "Let them think and contemplate for as long as they need to. They will start to draw and paint when they are ready... When your child is ready to share their work with you, it will be a wonderful way to connect with them and talk about their feelings."

Reggio inspired self portraits at How we Montessori Otto 2 years

Here I've used a black and white image of the child to look closely and discuss his facial features. He loves this as he enjoys drawing on the picture and I can see he is following and learning about the lines on his face and how his hair falls, the shape of his nose, eyes and ears.

Reggio inspired self portraits at How we Montessori Otto 2 years

The mirror is the best way for the child to observe themselves and they can observe their own movements, how the lines and shapes on their face change as their expressions and emotions change. My toddler was frustrated by this work. I will continue to present this activity and observe his response.

How we Montessori Self portraits on mirror toddler Otto 2 years

One of my favourites, drawing straight onto the mirror, using crayon pencils, but oil pastels work well too. Otto pictured here is 2 years and 11 months. 

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