Imagination at your finger tips

The ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren (name), the Ba (personality), the Ka (vital spark), the lb (heart) and the Sheut (shadow) with the shadow comprising two distinct parts; two different persons.

  • The first representing our physical, visible person which consists of all of the characteristics, knowledge, ideals and aspirations which we have incorporated into our concept of self.
  • By contrast, the second is our invisible, ‘shadow person’, a dark and hidden, un-manifested self which consists of all those characteristics which we
    have chosen not to incorporate into our everyday self. And within which resides the potential of a person we have either not become, are afraid to
    become, or have not yet become.

It is this ‘alter ego’ which children are perhaps exploring when looking at themselves in mirrors or on film, having used their own frame of reference to record their image. In discussions with practitioners who have used digital media with children, allowing them to record and watch film using ipads, we see a child exploring their sense of self in an animated way. A child uses physical movement as a language of expression as if they are performing to their friends. The spectacle causes great hilarity within the group and leads to imitation amongst children. They explore perspective, peering around to the screen as they perform, moving their bodies in and out of the frame of reference. The children also seem to be playing with the concepts of identity and personality, discovering new ways to express themselves, using both their bodies in a physical sense and changing their facial expression.

By watching the recordings the children unknowingly reflect on their movement, their actions and their exploration. They purposefully and accurately replicate their actions even when not watching the recording, identifying action by time and sound; showing their capability to build upon and recall a memory.

In one of the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia, the teachers become aware of the children observing shadows created by their hands on a table positioned next to the window. The following day the children continue with a mark making exercise at the same table and a teacher asks “is it possible to draw a shadow? Would you like to try?” One child decides to draw around their hand using a fine line pen and a piece of white paper, saying “first the hand“; the use of the word “first” suggesting that the child is thinking about what comes next, that there is  process involved.

The child draws one overarching line above the lines outlining her fingers and begins to transform the drawing identifying it; “this is my daddy and a shadow like him“.

The description given by the child to her teachers, in particular the use of the word “like”, is interpreted as demonstrating the child coming to understand that a relationship exists between a shadow and its subject; that they are connected in some way.

Playing with shadows with children through drama and literature

Finger and Thumb Theatre 

Drew Colby’s work with puppets in South Africa and the UK has evolved over 30 years. He began with glove puppets and marionettes at the age of 12, gradually becoming interested in what the everyday object could say.

Finger and Thumb Theatre began life in 2002 as Objects Dart, a puppet company founded by Drew to explore the use of object theatre in conjunction with traditional puppet forms. From 2002 Drew created fourteen different shows, evolving a style of object puppetry that was described by audience members as “instant puppetry”. In 2010 Drew began to focus on hand shadow puppetry, Finger and Thumb Theatre which creates visual shows for family and adult audiences using different combinations of hand shadows, video technology, live and recorded music, storytelling and songs.

This winter, Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting Drew’s latest show “Carnival of the Animals”, where Drew conjures up enchanting images and stories with his hands. Accompanying Drew’s hand puppetry is a pianist; the music bringing a change of mood and pace to the performance.

As the lights begin to dim, it is the younger children who seem unsure, perhaps because of the darkness creeping in or uncertainty; the fear of the unknown.

The older children sense the comedy of the initial interaction between the puppeteer and the pianist, cackling out loud and pointing as if to share with their parents their discoveries.

When a mummy kangaroo kisses her baby kangaroo on the head, there is a collaborative “awww” from the audience; the children show their capacity to empathise, to feel the emotion of the moment; appreciating the significance of the relationship.

Small spots of ethereal light begin moving up the wall and across the ceiling, projected by Drew and using a torch shone on a piece of agate. Children marvel at the sight, “it’s snow….bubbles…stars“; their imagination running at full pelt.

A single circular shape then appears on the screen and a child explains “there’s the moon“. The child’s intonation suggests a degree of familiarity, a state or knowing; as if they are referring to an old friend.

When the puppeteer begins moving around the room searching for a cuckoo in the woods, the younger children imitate Drew, calling out “cuckoo…cuckoo”, helping him in his hunt, sensing the importance of finding a new friend and recognising Drew’s loss.

As Drew begins the aviary section of the performance showing the flight of a bird across the screen, older children at the front of the group begin to imitate the puppeteers hand formations, holding up their hands towards the screen, opening and closing their fingers in a flapping motion.

Towards the end of performance one child begins to make marks on paper with a pen telling their mummy “I am drawing around my hand.” Is the child inspired by the shadows and attempting to replicate the concept, the outline of her hand representing its shadow? Making a connection to the relationship between the shadow and its subject?

“Shadow” by Suzy Lee

The book “Shadow” shared with us by artist Suzy Lee, is a story without words. The beautiful images portray an imaginative little girl exploring a dark attic in the presence of a single light bulb. Through the simple illustrations of the little girl’s adventure, we see the true power of a child’s imagination.

The page divide separates the two worlds the little girl experiences in the story, the physical space the little girl lives in and the world of shadows she can see and feel luring her in to explore.

The little girl first explores using her body, standing on one leg, stretching up and then creates formations with her hands, imitating the flight of a bird.

She creates the illusion of emotion incorporating props into her play, an old boot representing the mouth of a fierce creature, with the placement of a hand showing a contemplative stance.

By the end of the story, the little girl has transcended into the darkness, joining the shadow world, embracing her fear and fantasy.

“My Shadow” By Robert Louis Stevenson

In the poem, “My Shadow”, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a child is described as they experiment and learn, trying to understand the world around them. The child finds a friend in their shadow, sees the similarities and the differences, recognising how they have unique characteristics as an individual. The child talks about the perception of self and of others, philosophically suggesting that we all have a purpose in life.

What does the allure of a shadow bring?

We know that children are innately curious beings, continually researching, discovering and building knowledge. Through the exploration of a shadow, an area of darkness brings excitement of the unknown, a sense of fear but also an uncontrollable desire to investigate. Through this natural phenomenon, a child learns about perspective, how a shadow changes in size and makes connections; understanding how their own place in the world differs from that of an inanimate being.

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