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  • Written by Ellen Handler Spitz
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  • Written by Ellen Handler Spitz
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Imagination and Childhood

Written by Ellen Handler SpitzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ellen Handler Spitz


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 10, 2008
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48253-2
Published by : Anchor Knopf
The Brightening Glance Cover

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In this remarkable book, Ellen Handler Spitz shows how to promote children’s creative and emotional growth by making the most of the unlimited possibilities of everyday experiences.Through delightful anecdotes about real children and their treasures, bedrooms, play spaces, music, scary things, and birthday parties, The Brightening Glance will inspire you to create a life of wonder, inventiveness, and cultural enrichment for your child.


Chapter Seven: Today Is My Birthday

A child’s birthday is the central organizing event of his year, often superceding all major holidays, national and religious. By celebrating a child’s birthday each year, parents reaffirm the joy of that child’s advent as well as mark his progress–physical, psychological, social, and intellectual–on the path from babyhood to adulthood. Birthdays also provide untold opportunities for aesthetic experience.

Homemade Paper Flowers and a Pool of Tears

My special love of birthday parties came, not surprisingly, from my mother, who orchestrated superlative celebrations year after year on the occasion of her children’s birthdays. One, in particular, endures in my memory. For my tenth birthday, she took the theme of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which she and I both loved, and created an event of legendary proportions. Although we were living at that time in an apartment with limited space, she managed to transform it into an enchanted realm. The invitations requested that all my friends arrive in costume, and I later found out that my irrepressible mother had actually possessed the temerity (a quality never in short supply where she was concerned) as well as the maternal prescience to telephone each mother to say that the birthday girl and only the birthday girl would come dressed as Alice.
I can still remember my thrill, surprise, and delight as we opened the door and each child entered in masquerade. Some of my friends had been transformed almost beyond recognition. My mother’s invitation had placed a covert demand on the other mothers and children to become inventive, and they truly responded. Although some may have felt it a burden, the quality of the results would seem to affirm that dreaming up those costumes was a great deal of fun for all concerned. One blond friend named Carlyn came as the Duchess. Appropriately coiffed and stuffed with an enormous pillow, she wore a handmade habit sewn of stiff fabric that hung to the floor. Several other girls came as the Queen of Hearts, but each had conceived her costume differently. A little boy (my then-current beau, named Jonathan) came as the entire pack of cards, wearing them pinned from top to toe all over his leotard-like costume. I welcomed also a natty Mad Hatter, a Cheshire Cat, and even a Tweedledum and Tweedledee (although technically they must have been crashers from Through the Looking Glass). My younger sister, garbed in white from top to toe, with stand-up ears, a fluffy tail, an enormous wristwatch, and bright red lipstick (her own idea, I’m sure), was a spiffy White Rabbit. Others, I can no longer remember. As for me, my mother dressed me in pale blue with a white apron. She brushed out my long hair, which she then uncharacteristically left unbraided, and transformed me into an unmistakable Alice.
How my mother must have reveled in the pleasure of turning our apartment into Wonderland! I can still remember the chaotic mess we made beforehand and how we were working right up to the day of the party. She taught my sister and me how to make brilliantly colored iridescent flowers of various sizes and shapes by taking rainbow-colored tissue and crepe paper and carefully cutting, folding, twisting, pressing, and tying, then gathering our blooms into many-splendored bouquets, which we attached to every available object and surface throughout the apartment. On the party table my mother had placed little cups labeled Drink me and cakes that said Eat me. There were ornamental signs directing children To the Pool of Tears, which turned out to be our bathtub filled with water, in which amazing lilies and strange aquatic toy creatures were swimming about. A tiny key opened a door to a make-believe garden, and somehow Rabbit’s house had also been constructed. We went outside for part of the time (the apartment building had walkways, bushes, and manicured gardens) to participate in a caucus race in which all of us ran about until we were exhausted, and everybody, of course, was given a prize (treats for the guests and a silver thimble for me). The experience as I recall it today was one of utter joy. Metamorphosis. Theater. Normal everyday reality had completely receded during those precious hours while the party lasted. My friends simply became the characters they represented, and all of us had entered an enchanted realm.

I suppose I grew up with the wish to repeat this experience somehow and, if possible, to give it one day to my own children. So, later on, there were others: a circus clown party; a Peter Pan party replete with Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, Nana, the crocodile, Captain Hook, Smee, and a treasure hunt that involved finding Peter’s shadow; a Wizard of Oz party for which the basement was entirely remodeled to resemble the Emerald City; a Raggedy Ann party with a cake in the shape of the giant doll herself with her carrot-colored hair, red-and-white striped stockings, and candy heart that said I LOVE YOU; a storybook party to which each child came as a character from his or her favorite book; and a nurse party where–instead of playing the usual pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey–ten blindfolded children were given Band-Aids to stick on the bruised knee of a blown-up little girl with tears I had painted beforehand on an enormous piece of posterboard. For that party, we also fashioned little first-aid kits filled with special treats instead of the usual birthday party goody bags. In each case, I think it fair to say, the majority of invited children seemed eager to plunge in, and these parties were, for them, a source of active pleasure. (I often wondered afterward what stories were taken home and told to parents.)
To my own family, of course, the parties have always meant far more. The occasion of a child’s birthday has necessarily entailed a large expenditure of time and effort, as well as negotiation and cooperation, not all of which ever goes smoothly. There are always differences of opinion and disagreements. But even the rough spots are a crucial element in the learning process because they form an integral part of any creative effort. Children gradually realize this. Some of their ideas, for example, have to be rejected because they are impractical; in such cases, the children are initially disappointed, but then, when an acceptable compromise is found, they discover that the solution can prove surprisingly satisfying.

Each party, importantly, occurs in three temporal phases, and this is one of its most salient features. John Dewey also differentiated the aesthetic from other forms of experience with a triadic analysis. I referred to this in regard to preparing children for events in the performing arts. He speaks first of anticipation, then of the actual event itself, and finally of recall or recapitulation, which, he says, becomes a source, spur, and stimulus for ongoing aesthetic engagement in the future. The aesthetic entails what he calls “consummated experience,” by which he means that which involves all of these three phases. Percolating in us over time, aesthetic experience is that to which we attend on many levels–the emotional as well as the perceptual and the rational–and that in which we actively participate rather than passively undergo. This latter is an especially important point for Dewey. Unconsummated experiences are, by contrast, for him, those that simply happen to us and are, without reflection, abandoned by us for whatever comes along next. They involve no processing over time, no internalization, no strong emotional, physical, or intellectual investment, and no conscious reflection. They can, indeed, hardly be called experiences. They use up time but add little richness to our lives.

Making, Not Buying, the Party

It is sad that so many American parents celebrate their children’s birthdays in commercial venues–at fast-food restaurants, for example, or amusement parks–where everything is standardized and predictable, because the practice seems to lend itself to just the sort of “unconsummated experience” Dewey decries. These events, after a while, bore even the children who attend them. They seem a lost opportunity for imagination and creativity. After all, a birthday is a celebration of the existence in this world of a particular individual. Shouldn’t that celebration logically reflect the current interests, accomplishments, tastes, or pre-dilections of that individual? Unlike nearly all other holidays, which concern groups of persons, a child’s birthday is really all about honoring just one. To stamp the party somehow, even in small ways, with the uniqueness of that birthday child is to endow it with important meaning, not only for the child but also for all the other children who attend.
Parents need not be especially gifted artistically or have vast financial resources to help children come up with ideas for games, homemade invitations, and simple decorations, all of which can be pursued together in advance. Even the youngest child can take part. I remember a first-birthday celebration for a baby in Rhode Island. The grandparents and neighbors were invited to a celebratory clambake, and the baby’s not-yet-three-year-old sister was so excited by the prospect of a party and her mother’s preparations that she wanted to be consulted about the prettiest napkins and even choose the color scheme; on the day of the party, she insisted on helping to set the table. In another family, a little boy who played the recorder was willingly conscripted to provide accompaniment for all the musical games at his older and younger sisters’ birthday parties.

Fathers, grandparents, uncles, and aunts also often prove ingenious at these times. They can help hang streamers and balloons in high places. They can clown and act and draw and sing and perform amateur magic tricks. They sometimes come up with the cleverest ideas for charades or treasure hunts and lend their talents to construction. What matters is not how elaborate the results are but the involvement in the preparation of everyone who wants to participate. Homemade parties are inexpensive. One year, by contrast, we departed from our usual practice and took a small group of boys to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City for a birthday celebration; the cost that year was considerably higher than other years. The party was enjoyable, but it seemed a bit lackluster. Without a real preparation phase, it receded into being one of those experiences one lives through without its making a deep impression. It might have worked better and proved more meaningful for those little boys if they had been, at the same time, studying astronomy in school so that they could have looked forward to the party more concretely, followed through with activities afterward, and discovered connections between the birthday excursion and another quadrant of their lives.

What counts most, it seems to me, is that the child being honored be encouraged to express herself in the choices that are made with respect to her party and that parents regard birthdays as annual opportunities to afford rich and meaningful aesthetic experiences. On a child’s birthday, she is fully present and attentive. She cares. What occurs matters to her. When, on these special days, parents collaborate with their children to imagine, construct, and perform together, the pleasures that accrue are, as I have learned by watching the results in my own family, readily passed on from one generation to the next.

From the Hardcover edition.
Ellen Handler Spitz|Author Q&A

About Ellen Handler Spitz

Ellen Handler Spitz - The Brightening Glance

Photo © Edward Acker

Ellen Handler Spitz is a professor in the Honors College and Department of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The author of Inside Picture Books, she has written and lectured extensively on children’s aesthetic and psychological development. A visual artist and dancer, she has taught at Columbia, Stanford, and New York University, among other academic institutions. She lives in Baltimore.

Visit Ellen Handler Spitz's official website for news updates, speaking engagements, links, and more: www.ellenhandlerspitz.net

Author Q&A

Q: “When we, as adults, discover within ourselves an ability to grasp what a child is experiencing, even momentarily, we can draw upon our own inner resources to ‘meet and match the moment’ of that child’s hope.” What are some of your suggestions for incorporating “the brightening glance” into the everyday experiences of parents and children?

A: Since children can only imagine what they have in some way already experienced in some form, they need to be given a rich cultural life upon which to draw. The little boy or girl who pretends an overturned chair is a castle must be acquainted with the notion of castles. The Bronte children made tiny books for their toy soldiers to read; they grew up surrounded by books. In The Brightening Glance, I’ve suggested a few first operas for children and advised that, in preparing for them, one shouldn’t give too much away so as to safeguard their unpredictable elements of wonder and surprise.
Because every child, adult, moment, and context are unique, adventures call for their own dashes of spontaneous inventiveness. My aim is to encourage readers to come up with their own modes of stimulating “the brightening glance.” One starting point would be recalling your own earliest aesthetic experiences and letting those memories guide you. Another would be paying close attention to what is piquing the curiosity of your child. Another would be slowing down to a very different rhythm from the hurry-up pace we normally adhere to in our daily lives. A fourth would be trying hard to avoid incessant didacticism. Letting a child be–to play and learn and discover–rather than remaining in constant control; this is especially valuable today in our over-programmed worlds.

Q: “Dwelling within a particularly designed and constructed space, inventing and rediscovering it, a child invents and discovers herself.” What do you believe is the importance of a child’s space to his or her sense of self?

A: Children explore space from the start. They turn their heads, wiggle their torsos, study their hands, grasp and reach out toward the world. Children’s rooms and play spaces serve like mirrors, teaching them about themselves and gradually becoming reflexive elements in their growing sense of identity. In today’s world of commerce and clutter, children need more than store-bought replicas. They need unique objects that possess a history, objects that exude an aura of permanence rather than transience, objects that may have been handed down or crafted by hand. Children’s imaginations are stimulated by toys that can be played with in many different ways rather than ones that control their use. As for the spaces inhabited by children, I’d advocate a kind of “aesthetics of mess,” for when rooms are perfectly neat and tidy they can be soulless: they demonstrate the effects of energy spent in keeping things as they are rather than energy used in experimenting and inventing. But of course children also need to learn ways of creating order and harmony so that they can play freely and find what they need and preserve in tact the physical objects they love.

Q: We often talk about testable results for school systems–do you feel that such tests override the creation of aesthetic experiences in our classrooms? Do you believe it is necessary to incorporate imaginative explorations into teaching?

A: It is crucial to incorporate imaginative exploration in our schools. However, to do so, our teachers must not feel themselves encumbered by too many rules and prescriptions; they must be free enough to be able to “welcome the unexpected” and to take whatever risks fostering children’s imaginations might entail. Excessive testing of factual knowledge and cognitive skills uses up precious time and diverts energy, forcing teachers and children into preconceived teaching and learning patterns that, once in place, are hard to shift. Yet, compromise is essential. For, to imagine richly, children must be given basic tools–method and fact and practice–so that, like soil and light and water, this matter can become the stuff out of which they can each grow their own unique varieties of plant.

Q: A section of THE BRIGHTENING GLANCE investigates the idea of “what is too scary?”, including the question of whether we should talk with children about the horrors occurring in the world. Is there a balance between informing children about the world and shielding them from it?

A: What is too scary for children? It is so difficult to judge. In fact, however, children often show us what they need. Through their play and conversation, they often reveal they know more than we realize they do about anger and fear and pity and envy and violence and greed and the horrors of these times even without grasping larger political significance or other adult meanings. I would advocate reflecting on each situation as it occurs rather than adhering to any abstract policy. A child’s age and personality and prior experience, the particular moment itself, the relative distance or proximity of the violence or trauma all matter in decision-making about what is too scary for a child.

Q: Do you feel that storytelling is a way for adults to enter the world of children? What are other ways for adults to re-enter that world? And what are the benefits for our children and us when we do so?

Storytelling is a fabulous way for adults to enter the worlds of children. I wrote my book through stories and vignettes because, right from the start, this mode seemed to me the most natural way to touch the themes I wanted to explore. Playing is itself often a mode of story-telling, and the first stories of “me” gradually morph into stories of “not-me,” stories concerning other persons, animals, imaginary creatures, fantastic supernatural realms, and later on, perhaps, human history writ large. To swap stories with a child is one of the deepest ways of sharing life with her or him, and sometimes those stories, once begun, carry on for decades. Even when Charlotte Bronte was grown, she was still adding to her childhood chronicles of Angria. And one of my Stanford students told our class about a collaborative story she and her father invented and told each night before she went to sleep when she was a little girl and how–in the context of this class–she had telephoned him 3000 miles away to ask whether he still remembered the characters who were named after geometric shapes, and how the two of them reminisced and laughed for hours over details of those early brightening moments they had shared.

From the Hardcover edition.



“An enthralling guide to life-enhancing parenting.”
—E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy

“This is the tome I would want to carry to the mountaintop, for it shouts all my deepest passions: it is all about sparking the aesthetic imagination of the young child, through careful attention to the quiet and the beautiful all around.”
—Barbara Mahany, Chicago Tribune

“An eloquent celebration of the power of children's imagination when they are encouraged to discover the world of nature and the arts at their own pace. . . . The best possible advice for parents who want to raise a self-confident, creative child.”
—Judith Wallerstein, author of What About the Kids? Raising Children Before, During and After Divorce

“This book will touch your soul, stir up joyous memories of your own childhood, and turn you into a child's best partner in adventure and discovery of the world.”
—Dr. Alla Efimova, Chief Curator, The Magnes Museum

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