Aesthetics is a term that can be defined as the ‘critical evaluation’ of a piece of art (which includes the visual and dramatic arts, as well as dance and music) or a design, based on criteria that are seen as important by a particular culture. Often these criteria focus on intellectual concepts to explain ‘what the aesthetic experience consists of’18 e.g. the use of form, line and colour, themes of the work, combination of mediums, use of symbolism, etc. Inherent in this definition is an appreciation and recognition of the skill and craft of the artist who has executed the work.
Another definition views aesthetics as the appreciation of a pleasant and special sensory experience (usually visual, aural, or tactile).19 However, as well as being pleasing to the senses, aesthetic objects or situations often involve other features ‘that are pleasing to the cognitive faculties: repetition, pattern, continuity, clarity, dexterity, elaboration or variation of a theme, contrast, balance, and proportion.’20. For example, a display of natural materials can be aesthetically pleasing not only because of the inherent natural beauty of the materials themselves but also because of the way the objects are arranged (balanced, contrasted, spaced), and where they are situated (light, access, proximity to other activities). Inherent in this notion of aesthetics is the premise that aesthetic experiences are pleasurable and involve an emotional response from the spectator.
For the purposes of this paper we are using this second definition of aesthetics. It is our belief that there are certain factors inherent in this definition that can be used when planning a quality early childhood environment. However, it is important to note that aesthetics as the understanding and appreciation of the Arts, also has a crucial place in early childhood programmes and that the two definitions of aesthetics regularly intertwine.
It has been our experience that many early childhood centres in New Zealand overlook attention to aesthetics in the environment. Other early childhood commentators have noted. “Aesthetics is a worthy but often unconsidered goal when designing the visual environment for infants and toddlers (and pre-schoolers). Children are more likely to grow up with an eye for beauty if the adults around them demonstrate that they value aesthetics.”21
Unlike Italy and many other European countries, sectors of New Zealand society have yet to establish a cultural identity, which embraces the Arts. Pakeha culture has a pioneer tradition of ‘do it yourself’, and ‘number 8 fencing wire’ workmanship, which is determined by functionality, immediate usefulness and cost cutting. This approach generally excludes considerations of good design principles or aesthetics. In early childhood settings the result of this type of approach can be disastrous, particularly in the development of outside play areas. However, the use of trained designers, architects and landscape architects can ensure that costly and ugly mistakes are prevented.
We have observed that many New Zealand early childhood centres, while providing a good range of resources and experiences for children, are so cluttered with materials and equipment that the aesthetic qualities of many objects are lost in a confusing jumble. Some centres cover their walls with ‘cute’paintings of commercial images or adult art, which is not only unimaginative but also dominating. Large murals also create a high degree of inflexibility in an area by locking the space into a particular style.
Presentation of children’s work is often not well considered and art work is either randomly or chaotically displayed on centre walls, or in some cases, entirely absent.
Good aesthetics result not only in an overall sense of attractiveness and beauty within an early childhood centre, but also gives pleasure to those who work and play in the centre, and to those who visit. It has been noted that centres that are dingy and unattractive can result in a negative perception about the children who attend the centre.
‘ …The need for beauty is particularly important in centres for handicapped children and their families. If parents associate only ugly places and experiences with their children, soon the child, too, is seen as ugly’.22
De-institutionalising early childhood environments is important not only because hundreds of New Zealand children spend a considerable part of their early years attending one type of service or other, but primarily because
‘…the trappings of an institution act as barriers to the development of warm, trusting relationships, a sense of community, and feelings of ownership and belonging.’23
Good aesthetic decisions can help to de-institutionalise environments such as early childhood centres but also hospitals and other institutions where young children are cared for, for long periods of time. We believe a good early childhood environment should be made as ‘homelike’ as possible. Often making an environment more beautiful and inviting, results in individual objects and equipment getting the respect and care they deserve, and they can then be used and appreciated to the fullest.
Mary Jalongo and Lauri Stamp (1997) describe some of the aesthetic considerations a teacher may need to make when setting up her classroom.
‘In order to arrange the room, to make it aesthetically pleasing, and make it inviting to children, she will need to do much more that staple a couple of pictures up on the bulletin board. She will need to plan ways to make the room operate smoothly and consider things such as traffic patterns and where to locate quiet, noisy and messy activities … she will need to arrange materials so that children can locate them readily and take responsibility for putting them back in place. To make her classroom more welcoming and homelike [she] has brought in several large pillows, her collection of art prints, an old rocking chair…and a vase for flowers, Display areas for children’s work are another consideration in making the room aesthetically pleasing. [She] has covered some low shelves with plastic shelf liner so that the children can display their clay creations. She also has covered her bulletin boards with paper in dark hues so that the children’s crayon self portraits will stand out…’ 24
Jalongo and Stamp point out that these aesthetic considerations support the teacher’s child-centred approach to teaching and that the environment that has been developed ‘speaks’ to the children about how she wants them to use it. The teacher is able to combine both beauty and functionality.