Susie Mallett

Parent blog

Friday 1 October 2010

A creative upbringing

First posted on Conductor, Monday, 24 March 2008

Conductive Upbringing

"Petö by Painting"

Being an artist, art teacher and art therapist, as well as a conductor, I am very much aware of the importance of the process of drawing in the psychological development of children.

Early scribbling and drawing is not only important as a pre-writing skill, and in learning to form letters and to move the pen across the paper. It is also necessary for learning about life.

Investigation of the immediate surroundings, formation of a normal body schema, exploration of family relationships, are all developed through drawing.

This developmental process unable to take place fully when a child cannot grasp to hold a pencil, cannot move the fingers, the hand or the wrist, and when shoulder-movement is restricted.

Independently gathering the information needed to draw about this is inhibited when a child cannot crawl, roll, creep or walk.

A child who does none of this independently must be shown, assisted in discovering the world. How else will this child know that a toy train poking out from behind a sofa is not half a train, but also has a tender with the coal in it? How will this child discover that a table has three dimensions and has corners that are sharp, and how will he know that when I disappear out of sight that it is still me talking to him?

So what happens to these children or adults who have a disability that prevents them from reaching out in the world to gather the information necessary for healthy psychological development?

As a conductor I need to accompany them on this journey and show them how to gather life's skills.

I need to assist in the process that leads to holding a paintbrush loaded with gorgeous, sticky, vibrant paint. Provide situations where it is possible to move a paintbrush over black, white or green paper and look back and marvel at the results, the patterns and the interactions of colours and forms.

On Andrew Sutton's blog, 'Outside the Conductive Education goldfish bowl', I commented on how a child with a disability sees and reacts to the wonder of a full moon. In the case of drawing and painting we have to provide individuals with solutions in the same way as with the moon.

We need to show a child how to play with paint, pencils and paper, and how to use this creativity to make discoveries about life.

I remember, before I became a conductor, when I was working in a special school in Hampshire, the fun that I had with a six-year old pupil who, like I, just loved to paint.

For the "ART” lesson he would dress only in shorts. He could not hold a paint brush, it was difficult for him to balance while sitting, but he could move his arms and bring them to and away from most parts of his body.

We would set ourselves up on the floor surrounded by plates of bright, thick, gooey paint, and with our hands as paint brushes he would paint himself and sometimes me!

He could not speak, but he could laugh and smile which we did a lot of during his very individual "art” lesson!

When the art work he produced was particularly spectacular it was difficult to get him to take a shower!

At the same school other children would be creative by sitting in a sandbox filled not with sand but materials of different textures.

These children were offered at close range the experiences that they were not able to discover themselves through movement.

Throughout the years that I have been involved in Conductive Education I have always reached to "art” as a "tool of the trade”. Not only in the sense that I use artwork to produce storyboards to encourage speech, inspire craft work, develop movement etc., I also aid disabled children to develop the drawing skills that play such an important role in the psychological development of all children.

I can explore movement and creativity together with my clients . We can develop hand and arm movements, we can investigate the world together, open eyes and develop reactions to the surrounding environment. Together we can learn to paint it, often resulting in amazing works of art.

Our work is an upwards spiralling, interactive process, hopefully with the aim of independent creativity, resulting in the ability to learn about the world through drawing.

Ten years of creativity

I began work with one of my clients in a group when he was seven years old.

He had been involved Conductive Education for about a year in various centres around his country, which meant being weeks away from home and his siblings, which he did not like.

At eight years old he decided for himself that he only wanted to continue with Conductive Education only if I could come to his home. This I have been doing, for six to nine weeks a year, over the course of ten years.

My client has the diagnosis Athetoid Cerebral Palsy. He learnt to walk independently at three years of age and was therefore able to experience his small world quite thoroughly.

In the early years, however, he could not speak coherently so questioning was difficult. Therefore no answers were forthcoming to feed his developing and enquiring mind. He also found it very difficult to grasp, his jerky movements prevented him from producing the images and marks that he needed in order to represent something on paper.

The scribbling, so important in child development, both in letter-forming and in learning about life, had not taken place.

Together we developed ways to remedy this, it never being too late to learn!

Children usually draw and paint only up to the age when communicating with words becomes more efficient.

Of course throughout school they have to do "art” - but often unwillingly.

Very few children continue to draw or paint throughout the teenage years and on into adulthood. Those that do often develop cartoon or pop-art styles so as to remain acceptable amongst their peers.

So what happens in the psychological development of an athetoid boy who has difficulties speaking and cannot draw because he cannot hold a pencil?

Of course, as a conductor I am always considering the whole personality as I work. With this child we discovered the way ahead through developing his art skills. We experimented and our creativity was amazing. The whole family was involved in producing tools and material that he could handle.

We cut up thick poles and drilled them to fit pencils or brushes in. We experimented with painting in all positions, in sitting and standing, lying and kneeling.

At first I would be active in the process but by the age of nine this was no longer necessary – huge pieces of paper accommodated his jerky movements, success motivated him.

My client began independently to produce the snowmen figures of a four-year old, which led on to the stick men of a six-year old and the forming of shapes.

Once children can draw shapes they can represent anything that they want to on a piece of paper. From circles, triangles, squares and rectangles they can produce anything, from a picture representing family relationships, to an animal, a car or a house.

We began looking for these shapes in the space around us and working out how to draw and paint them.

At 14 years of age my client was able to discuss an idea and tell me which materials he needed, which colours I could help him mix and indicate any assistance that he needed.

We developed from using cheap children's paint, we purchased artist's water colours, sable paint brushes, canvases and expensive watercolour paper. We cut the paper so small so as to encourage the finest of movement, we took care not to bend the bristles on the paint brush. We talked about stroking the paper lovingly and not scrubbing the floor!

Most importantly my client discovered he was creating works of art that were being noticed.

Out into the world

Then came the terrible teens, puberty and strike.

How can one motivate a 15 year old boy who has been involved in Bobath therapy, CE, riding therapy, physiotherapy, manual therapy and Tomates Therapy for his entire life, but never been in a football team, on a trip to the city alone, or had a paper round.

It was the last of these that held the key to the solution.

All of his siblings delivered papers and he was so disheartened that he had no opportunity of supplementing his own pocket money in this way. He knew he was not able to put a newspaper in the letter box without tearing it.

We set about finding out what he could offer, what could he do.

He can paint. Then the answer can only be an exhibition.

Six months of hard work resulted in the first exhibition, in the autumn of 2006. The second one followed in spring 2008.

Both were professionally executed, with invitations (self-made of course), an opening speech (yes, his speech has developed so well that he composed it himself and delivered it in front of 30 people).

Both exhibitions were hugely successful and he had orders to keep him busy for months.

These first exhibitions took place in the secure environment of the tiny village where he lives. Now he plans to ask his doctor whether he can exhibit next year in the Children's Hospital in the nearest town. He is determined to organise it alone even down to the truck to transport the pictures!

Now at almost 18 years of age his motivation has returned, he is determined to be as independent as possible and understands that to achieve this he must exercise.

We paint, lying on the floor, sitting crossed legged, standing and stretching to a high canvas, kneeling and bending to a low one. He produces points for flowers or leaves with a finger tip or puts washes on giant canvases with a sweep of his arm.

With the painting planned, the size and the materials direct our "conduction”. We work far from the traditional lying, standing, sitting and walking programmes that I learnt about in the Petö Institute, but the principles are all there.

The uncoordinated child I met at seven years of age, who become an aggressive teenager, now stands before me as a confident, happy, young artist. Proud that he has learnt a skill which provides him and others with enjoyment.

In his village he is no longer seen as the disabled brother of his siblings, but as an artist.

Most importantly he is still "exercising”. He got through those rebellious teenage years through being given the feeling of success, finding meaning in his life.

He can contribute to the small community in which he lives.

He begins to realise that the words of Ándrás Petö who told his clients they must "exercise” until they reach eighty apply to him too.


The title painting to this blog is the first that is not one of my own it was painted by my client in 2006

"Petö by Painting" refers to "Painting by Numbers"

Andrew Sutton -

My comment that I added to 'Outside the Conductive Education goldfish bowl':

Susie Mallett said...

Yes it is possible “to explain and describe the real essence of CE without reducing it to the umbrella term complex and finding more explicit and less abstract terms than that used by the science of education”

CE provides everything one needs to learn to live/function in your chosen world. It is “systemic” because it deals with all the aspects of living as a whole, all of them interacting with each other, all influencing each other. It is “dynamic” because life is active, motivating, full of meaning and creative.

CE is “transactional” because life is constantly changing, relationships need to be renegotiated, new influences appear requiring readjustments to take place.

CE makes sure that this is a never-ending upwards spiral.

I was trained by Mária Hári. What do I think about this system of hers?

Mária Hári’s system is “complex” because she is dealing with an educational system that incorporates everything that would contribute to the development of non-disabled children, which actually means what a child learns in a ‘normal’ life through being active.

In the case of disabled children, who cannot take part in life in the usual way, this system has to be carefully considered in order to provide for every aspect of the children’s learning, allowing them to be active in the usual conditions of life.

Look for example at my lovely moon that we had yesterday evening. Point it out to non-disabled children and the questions will start pouring in, they will tip their heads and point at it and ask how far away is it, what is it made of, who lives there, the list is endless and endlessly creative.

With disabled children do we even know if the child is seeing what we are pointing out. Can they tip their heads to look? Maybe they see 2 moons, a blue moon or a bright orange moon. If a child cannot speak, no questions get asked, do we anticipate the questions and provide equally creative answers?

I think András Pető tried to simplify this complicated process and built up the CE programmes in order to provide a way for this system of learning to work. This is a system that provides normal living experiences for children who cannot experience them in the normal fashion. The children therefore develop into functioning people through having all the necessary normal life experiences.

Isn't it actually life that is complex, and the way a baby/child/adult learns? Therefore Mária Hári's system must be complex because that is what she is talking about.

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