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Teaching critical thinking through art

Sharon Wilson is constantly impressed by just how interested toddlers are in learning.

What she doesn't understand, is why they lose that love as they get older.

“I think it's because we adults are always trying to dumb things down for children,” said the artist, who is known for her evocative portraits of children and family life. “We give them nonsense things and they become addicted to nonsense computerised games. The problems they are solving are nonsensical and not anything they can grow with.”

She hopes The Protectors, the e-book she illustrated and co-wrote with Margot Harvey, will give them something else to think about.

Bermuda serves as the backdrop: what should you do if your neighbours keep putting their trash out on the wrong day and it's attracting rats?

What would you do if your grandmother had dementia and disappeared from her home? How would you find her?

The questions are deliberately open-ended. “There's no right answer,” Ms Wilson said.

The idea is to get children of all ages talking — with each other and the adults in their lives — not just about practical solutions to problems but also about their feelings and fears.

“I don't think parents and schools deal enough with what is going on inside the child,” said Dr Harvey, a physician with Island Health Services. “They don't look at how they're feeling about certain situations.”

As the parent of a three-year-old and a two-year-old, she's seen how children's emotions can quickly go from one extreme to another.

“I often find myself saying, ‘I can see you're upset but I can't help you if you can't tell me what's wrong' or, ‘Slow down, use your words' when they just stare, whimper or grunt at me,” she said. “It's hard to get the information from them, but I think sometimes they just want to know that you are willing to listen.

“The book deals with fear. It deals with bullying. It deals with feeling sad about a certain problem.”

The Protectors refers to a series of paintings Ms Wilson started a year ago to show children that someone is looking out for them.

The first, of a fierce elephant looking out for a little boy, triggered the idea for the book.

“I saw the painting in her studio,” said Dr Harvey, who has taken art classes with Ms Wilson for the past three years.

“I thought that the elephant was going to use all of his power and physical strength to defend this child. I knew the boy was standing a little taller knowing that his buddy was there for him; maybe the boy thought he could take on the world.

“It's the feeling that you hope a child has when they know they have someone in their corner. As a parent, you hope your children feel this way about you — their defender, protector, guardian.”

It's unfortunate that all children don't have that privilege, Ms Wilson said. “They are dressed well and have enough food to eat but they don't feel there is someone there for them.”

Dr Harvey thought the paintings capable of inspiring students but neither woman knew how to get the paintings before a significant number of them.

The idea to write a book together was born. Ms Wilson, who had illustrated children's books before, “didn't want to end up with a thousand books sitting at home”, Dr Harvey said.

Her solution was an e-book on a customised USB drive.

The advantage was that they could control the publishing process down to the smallest detail. They could also order as many USB drives as they wanted, and they could update their content if they wanted to make a change. The process turned out to be more challenging than they expected.

Special boxes were made for the USB drives. They also made up stickers based on the illustrations in the file, using machinery Ms Wilson bought.

People are sometimes surprised when they get a copy.

“They think it's a teeny tiny book,” Ms Wilson said. “But it's amazing what you can do in your kitchen. I talked to one little girl who was in her last year of primary school. “She said, ‘Why don't neighbourhoods put dumpsters at the bottom of their roads, so people can leave their garbage there, when it's not trash day?' As a teacher I find it fascinating to watch children think and wrestle with the problems.”

When The Protectors came out, the two felt like trailblazers; they didn't know many others who had done anything similar.

Each copy comes with worksheets, and a glossary. Ms Wilson is hopeful it will be used in schools. “It's meant to be a learning tool,” she said.

Copies of The Protectors are $50 each. Look for Sharon Wilson on Facebook or call 238-2583

No right answers: artist Sharon Wilson and physician Margot Harvey with boxes containing their new e-book The Protectors, on USB drives. The Protectors is designed to help develop problem-solving skills in primary and middle schoolers(Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

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Published May 16, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated May 16, 2019 at 5:46 pm)

Teaching critical thinking through art

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