Finding the colour

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Professor Cathy Nutbrown says let children look for their rainbows


I watched three-and-a-half –year-old Rosie mixing paint recently. The large sheet of paper on her easel remained blank while she thoughtfully and deliberately chose one colour after another and slowly mixed them together. She stirred the colours with her brush, adding a new colour when she was satisfied with the previous mix.

First she put some red paint into a bowl, then she added yellow and seemed pleased with the new orange shade that emerged when she stirred. To this orange she added blue – making a darkish green. More yellow, and the green lightened – Rosie seemed pleased. In she tipped a large amount of blue; she frowned at the dark bluey-green that she was stirring.

Colour after colour was added, and stirred in. Eventually, no matter what colour she added she still got a shade of brown. Rosie continued to mix – she seemed to be purposeful – and I wondered what question she might have in her mind. What was she thinking?

Rosie was still mixing and stirring. A practitioner asked her, ‘What are you doing Rosie?’ No reply: Rosie continued looking intently at her blend and stir. The practitioner tried again: ‘Rosie, what are you going to paint?’ Rosie looked up, wearing a puzzled expression. ‘I’m not painting – I’m making a magic rainbow’.

Rosie explained that while it looked like there was only brown paint in the bowl, there was really a rainbow hiding inside and the brown was a magic trick to hide the rainbow.

We could analyse Rosie's explorations as early scientific experimentation. Some might consider perpetual mixing as a waste of paint and stop the process entirely. However we might respond to what Rosie did, we must take some delight – and learn a lesson. The delight lies in witnessing a child narrating her own experience as a hidden rainbow – instead of a rather dull muddy-looking liquid.

And the lesson? For me, it offers a reminder that it's always worth looking for the rainbow. No matter how gloomy and difficult things are, and we know that there are many policy issues to concern us, it is important to look for what is good.

There will be thousands of four-year-olds leaving their pre-school settings and beginning school in September. Let's wish them well and hope that they will always look for (and find) their rainbows.

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