Dr. Felicity McArdle Full Review
Rapunzel’s Supermarket: About Imagination or a Shopping List?

The title of Ursula Kolbe’s book, Rapunzel’s Supermarket, encapsulates the meeting point betweeen things imaginative and things practical, and this book is a rich and beautiful exploration of a question frequently asked by teachers and parents alike: ‘How do I know how much help to give?

The taboos around direct instruction in the arts in early childhood are powerful and enduring, even in the face of much that has been written in recent years on the need for children to have both freedom for self-expression and instruction in skills and techniques (Kolbe 1991; Wright 1991; Bresler 1993; Ashton 1997; McArdle 1999). There is a great reluctance to describe any work with young children as ‘teaching’, and particularly in the visual arts. Yet the development of artistry is not a matter of natural unfolding – as many adults will attest. How many times do you hear someone say ‘I’m not arty’?

The author manages to provide an absorbing analysis of all that is involved in visual arts education: not just the doing, but also the appreciating and understanding. The book looks and reads like the work of an artist, and is both a “practical guide to children’s image-making and a celebration of what they can do” (Kolbe, 2001, p.7). The cover signals Kolbe’s message about “learning to see”, combining the beauty of nature with the beauty of children’s ways of seeing. This is the recurring theme throughout the book, both through reproductions of some of the artist/author’s favourite artworks and poetry, photographs of children absorbed in their work of artmaking, photographs of ideas and resources and the written text.

The starting point for an enquiry into art education, according to the layout of Kolbe’s book, is the “Magic in everyday things” (pp.11-40), and this first section is framed by Kolbe’s reminding us of the sense of wonder in all that we touch, hear, smell and taste. She deals with the elements – marks and lines, shapes, forms colours, textures, patterns, light and shadow – each confirmed and supplemented by rich photography of children and their work. A visit to the fruit market is used as an illustration of the kind of gift parents spontaneously give their children when they share the delights of the everyday world (Kolbe, 2001, p.12).

The next section, “Kinds of image-making” (pp.41-101), examines each of the forms of visual arts that Kolbe considers important to children’s experience – drawing, painting, claywork, collage, building and construction, printmaking, rubbings, bookmaking, and puppet people. What particularly appeals to me here is Kolbe’s organisational structure for this information. Rather than arranging this story around developmental levels, ages and stages, or never-fail steps to follow, Kolbe takes the reader through what she considers the pathway for supporting, guiding and also challenging children – could we call this ‘teaching’?!

But Kolbe’s approach to the visual arts is not that of a formula for successful lesson plans, or quick tips for parents to do at home. In the next section, she turns to “sharing interests and passions” (pp.102-113), and recounts how the different media influence what children do. Here she makes the point that it is the children’s interests that provide the signposts, but there is a role for the teacher, beyond being an appreciative watcher. Through responding to their observations of children’s questions, interests and needs, the teacher can assist the children in reaching new understandings. The rich cases documented in this section serve as roadmaps for teachers and parents who are prepared to be “fellow explorers … enjoying the journey” (p. 112).

The final section, “Other matters” (pp. 114-123), draws upon Kolbe’s years of experience as an artist and educator, and offers practical answers for some of those frequently raised questions: creating studio spaces; displaying and documenting children’s work, colouring-in books; copying; gallery visits; and some recipes for paint, paste and dough.

The book seduces the reader immediately, as it is both playful and serious, engaging, personal and a visual delight – a “rich mosaic of images, ideas and poetry to enchant the eye and feed the imagination” (p.8). Kolbe is generous with her ideas, experience, knowledge and artist’s eye. For those who wish to take their thinking further, she also shares her recommendations for further reading, including the Reggio Emilia experience, practical suggestions for hands-on experiences, developmental information, and an “eclectic mix of titles” on “art, architecture, aesthetics, imagination and enchantment” (p.125).

There is much more that might be said about this book, but let me add one final selfish reason for my delight in this book. When asked by parents, pre-service or in-service teachers, for explanations of many of the ideals I hold strongly about the best ways to work with young children in the arts, I can now say, “Read Ursula Kolbe’s book”, with complete confidence that this will provide both practical strategies and the reasoning and purpose that informs this work. While Kolbe advises that the book is not meant to be read from beginning to end I began with the intent of dipping into it for ideas, but was quickly seduced into a thorough read from cover to cover.

Ashton, L.(1997). Repositioning children’s drawing development: from rungs to rings. Australian Art Education 20 (3).
Bresler, L. (1993). Three orientations to arts in the primary grades: Implications for curriculum reform. Arts Education in Early Childhood Symposium, Arts Education Policy Review 94(4, March/April).
Kolbe, U. (1991). Planning a visual arts program for children under 5 years. In S.Wright (Ed.) The arts in early childhood. (pp. 25-52) Australia: Prentice Hall.
McArdle, F. (1999). Art and Young Children: Doing it properly. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 1(1): 102-105.
Wright, S., (Ed.) (1991). The arts in early childhood. Australia: Prentice Hall.

Reviewed by Dr. Felicity McArdle, School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology. In Educating Young Children: Learning and Teaching in the Early Childhood Years 7(3) 2001. This review has been reprinted with kind permission from the author and the publishers: Early Childhood Teachers Association & Queensland University of Queensland.