A few years ago, Anne Kjær Riechert began asking children to draw their dreams. It has turned into a surprisingly insightful way to visualize kids’ minds and psyche.
Tell us how you came up with asking kids to draw their dreams.
In 2006, I was working in Johannesburg, South Africa, for an organization called Nkosi’s Haven. It takes care of HIV-positive mothers, their children, and orphans.
The shelter was named after a Nkosi Johnson, a child born HIV-positive who died at a young age. His dream had always been to help children with the same fate as his, which is exactly what the organization ended up doing. When I was there, it was in the process of expanding to take in more people. Of course they needed money for that, and as my final university project, I helped them come up with different strategies for fundraising.
Inspired by Nkosi’s dream, I had started to wonder how we could help the kids to express their wishes, aspirations and dreams. I eventually figured that we could just ask them. And since we were fundraising, we decided it would make sense to have them put their response into a drawing, since that would be more visual and colorful.
And the results inspired you to turn it into an even bigger project?
Looking at the dreams of these kids from South Africa, I wondered what kids in Norway – where I was raised – were dreaming of. Would they draw the same thing? Would it be different? Maybe it would be the same thing, but they would express it very differently.
The impact of two very different childhoods on their thinking and drawing?
Exactly. What difference does it make if you’re an orphan in South Africa in comparison to a wealthy Norwegian child? So I organized a workshop with about 70 kids at a Norwegian school. Then I had about hundreds of drawings and wondered what to do with them. Conveniently my mother works at a museum, so I called her up and asked whether we could do an exhibition…
How can we picture the exhibition?
We wanted to give people space to make their own interpretations. At the back of every drawing we always ask the kids for their name, date of the drawing, age and location – and what the drawing shows. We put that on the front for visitors to see but it is still unlimited amount of information for a viewer to work with.
How did the kids react to seeing these images?
Before showing the images to children, we usually tell them where the pictures are from. “Do you know where Mumbai is?” And they say “Yes, India” and say whatever their parents or teachers have taught them about the country: That it is really poor and that people have nothing to eat. And then we show them the pictures, which – in the case of India – often feature dreams about a clean environment. “So you thought they would dream about food, but what they really dream about is conserving the environment. What can we learn from that?” The kids then figure that is wrong to make assumptions. These guided tours are very interesting, because it allows us to interact with he children. Kids often see the wildest things in the images, things we would not pick out as an adult. Small things, tiny details.
Kids draw some things we don’t understand and other kids see things that we overlook. Maybe it is a project not meant for adults?
I think it is suitable for adults as well. But kids just see things so differently. It makes an even bigger difference where we show it: In Japan, they will look at it differently than in Denmark. It really depends on the cultural and socioeconomic background.
You have shown us some pictures in which African kids have drawn themselves with white skin…
It is common to just draw outlines and to not fill in faces. So even if it is a black kid that uses a brown outline, the inside will always be the paper color. Since that is usually white, it appears to us as white. But in their minds, it might be a very black person. And keep in mind that many kids don’t like to draw themselves into the picture.
Why do you think that is?
I am not entirely sure. It is harder to do.
Does it have to do something with age? Younger kids have more trouble relating to themselves?
That is true for very young ones. But the older ones will be way more self-conscious and say that they can’t make a portrait of themselves. They feel insecure about seeing themselves on a piece of paper.
What is the scale of your project today, almost ten years later?
We have done workshops in 33 countries and with about 4000 kids in total. The actual number of workshops I don’t have, but we have about 4000 drawings.
What are you planning on doing with them?
When I started the project, I didn’t know much about databases or big data, so after a few years, when my parents started getting a bit upset about having to store so many pictures, I made a selection of the ones with the best stories and threw the others away. In retrospect, I can’t believe I did that… not just because so much work went into the drawings but also because I threw away all the data they contained. Now, I am keeping images and I am hoping to some day build a database – a database of dreams – to index them, see which ones are the most popular and to see how they change over time.
This has long stopped being a fundraising project and has become an exploration of what kids aspire in different contexts…
…and how that is changing over time. We can see that kids in the West – including Russia – now dream about becoming a YouTube star. That platform was still in its infancy when we started. But over the years, it has become very popular among kids. And the great thing about that is that we can tell this to kids to show them that the future is way beyond what they can imagine: There will be jobs that don’t exist yet.
You mentioned that you also want kids to see these dreams and think about their own role in the world.
I want them to be inspired by each other. During a workshop we had the other day, a kid from Palestine drew a very colorful airplane. It was remarkably similar to one from Japan that he had seen beforehand. It is symbolically nice that a kid from Palestine is inspired by something drawn two or three years ago on the other side of the world. Whether that is an accurate reflection of his dream is a bit hard to tell, but at least there is a symbolic value in that inspiration.
That inspiration also manifests itself in the composition of the images.
Kids put drawings together in another way than we would. There usually has to be something on the top or the bottom of the image, grass or water.
Everything has to stand on something…
It shows you that they think in a very modular way and stack elements together.
Funnily enough, that way of thinking doesn’t have to be logical. On one of the drawings, a soccer field is being shown from above – but the players from the side. It looks as though the players are laying on the pitch.
Perspective is one of these things that each kid has their own take on. We recently worked with a child that wants to become an architect – and she drew using two perspectives at the same time: Her images show a view from the top and from the side.
A kid who draws like this now probably won’t do it five years down the road. Which is a shame, because in a sense it means that certain elements of creativity are being killed off during the aging process. Why not show two perspectives at the same time? After all, drawing has the ability to do what a human eye can’t.
She intrigues me because I thought she was younger. The way she draws is more like that of a younger child that I have seen in other workshops. I thought she was 8. But when I realized she was 12, I was surprised, because 12 year olds usually draw much more realistic. These are two girls in the same workshops, drawing very differently. Is it based on education? Experience? Will this girl start drawing like the other?
She probably will.
But that means she will stop using this style we now find more artistic, exciting and intriguing. Something happens in their development and in how we teach kids in school or how they teach each other.
One of the skills we are trying to teach children is to think outside of the box. In that sense, drawing a picture like this is an ability we lose as adults, since we try to make it as lifelike as possible.
When we put down the paper on the kids’ tables, it is in landscape format. This girl was the only one of the group who decided to turn it into portrait format – she was already and outlier doing just that. Her ability to think differently than other children is possibly something she should try to hold on to if she wanted to become an architect.
Isn’t it ironic that adults will try anything, from meditation to drug use, to return to this child-like state of creativity after having shed all through a combination of nurture, education and conformity.
It is – especially because it is a useful skill. For instance, companies often need a certain creativity for their brain-storming sessions. And yet so many people struggle to express themselves visually. They have lost their ability to draw. Many companies feel like as long as they have post-it notes, they are a creative company. But there is a whole methodology on to how to use them properly and in a way that people understand them. Don’t use too many words. Try using drawings and people will remember it – even a bad drawing contains so much embedded information.
Can companies tap into children’s creativity somehow?
IXDS, an interface innovation company from Berlin has created hackathons for under 10-year olds, where they get their employees to spend their Saturdays working with kids. By bringing adults and kids together, you can tap in to that resource in order to inspire the employees. And when I was in Brazil, I spent three days with a lady that has started Moleque de Idéias, a tech start-up where the employees spend 50% of their time working with kids. They are saying: Its not just us who teach the kids. They teach us just as much as we teach them.
Kids don’t suffer from many of the limitations we do – they don’t take the impossible for granted.
That is useful, but also a fine line to walk. Younger kids are more likely to use fantasy. But the older they get, the more they try to copy society in order to do what is expected of them. Just as adults, they are influenced or maybe limited by what they have experienced. Younger ones are more likely to make these leaps, to put two cool things together – like being a pilot and having a car.
They combine them in the image?
One time, a Japanese kid drew a dog-trimming business he wanted to run – in the middle of a Formula One racetrack. It might not exactly be possible to combine a race track with a dog trimming business, but there is something to be said about combining two exciting things.
Of the many drawings we have seen, one of the most interesting ones was from a boy who wants to be a turtle – because “turtles are slow”. That is the most badass answer, because it is so nonconformist.
That one is interesting on so many levels. Because he does something very different from what we want him to do. He still feels like he should be there and draw, which he doesn’t necessarily have to. And his turtle was perfect. If he was so nonconformist, he could have drawn it in a million different ways, could have drawn a cross and claimed it was a turtle – but he didn’t. There is some conformity in the nonconformity. And he was really slow. One of these soccer players, who just wasn’t into drawing. But he didn’t dream about being a soccer player – but about being a turtle.
What happens to all this creativity children can express so vividly?
It’s not just creativity but also the willingness to do something new. Ask kids to draw their dreams and they don’t blink. Try doing the same with adults, and they would be reluctant to – not because we have run out of dreams but because it seems irrational to put them in a drawing. When we grow up, drawing becomes a skill and is no longer seen purely as an expression of creativity. It would be interesting to talk to teachers and ask them what they actively nurture: A way of drawing or a way of thinking.