Volume V- 2000

Magical Boxes: A Window to the Imagination
by Lora Friedman and Linda Simone

         Lora Friedman is an assemblage artist, a published poet and president of Write Angle Communications. She assisted in the development of a whole-language thematic unit for grades Pre-K through 5, created by teachers at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Linda Simone's poetry has appeared in Black Buzzard Review Westview and other journals and anthologies. Her children's picture book, is forthcoming from Richard C. Owen Publishers, and she has completed the first in a series of rhyming riddle books for children. She is past president of the National Writers Union Westchester, NY/Fairfield, CT Chapter.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
- Pablo Picasso


         This article is about children who use found objects such as coins, keys, plastic fish and mirrors to transform small boxes into representations of their dreams and perceptions, and who describe this activity in poetry and prose. The project grew out of the authors' creative collaboration, which began in 1987. Friedman is an assemblage artist who makes "light boxes" or "boxed poems" out of found objects. Her work is inspired by the great American shadow-box artist, Joseph Cornell. Simone, a poet, was intrigued by Friedman's light boxes and began keeping notes in a journal after contemplating them. The journal notes gave rise to poetry and poetic prose which brought Simone to a new level in her own creative development. The authors were struck by the power of visual art as a catalyst for creative writing. Imagery begetting imagery, their two imaginations began to converse. (The collaborative work that emerged from these cross-disciplinary explorations has been shown over the years, most notably, at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY.) The authors decided to share the magical process they had discovered with children. An account of the artists' research, rationale and experiences pilot testing Magical Boxes follows. They have since presented teacher training workshops at the Conference on the Role of the Imagination in Language Learning at New Jersey City University, the Writing Project at Columbia University Teachers College, the New York City Art Teachers Association, the New York State Art Teachers Association, and Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.

Sister Arts

         Writing and visual art are complementary processes, "sister arts." It has been said that writing is a way of seeing. The idea of poets responding to the works of visual artists is not new: William Carlos Williams was inspired by Brueghel; Rilke by Van Gogh; Wallace Stevens by Picasso; Maya Angelou by Jean-Michel Basquiat; and Pablo Neruda by Joseph Cornell, to name a few (Bates 1994). Responding to a painting, sculpture or other visual art form stirs the writer's emotions and taps into his or her unconscious. This interaction often produces strong poetic language and vivid imagery. A similar process takes place in language acquisition: sensory stimulation leads to perception, perception leads to thought, thought leads to language. These concepts are echoed by Hubbard (1989, p. 150): "Pictures as well as words are important to human beings in their communication; we need to expand our narrow definition of literacy to include visual dimensions and in so doing answer the call to researchers for the recognition of multi-literacies and ways these literacies can work to complement each other." The authors hope that their work will contribute to the growing field of cross-disciplinary learning and literacy through the arts.

Creativity: Imagination in Action

         All human beings are born with creative potential. However, especially in young children, creativity must be nurtured in order to thrive and grow. According to Alex F. Osborn (1963, pp. 65, 70, 157), the creative process is a combination of imagination and effort. It is active rather than passive, is born from firsthand--rather than vicarious--experience, and thrives on free experimentation. Today more than ever, vicarious experiences abound. Youngsters are bombarded by external stimuli, from TV's and computers to theme parks and "not-to-be-missed" movies, complete with product tie-ins. They are seduced by concepts of fun, enchantment and wonder conceived not in their own imaginations, but in prepackaged fantasies purveyed by adult marketers. Native American poet Joy Harjo (1996, p. 18) aptly labels television "the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming." While these options have a place in entertaining youngsters and providing a needed respite for stressed-out parents, the question remains: When do our children get to explore and discover the limitless possibilities of their own creativity?

The Critical Fourth Grade

         Studies, most notably by E. Paul Torrance (1962), have shown that the fourth grade represents a pivotal stage in the development of creativity. Children ages 8-10 are enthusiastic, energetic, restless, imaginative and capable of reasoning. At the same time, because of their increased skill and desire to do things correctly, they are attracted to stereotypes and copying. For this reason, many fourth-graders teeter on the brink of having their creative spark extinguished, perhaps forever. Critical for children in this age group are frequent opportunities for creative experimentation and self-expression. "The more they are challenged to use their own abilities and the more they recognize the individuality in their work, the sooner they will relinquish the supporting crutch of imitation" (D'Amico and Buchman 1972, p. 88). Often, however, such opportunities are not available or possible due to mandated school curricula, overworked teachers or scarce family quality time. Arts experiences can be an important path to self-discovery.

Magical Boxes Goes to Class

         Drawing from their personal experience and the insights of the experts cited above, the authors developed a thematic unit called Magical Boxes. In fall 1994, with the cooperation of a multidisciplinary team of classroom teachers led by a supportive district language arts coordinator, they pilot-tested the unit over a six-week period with 80 fourth graders at the Greenvale School in Eastchester, NY. The authors first met with the teachers to explain how the unit combines visual art and journal writing. Three classroom visits were approved, each to take place within 90 minutes. The theme of the boxes, although linked with subjects across the disciplines, was left purposefully broad, since the success of the program hinges on the children's freedom to work on what they care most about. At the outset, some of the teachers described the children as enthusiastic, but not particularly creative. The authors were determined to challenge this perception. They share the concern of poet and educator Georgia Heard (1989, p. 14), "Many people don't believe children have their own ideas, their own lives to express. After a while, children begin to believe this is true."

Day One: Meet the Artists

         The first classroom visit was called "Meet the Artists." The authors brought Friedman's shadowbox assemblages for the children to see, and Simone's poetry and poetic prose, written in response to those same boxes, for them to hear. During that first visit, the authors discussed the history of box art in many cultures. They focused on artist Joseph Cornell, showing slides of his work. Born in Nyack, NY, Cornell had a unique gift for imbuing ordinary objects with a magical, almost spiritual quality. A brilliant eccentric, he was both an obsessive collector and a bibliophile. He kept voluminous journals that reflected keen observations about people he knew or chanced to meet, and the beauty he perceived in nature.

The Hunt for Dime Store Treasures

         Cornell lived quietly in Queens, NY, with his mother and invalid brother. He never traveled farther than Manhattan antique shops, junk shops and secondhand book stores to search for dime store treasures. These served as the raw material for his art, which today is housed in some of the world's great museums and in private collections. He was very fond of children, perhaps because of his own childlike appreciation of and reverence for the small details of life. As one biographer wrote, Cornell felt that children "were filled with the innocence needed to see" (Ashton 1989, p. 224). Shortly before his death, the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture hosted an exhibition of Cornell's work, exclusively for school children. The work was hung at child's-eye level.

Imagine Your World

         The Greenvale children immediately connected to Cornell's work. The authors presented a theme to guide them: Imagine a world that you would like to enter and explore, if you could shrink yourself to the size of a small box--and create that world in your own magical box. The authors talked about the importance for each child of choosing a "special object" that resonated with personal meaning for them. This object would become the focal point--the heart or soul of their box. The children were told that they would be creating visual art works and doing free writing in their own "process journals." They were asked to go on a Magical Treasure Hunt at home that evening, and bring to class many inexpensive found objects such as scraps of cloth, shells, plastic flowers, photos, buttons, beads, feathers and other items on a suggested list. They also were asked to search for their special object. If they had trouble with this, they were reassured that they could choose one from the class treasure trove.

Day Two: A Magical Garage Sale

         Next came the Magical Garage Sale. When they got to class next day, the children put the objects from home in containers. Each child could go through the containers and take up to 15 items. The number was limited to encourage the careful choice of elements. Everyone got to select a sturdy box of manageable scale (mainly donated cigar boxes) within which to safely explore their imaginations. They also were provided with paper on which to chronicle their creative process. After the shopping spree, the students were instructed to begin creating their shadowbox assemblages, allowing their special object to be the driving force. They also were asked to make journal entries (for their eyes only, unless they wished to share them later), recording their thoughts and feelings as they worked on their box. While the children worked to the soft strains of Mozart, the authors walked around to offer help as needed. When their boxes were completed, the children were encouraged to expand journal entries or to use them as a springboard for a poem or story about their magical box. Here are some of the results:

I think my magic box is colorful. It has a sun on the top of it's head. Inside is a world of snow and night. It has an aurora color and yellow, and green stars.
- Mai

         Kristina used a tropical fish refrigerator magnet as the focal point of a small cigar box, which she painted a vivid turquoise, inside and out. She filled the floor of the box with pastel-colored aquarium pebbles and small, delicate, green velvet wire-stemmed leaves and wrote: One day, I took an adventure under the sea and saw lots of things. I saw a big fish with tropical colors. I swam around and saw lots of beautiful seashells. They were shades of purple, white, and light brown. Then, I saw a really big piece of coral. It kind of looked like a jungle gym, so I played on it. I jumped around and swam under it, and you should have seen all the bubbles I made. Then, something caught my eye. It looked like gold and silver treasures. I went over to it and it really was gold and silver. There was a round piece of wood in a corner and on top of it was diamonds. I didn't take all of the gold, silver and diamonds. I only took one of each because I wanted to leave some.... I hope I could go back again, and maybe this time you could come. You'll love it.

Day Three: The Magical Museum

         During the authors' last visit, 80 boxes were showcased around the classroom and all the children had the opportunity to view their classmates' work. Each child was asked to write a short emotional or observational response to one box that they found particularly intriguing. Everyone was invited to read their writing aloud to the group. As one teacher observed, "The oral presentation made a connection between the artist and writer." The exercise of writing about another child's box also provided an opportunity to get to know and appreciate something about another person. After the completion of the program activities, the children's magical boxes and writings were displayed at the annual district arts festival and other community venues.

More Comments from the Box Makers

A few months ago we made magic boxes. I made a hobby box, in it there were baseball and football cards, plastic dinosaurs and Styrofoam balls. When doing the magical box I wrote a story about a friend's box. It looked like dinosaurs invading the city. What I learned the most was people have different ideas than me.
- Greg

When I was working on my magic box I had a dream that magic boxes were countries, and each had a story of how they began. Some say by imagination others say it was by art. I say it was by skill and images to bring them to life.

I thought that the idea of making the magic boxes was good. You got to use your imagination and didn't have to worry if it's wrong or right. I had a lot of fun creating mine. It would be fun to imagine that I could go in my magic box. It would be fun to go into my box because some of the things that are very special, like little glass animals that my grandma gave to me.
- Jenna

I enjoyed the magic box making because it was creative. I could express myself and make my own world. Mine was about a space station that had a lot of ships in it. It was also nice to be able to put anything on my magic box.

Sachiko: Preserving Precious Memories

         For Sachiko, taking part in Magical Boxes allowed her to summon up strong emotion and longing for her native Japan and the family and friends she left behind. Using found objects, she created a delicate, "celestial" memory box that combined fabric scraps, beads, feathers, family photos and stamps from Japan. The top of the box was covered in a deep blue cloth, dotted with starry glitter and beads. As if she were wishing on a star, Sachiko wrote this poem:

I came from Japan
long ago, I could hardly
about Japan, where
I was born,
about my friends
I put all of my memories
from Japan
into my
magic box
and that is why it
is special to me

Luis:Connecting Through a Common Language

         Teachers assumed that Luis, a quiet boy who communicated only in Spanish, would be unable to comprehend the Magical Boxes activities. But the authors could not help but notice his interest. Luis watched intently as the other children participated. When the authors gave him a box to explore, he instinctively knew what to do. Using bits of flooring, seashells, rings and small animal figures linked together by thin rainbow stripes of tempera paint, he employed the language of visual imagery to allow others a glimpse into his world. Then, he wrote in Spanish about the objects used to create his box. His writing was translated and typed in Spanish and English for all to see. Not only did this help Luis to feel a part of the group, it helped the other children, as well as the teachers, to see that, like his classmates, Luis had a unique vision to share.

Jennifer: Finding an Imaginative Focus

         Initially described by her teachers as a scattered child who had difficulty focusing on her school work, Jennifer astonished everyone. Within the safe and intimate confines of a cigar box, she created her ideal bedroom--exquisitely detailed right down to the telephone, string of pearls, miniature shoes on the floor and tiny boom box that played music. Jennifer beamed when her box was accepted for inclusion in the Westchester Arts Council's "Creative Images" countywide exhibit of artwork by school children.

Felicia and Lauren: Going with Flow

         Daniel Goleman (1995, p.91) describes "flow" as a state of mind devoid of self-consciousness or fear of failure. This condition typically arises when a person is engaged in a task that naturally sparks their interest while challenging them to do their best. A person in flow instinctively operates at peak performance: "...the sheer pleasure of the act itself is what motivates them." In their journals, Felicia and Lauren seem to express what it's like to be in a state of flow:

I love decorating boxes. So one day I decorated one in school. I decorated it with things I like and things I like to play with...One day when we got to work on our box I didn't glue anything onto it because I was thinking the whole time of what I wanted to put in it. I thought it would look cool if I put mirrors into my box to look all around the box. I was saying, "I like birds, maybe I could put feathers around the box and little beads to look like fruit." One last thing I put on my box was little chipmunks looking into the mirrors with hats on. So when I was done I loved it because it described what I like, and what I like to do.
- Felicia

         Felicia's vivid account provides a window to her creative process. Instead of randomly pasting objects onto a box to complete the assigned task, Felicia and her classmates were encouraged to consider their choices carefully, using their process journals to help crystallize their ideas. Lauren, too, offers a surprisingly sophisticated and illuminating glimpse of the mental process she went through in creating her box:

While I was doing my box I thought comforting thoughts which were nice, relaxing and soothing. I kept on putting myself inside the box. That's what kept my brain going. I knew if I stayed inside the box I would finally make a real pretty box, and I did.

Sharing the Magic

         At the conclusion of the Magical Boxes pilot program, the authors were surprised at how eloquently the children expressed themselves when writing about their own work and the work of their peers. They also noticed that many children seemed to relish the notion that there is no right or wrong when it comes to creativity. The young artists shared found objects with one another, generously offering to their classmates things they had brought in from home or chose not to use in their assemblage. The authors also were struck by the flexibility demonstrated by some children who willingly fashioned a needed object out of the available materials when a ready-made item could not be found. Permitted to move freely about the room and observe others, the children honored their classmates' need to concentrate, and showed regard for the value of each individual's mode of self-expression--all without prompting from the adults. This atmosphere of mutual caring carried over to Day Three, when the children viewed and wrote about each other's work. Each magical box was treated as the reflection of a unique inner world which, by its very nature, warranted appreciation and respect on the part of the viewer.


Ashton, D. 1989. A Joseph Cornell Album, reprinted edition. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc.

Bates, M. 1994. "Imitating the Greats: Art as Catalyst in Student Poetry." Poet Magazine 5.3: pp. 10-12, 46.

Caws, M.A., ed. 1993. Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files. New York: Thames and Hudson.

D'Amico, V. and A. Buchman. 1972. Assemblage: A New Dimension of Creative Teaching in Action . New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Goleman, D. 1995. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Harjo, J. 1996. "A Postcolonial Tale." In: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky. New York: W.W. Norton.

Heard, G. 1989. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun: Teaching Poetry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hubbard, R. 1989. Authors of Pictures, Draughtsmen of Words. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

May, R. 1975. The Courage to Create. New York: Norton.

Osborn, A. F. 1963. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving, 3rd revised edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Torrance, E. P. 1962. "Cultural Discontinuities and the Development of Originality in Thinking." 6 Exceptional Children 29 : 2-13.

Authors' Note

For more information about the Magical Boxes thematic unit, contact: Linda Simone and Lora Friedman, c/o :

88 Dunwoodie Street,
Scarsdale, NY 10583-5523

phone: (914) 472-8438;
: Lindsim1@aol.com

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