If you have young children you have probably seen the 2017 Disney Pixar film Coco. If you haven’t you should put it on your watch list. The plot may be a bit advanced for younger viewers but the visuals are enchanting. Based on the Mexican Day of the Dead/Dia De Meuertos festival, Coco tells the story of a young boy transported to the Land of the Dead where he has to find his Great Grandfather who can help him return home. Warning: This film will probably bring a tear to your eye!
My children loved watching the spirit animals such as Dante and Pepita. Our viewing of the film coincided with the delivery of a package from my sister who had been working in Oaxaca, Mexico. She’d sent us our very own Alebrijes from the region. The small, carved wooden figures are the stuff of imagination. Each one unique, a hybrid of animal characteristics and bright colours and patterns.
Although Mexican Folk Art boasts a long, rich heritage, the history of the Alebrije is relatively short. The creatures appeared in a dream to Pedro Linares in 1930’s. He was unconscious due to an illness and when he awoke, he turned his dream to reality by creating the bright, paper mâché sculptures. The creatures now take the form of wood carvings but large sculptures can also be found around the region and Alebrije parades take place in Mexico City.
Make Your Own Alebrije
Making your own Alebrije is a lovely creative activity that you can do as a family.
Imagining creatures, images and colours that don’t conform to any reality can be an enjoyable and liberating experience and usually give rise to some laughs as well. Children delight in seeing their parents use imagination and engage in the same activity as them.
To help the process along, we turned it into a structured game which involved throwing a dice. Games with rules promote collaboration and turn taking in young children. We made four lists of six animal characteristics. Each list reflected one of the natural elements as a reflection of another important theme found in Mexican Folk Art. Each ‘player’ rolled the dice four times to gather four characteristics they could use to create their Alebrije.
Here are some suggestions:
Fire: Fox face, lion mane, squirrel tail, tiger stripes, dragon wings, snake tongue.
Earth: Cat eyes, wolf face, rabbit ears, bear body, deer antlers, monkey tail.
Water: Fish fins, dolphin tail, turtle shell, shark teeth, otter body, crab claws.
Air: Swan neck, bird beak, bird wings, flamingo legs, feathers, eagle claws.
Creativity and Imagination
When children begin to imagine images and ideas in their mind’s eye, they are laying the foundations for problem solving and critical thinking.
“Imagination, as the basis of all creative activity, is an important component of absolutely all aspects of cultural life” Vygotsky, 2004
Creative play allows children to express themselves and experiment with their ideas and memories. One of the best ways to encourage creativity is to provide a child with the tools and materials they may need, but limit the instructions and intervention. We can scaffold creativity though by guiding children through a process such as the game to create an Alebrije. It offers them a foundation and structure that they can use in the future and can build the confidence of a child who’s more reluctant to ‘get stuck in’.
I love using play and art as a way to explore different cultures and traditions. In a global society, it’s important for our children to be exposed to beauty and crafts from around the world as art can tell us so much about the people and community who create it.
Vygotsky, 2004. Imagination and Creativity in Childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology. Vol 42, 1.