KITES USED FOR WORK WITH VULNERABLE CHILDREN
Diana C. Ross
From Discourse 10
I started teaching kites to street children and young people at risk in August 2000, as a volunteer at Grupo Encuentro, a day center in the Alto (High Place), as the low-income neighborhoods of Bariloche,1 Argentina are called. Although I had taught English for many years in both public and private schools, I had no experience in working with children living in poverty. In dealing with the challenges of non- formal education, I had much to learn, I very soon found out.
Grupo Encuentro2 is a non-government, grassroots organization created to address the needs and rights of street children. There was massive social and economic upheaval in Argentina during the months leading up to the 2001 crisis, and as a result, great distress and economic deprivation. Barter clubs3 sprouted up everywhere, and organizations like Grupo Encuentro, became soup kitchens, drop-in centers and night shelters for children from disintegrated families, in an effort to alleviate the hard times that had fallen on many in the Alto.
Among those who came regularly to Grupo Encuentro, there were street working children, who spent most of their time on the streets fending for themselves but returned home at the end of the day, and others who had run away from their families and lived temporarily in ranchadas, hovels
made from scrap metal, cardboard, and other junk, which they set up in vacant plots and abandoned buildings in the town center, or even in a small cave dug into the rampart by the lake, deprived of family care and protection.
Some of these children resorted to petty theft and were regular consumers of carpet glue. The sale of this product to minors is now banned in Bariloche. Others engaged in some kind of economic activity, mostly begging in the town center, especially outside supermarkets, or rubbish picking, either on their own, or under the supervision of a parent or other relation, often late at night and in freezing weather. In many cases, their earnings were the main upkeep for their families.
They were often harassed by the police, especially the teenage boys, in regular “cleanups” of the tourist and shopping areas.
People at Encuentro warned me it was not easy to get the kids enthusiastic about activities. Due to the demands of providing around three hundred and fifty lunches per day in the community dining room, and attending to the more pressing issues, like assistance and medical care for deprived children and their families, there was no one giving organized art workshops at the time. There were too many problems and too few people to deal with them all.
In this context, I offered the kite workshops, and here is the story of what happened.
AN UNPROMISING BEGINNING
I had been making kites for about a year and a half, relying on Margaret Greger’s Kites for Everyone,4 Kiteworks by Maxwell Eden,5 and whatever kite-related material I could get my hands on, not easy here in Patagonia. I would email friends in the Buenos Aires kite club, BaToCo,6 whenever I got stuck, which was quite often at the beginning, since I had no experience at all, just a great deal of enthusiasm.
For my first workshop, I chose to teach the Vietnamese kite in its simplest form: newspaper and slim bamboo sticks. When I entered the community dining-room, there were around fifteen children, between 7 and 16 years, boys and girls, silently sitting at a long table and definitely measuring me up. They had been invited by Grupo Encuentro staff members. During the next hour, I took them through the process of building the kite. I remember some were quiet, sometimes nudging each other and giggling, while others were more inquisitive, still others restless, but the workshop went generally well and by the end everyone had their kite ready.
That is when I looked through the window and noticed the wind: a strong, gusty, typical Patagonian wind had risen. This means 40 km (about 25 miles) an hour, with maybe 50 or 60 km gusts. I was not prepared for what followed.
I started to say, “We’d better fly these kites some other time…” but my warning was lost in the rush when all fifteen of them grabbed their kites and winders and dashed into the football pitch, an area of compact earth just outside the building. I followed in trepidation, and the worst scenario unraveled before my eyes: kites everywhere tangled up, torn, totally destroyed in a few chaotic moments, amidst the swirling dust in the football pitch.
Later, everyone was quiet. I did my best to explain that it hadn’t been such a good idea to go out in such a wind. They listened politely. “Señora, sus barriletes no vuelan,” (“Mrs., your kites don’t fly”) stated the last boy to leave, flatly.
I was utterly downcast, such bad luck that an hour’s work had been ruined by these winds. My credibility lost, all I could do was return home and consider how to pick up from there.
The following classes were empty, not one child appeared. I had been labeled useless no doubt and my rather idealistic dreams of happy children flying kites were shattered.
LEARNING TO FIT IN
I decided to visit with no further objective in mind than to get to know the children and learn how I could fit in. I began to take part in other activities, sharing mealtimes, noting how other adults related to the children and finding my own way to deal with these new relationships. I was working in a private school at the same time, and remember it felt like moving between two worlds. During that summer I would go to Encuentro with nothing particular to do, and just sit on the bakery doorstep to chat and drink mate7 with whoever was around and willing, getting the feel of the place and the people. I understood they were definitely not going to open up to a “rich” outsider just because, except for the small children, who were always delighted to have someone to play with. They were the affectionate hugging sort, who would come running to greet me, borrowing my sunglasses, full of talk and fun.
Sometimes I’d take kites and organize impromptu kiting afternoons, which soon proved popular. We’d fly on the small plateau at the top of La Lomita, the low hill behind Encuentro, with a wonderful view of the mountains, Nahuel Huapi Lake, the city centre, and the Alto. The trail we followed to get there, picking our way through scattered rubbish, and avoiding fierce dogs behind flimsy fences, lead through a cluster of poor huts with no facilities, not even running water except for a communal tap. Radio music (cumbia mostly) could be heard, and there would be small children playing around in the dust.
With a westerly wind, the kites overflew the settlement,8 and the children would point out their neighborhoods in the distance to me: “There’s Arrayanes, behind the cemetery,” “I’m from Malvinas over there. See that blue roof, it’s my school,” “There was a shootout in Omega the other day. I rushed into my house…”
There is still a huge derelict building on La Lomita, the cause of many a heated argument when I decided it was off-bounds for safety reasons. Climbing onto the roof to fly the kites was undoubtedly dangerous. Establishing my authority, on this and many other issues, was a challenge, and led to some children stalking off, cussing under their breath, but I stood my ground and the rule remains.
Having lowered my expectations, I began to have fun, the children got used to my presence, and soon I felt ready to offer the workshops again.
A SECOND CHANCE
Kiting as a popular activity had been on the wane for a great many years in Bariloche as far as I can tell from the memories of people born and raised here, who recall their childhood kites with nostalgia. Yet in the Alto, kites had not completely disappeared.
When I started to look around on really windy days, I saw boys flying plastic squares and diamonds, their most remarkable feature being their unruly fringes, so long, unkempt, and punkish, I’ve never seen anything quite like them anywhere else. On closer examination, these kites proved to be crudely made, with sturdy sticks – in some cases nettle stalks with the thorns removed – so heavy, you’d think they would never fly. Yet here they were, battling the winds, our rugged local kites. I took note, and adapted some the models I would teach, reinforcing them and making them heavier than recommended in most plans.
My only workshop enthusiast for several months was Tomas (not his real name), a quiet ten-year-old who had ended up in the hospital a couple of times for overdosing with glue. But he showed persistent interest in making kites, and I got my practice in teaching. Marilena, a cheery 7-year-old, soon joined us. Others came and went, and I had to learn to deal with disappointment when a full class was followed by an almost empty one, since the children were not used to regular activities and keeping timetables, and a few days or even weeks could pass before I saw them again.
Therefore being constant was my task, creating a space. It took some determination not to give up, but small achievements kept me optimistic and I always felt it had been worthwhile at the end of the day. In 2001, giving the workshop included having a queue of people with pots and plastic containers waiting to collect lunch winding its way through the middle of the class, not exactly an ideal setting, yet that was the situation at the time.
CIELO ABIERTO (OPEN SKY)
During the next ten years, we made and flew kites regularly from September through May, and the workshop, now called Cielo Abierto, became established. In July, with snow covering the landscape, children would start to ask, “So…when are we going to make kites?”
We worked twice a week. Very soon I had several helpers, teenagers and young adults. Grupo Encuentro had a staff of ten young coordinators, most of whom had a past history of life in the streets themselves. Based on this knowledge, they could approach children found begging in the town center, gaining their trust, the first step in this kind of work.
For the kites, we got private and state subsidies to buy materials and sustain the workshop, also appealing to shop owners, friends, and acquaintances for donations. We also made traditional paper kites for sale during several summers.
Over this long period of time, I gradually deepened my conviction that building and flying kites is one of the most appealing, inclusive activities that can be offered to children of all ages. As anyone with knowledge of kites can attest, the possibilities are boundless. Some children became regulars at the workshop for five or six years running, so I had to search for new models, carefully plan and try out different approaches, and offer a variety of related activities to avoid any boredom or repetition.
We made sleds, deltas, diamonds, squares, hexagons, octagons, stars, Vietnamese kites (yes, the original, and a larger version with 4 mm spars that could do quite well in a stiff wind), Siamese serpents in various shapes and sizes, octopuses, cats, boxes, winged boxes, sailing-boats, and others, both traditional and modern. Other wind- related toys and objects, windmills, messengers, parachutes, drogues, and mobiles also proved popular. Among our projects is an Eddy arch with 65 kites, each built and painted by a child, which is flown during festivals and at the march for children’s rights, held every year at the end of November. When BaToCo made a giant banner kite, nicknamed La Banderola9 in 2005, we sent a panel with a painting of children flying kites, created in the workshop. The children were amazed to see their panel as part of this huge kite being flown in Buenos Aires on a video a few months later, and delighted with the warm letters sent by BaToCo members congratulating them on their work.
At first, many of the kites would be painted the color of the two most popular national football teams, blue and yellow (Boca), or red and white (River), with light blue and white, the Argentine flag colors, a distant third. Drawing was mostly restricted to the name of the child or famous rock stars and groups, well-known trademarks, symbols and doodles, such as hearts and smileys.
Through exercises and creativity games (plus some cajoling!), decoration became more original and personal: patterns, abstract shapes, portraits, and landscapes.
I would sometimes start telling a story, preferably one that could be related to the kite we would make, or to wind, ecology, and nature. Thus, before making boat- shaped kites, we read about the Caleuche, a mythical ghost ship from Chiloé, in the Chilean archipelago. The Legend of the Morning Star, and the Origin of the Pleiades, both Native American legends, led to the building of stars. Then we had the Inuit legend of Kinak – the mountain-sized god whose breathing was said to cause the north winds – who takes pity on Tako, a woman escaping ill-treatment by her husband, a situation sadly familiar to some children. The story of Lucia Zenteno, the Woman Who Outshone the Sun, as told by Zapotec poet Alejandro Cruz Martínez10 is about a beautiful earth mother, and was a great introduction to making Vietnamese fish kites and origami fish. And of course Puss in Boots and Garfield for cat kites!
We encouraged pair and group work. Older children and fast workers were expected to help newcomers and smaller children. Some children became quite confident and independent in all the steps leading up to a finished kite, from cutting out the sail, to framing, bridling, and calculating how long the tail of a particular model should be. It was these children who were always looking forward to and demanding new and more complicated models. Sometimes they would take a new child “under their wing,” proudly playing the role of teacher. I just loved to see them do that.
At Grupo Encuentro the approach is essentially rights-based and holistic (that is, looking to the whole child, not just a particular aspect of a child’s life). Within such an approach, we found work with kites was highly suitable in many ways. Besides stimulating fine motor skills, social skills were also attended to. Sometimes new children would begin by destroying their half-made kite, angrily stalking out before we could stop them, usually due to some small mistake or because they thought their work was “ugly.” It was also quite usual for them to leave a piece of work unfinished. Redoing, fixing, and improving became possible once a child was offered support for doing so, but seeing their peers engaged in patient work and attention to detail was by far the greatest stimulus.
WINDOWS IN THE SKY
“I would like you to imagine that our kites are windows. In each window there is someone looking through…who’s that someone looking through your window? When we fly our kites, all these characters will be looking at us from the sky!”
With these words I introduced a 2009 project for making squares and mini- dellaportas, with three groups of around fifteen children in each, aged between six and fifteen.
Through sketching and coloring on paper, a variety of quaint characters emerged, including bus drivers, a pirate, a nurse, bikers, football players, rock singers, gothic girls, and dangerous looking devils and scarfaced men. We traced the drawings onto Tyvek, painted with tempera, not forgetting the background and “window- frame,” while the children invented short stories about their character.
Most children had flown kites at least several times and in different winds as part of the workshop. How to fly a kite, alone or with a helper, how to choose the right place to fly, problem solving, getting entangled, freefalling, fixing faulty kites, were all dealt with during our outings. It was always an intense learning experience, during which the children participated actively. The fact that their kites flew high was reason for great satisfaction and sense of achievement, and we always did our best to get all the kites flying, though high winds sometimes caused havoc. Of course it was useful to make observations on the wind: its direction, speed, gusts, turbulence, and to compare how different kites flew and why some flew higher or more successfully than others.
“My kite doesn’t want to come down!” “Mine flew higher!” the younger ones would say. After the initial intensity of launching the kites, and when the wind was friendly, we would sit on the ground or on rocks to gaze at the sky and chat.
“So, what did your character say?” I asked some of the children at the end of the Window Project. Here is what they wrote:
“So nice to see everyone together.” – Milagros, 8 years old
“I passed you all! I saw a helicopter; I saw my owner, the children, the mountains, the lake, and the view.” – Jeremías, 10
“At last I’m free! And I’m not alone up here!” – Braian, 9
“I felt a bit bad because I’m afraid of the height, and felt tickles in my tummy, but I had a great time really. You can’t imagine everything I saw! The pine trees looked so small, like the people. A bird flew by right beside me. When my owner brought me down, I didn’t want to!” – Ailin, 11
“Hoooo people, children! I’m flying so high. I want to stay up here for ever!” – Priscila, 9
“I thought I was a window that opened the sky.” – Rodrigo, 11
“I flew so high, I touched a helicopter that passed by. I fell and bumped my head. The sun was so strong I had to wear dark glasses.” – Hernan, 11
ON AN END NOTE: FLY YOUR RIGHTS
Last year on June 17, a Bariloche police officer killed a 15-year-old boy running from an alleged robbery. In the protest riots that ensued, two more young men were killed in dubious circumstances.11
“Fly Your Rights” (Remontá tus derechos) was part of a project to raise awareness in a community where impoverished children and youth are sometimes perceived as criminals, stigmatized by the police and the public.
Organized by Mesa Interinstitucional Malvinas-Nahuel Hue,12 an alliance of local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and government workers, “Fly Your Rights” was designed to draw attention to children’s and adolescents’ rights and to address key protection issues.
Based on our experience at Grupo Ecuentro, we held kite workshops for parents and teachers, offering them training in the building of simple kites, which they could then reproduce in their schools, kindergartens, and community centers. All kites were to be decorated with statements referring to children’s rights. More than fifty people did the workshops, and several crowd-attracting kite days were held in different neighborhoods of Bariloche.
At the time of writing this article, snow is starting to cover the ground; kites are in the making on my worktable and ideas brewing for future projects.
It could happen any day now. We might be playing a game, or perhaps giving the finishing touches to a puppet. A child will look through the window and say, “So…when are we going to make kites!”
I hope this experience is of interest to others working with children at risk, both in formal and non-formal education, and that our experience will encourage others to continue exploring the joys and benefits of flying kites for children’s rights.
I would like to thank everyone, staff and children, at Grupo Encuentro for their longstanding support and enthusiasm.
Thank you to my friends at BaToCo, for their interest and valuable advice.
And special heartfelt thanks to my friend David Gordon, from Indonesia, who once said, “Fly a kite.” I did. Thank you for the sharing over all these years.
- Bariloche is a city in the province of Río Negro, Argentina, situated in the foothills of the Andes on the southern shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake. It is located inside Nahuel Huapí National Park. The city has a permanent population of 108,205 according to the 2010 census and is a major tourism center. The Alto, where approximately 60% of the population lives, comprises mostly working-class families, immigrants from rural areas and neighboring countries, including descendants of Mapuche Native Americans.
- Grupo Encuentro – Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Barter clubs flourished in Argentina following the country’s 2001 economic crisis. Each item brought to the club is given a value by its owner, who then trades it with other members for whatever goods or services they are offering – everything from homemade clothing to homegrown vegetables, in exchange for fixing a washing machine or cutting the lawn. During 2002 there were around 5000 clubs nationwide, and more than two and a half million people participated on a regular basis, which, if one takes into account their families, means between 5 and 8 million people benefitted from the bartering system organized by civilians outside the economic system. In recent years, as Argentina’s economy bounced back, fewer people showed up, but ever since the global financial crisis hit, they say barter clubs are more popular than ever.
- Kites for Everyone – Margaret Greger (1923-2009), the author, was named American Kite Magazine’s 1996 Kite Person of the Year. She taught kite making for over forty years and taught others to both enjoy and teach kite making. Her instructions for fabric kites range from the simple Square Kite to the complex Flow Form. Site: www.kitesforeveryone.com
- Kiteworks: Explorations in Kite Building and Flying – Maxwell Eden, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York
- BaToCo (Barriletes a Toda Costa) is the leading organization for kite fliers in Argentina. It is a private non-profit association, supported entirely by its members. BaToCo members are dedicated to the enjoyment and promotion of kite flying as an artistic, scientific, and sporting activity for people of all ages. Site: www.batoco.org
- Mate is an infused drink prepared with dried yerba (llex paraguariensis) leaves, in a calabash gourd, into which hot water is poured. A bombilla (crafted metal or cane straw) is used to sip and share this green infusion.
- La Lomita settlement was dismantled in 2005-6, its residents relocated by the Municipality to other neighborhoods.
- View the Banderola in flight at www.batoco.org/barriletes/ 2009/05/labanderola.html
- The Woman Who Outshone the Sun: The Legend of Lucia Zenteno – from a poem by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, Children’s Book Press
- Trials were held, and the police officer found guilty received a 20-year-sentence, which has been appealed. No one has been accused of the other two crimes.
- Mesa Interinstitucional Malvinas Nahuel-hue: CAAT nº 8, Centro Infantil “Pequeños corazones”, Escuela nº 315, Promoción Familiar Area Libertad Asistida, ETAP inicial y Primaria, Defensoría del Pueblo, Grupo Encuentro, Iglesia San Cayetano, Centro de referencia del Ministerio de Desarrollo Social, Dirección Nacional de Migraciones, Centro de salud Frutillar, Club 3 de mayo, Comer en familia, Junta Vecinal Malvinas, Junta Vecinal Nahuel Hue.