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Artist Trading Cards As Metaphor For Homeschooling

I first heard about artist trading cards (ATCs) a few years ago at a homeschooling conference. I sat in an open, sunny art room with a few parents and painted small pieces of paper. I gave some away, and did not think about them again until recently. Another homeschooling friend of mine came to visit and brought her travel-ATC kit. As we sat at my kitchen table, I made about fifteen ATCs. Over the next three days, I made 70 more.

Artist Trading Cards are small pieces of art made out of almost any medium. Some people paint, draw, collage or even quilt them. Some are visual only, some have text, some have photographs, some are simple, some are elaborate. There is really only one rule - that they are 2.5 by 3.5 inches.

Because they are so small, and the medium is varied, the whole idea is flexible. The end product can be different from person to person or even card to card. I have seen cards where the maker has spent hours focused on minute details on one small piece of paper the size of a playing card. I have seen others that are clearly part of a larger collection, where the maker creates dozens or even hundreds along the same theme. So far, I have tended to move from medium to medium, doing six to eight cards and then moving on.

ATCs remind me of the flexibility that homeschooling offers: the ability to focus on one interest for hours or days or weeks or month or years yet also offering the chance to dabble in one thing and then another, quickly in succession.

This flexibility is a huge benefit to being outside of the compulsory school system. I remember when I first began homeschooling, at the age of ten, that was one of the first benefits that I was able to fully articulate. I was so grateful for the uninterrupted hours to get to follow my interests, to have many resources at my disposal, to be able to jump from project to project on my own time, and to not have to pursue anything any longer than I wanted.

Despite my personal gratitude and opinion, I have had many parents talk to me about their deep concerns regarding their children’s level of attention to one particular interest or activity. Some parents have children who flit from interest to interest. Parents worry that they will never be successful, develop expertise, get a job, be committed, pay rent, and so on. On the other hand, there are parents who have children that are truly content spending a great number of hours every day for years doing - what looks like on the outside - the exact same thing. Parents in this case use insulting language like “obsessed” and catastrophic language like “if I let them, that’s all they would EVER do.” 

Maybe if fearful parents looked at ATCs, they would ease a few of their worries. ATCs are the perfect metaphor. You can spend time on a piece of cardstock as big as a playing card, or you can make hundreds in fifteen minutes. People learn in both ways, and benefit from both methods. If you have used the word “obsessed” about your children’s activities, try to reframe it. Use the word “passionate” instead. Think gratefully about your child’s ability to focus and pursue something so wholeheartedly. If your child dabbles and has their fingers in a lot of different pies, ease your fears by thinking about the exposure they are getting, the patterns they are seeing and creating.

Your goal when creating ATCs is one of pure intrinsic satisfaction. As a parent, I hope that you are watching your children with the same goal for them in mind. Watch them with wonder, and explore curiously what benefits they are getting from whatever they are doing no matter how many hours or seconds they spend doing it – because, guaranteed, they are getting something from it.  Roya Dedeaux, MS, Columnist

Roya Dedeaux is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in private practice in southern California. She was homeschooled most of her life. She has a Master’s degree in counseling and specializes in art and experiential therapies, especially with teens and families, both in person and online.

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