One of our research tasks at Early Futures is learning how to access inner worlds from young children (and then everyone else) who find it difficult to express their complex feelings in language. Symbols and myths have long been a part of teaching and encouraging expression with young children, from retelling ancient fairy tales to labeling all things in a childhood classroom with pictures. Humans tend to learn and express their core problems through thematic archetypes, symbolic language and images.
One of the best tools we’ve found for instant access to imaginal worlds is the tarot. How? Using tarot cards help people tell deeper stories and explore themes from their inner life, without having to use specific examples or names or difficult words or really even to have to think. Tarot provides a third eye for someone to step back and make believe based on what they see and hear about the meaning of the individual cards. This includes young children.
Tarot is a deck of cards with illustrations on them that depict archetypal themes. Traditionally the tarot was a commissioned card deck containing paintings of royal families and ideas, which curiously evolved into a divination practice. There are typically four viewpoints on using tarot cards:
1. as a way to have someone interpret your future;
2. as an ancient tradition of accessing information about one’s developing psychological state;
3. as a new-age con game that generalizes and manipulates people by hijacking a human desire to create meaning out of symbolic elements (i.e. hippie shit).
4. as a way to make cool miniature artwork series based on your favorite fairies, elves, trees, dogs, vaginas, whatever.
For many educators and families, the tradition of tarot is viewed as too weird or woo-woo, and thus totally inappropriate symbolism for children.Yes, the core symbolic aspect of tarot makes people weary (Devil, Judgement, Death…), since they don’t all pertain to the innocent, basic materials or objects we want to relegate to childhood. yes, tarot cards are intended to specifically symbolize complex mental and emotional activity taking place within a person’s inner and outer familial dynamics.
Children are also very complex psychologically. They can also be weird and dark. Contemporary researchers are finding, as we have, that children have deep psychological activities that support and create symbolic and archetypal structures. Using tarot with children is a direction that can help us understand if and how children do relate to these variable thematic structures in the psyche.
One place we’ve looked to in order to re-frame tarot, so it seems safer to use in education, is literary traditions. A number of writers and poets utilize tarot as a narrative device, rather than a purely divinatory tool. A great example was writer Italo Calvino. His little known book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies was his effort at encouraging use of the symbolism in tarot. The Castle of Crossed Destinies is filled with different short stories based off of a selection of tarot cards arranged in a sequence.
Using the arrangements of the tarot cards, Italo Calvino then tells narratives that interweave one card into the next and illuminates different aspects of the cards meanings. It also allows the arc of the story to be created through a connection with the history of the images, their archetypal memories and futures.
In working with children (or anybody) we can use this method as well. Stories are the way the future makes itself. Without being able to hear the stories from children’s voices, you cannot know what kind of future they want to make, or what kind of present they participate in. The issue with very young children, as I’ve said many times, is that they cannot read and write very well, so their expression for stories often comes out through talking or through playing (i.e. dramatizing). Tarot, however, allows for a set of visual images onto which the children can project and interpret their own meaning of these human symbols and myths.
How to use Tarot to make narratives with children or anybody
Children pick a number of cards and arrange them in a story. Either the cards are then copied in ordered pages for the child, or the child re-interprets the images visually themselves (through drawing, painting, film, whatever media you want). Once the images are arranged, the children walk a writing assistant/teacher/parent/friend through the story, by discussing what happens in each card and how it relates to the overall story.
Beast of the Future
Jaala, age four
Scream for the Sky
By Margaret, age five.
When the King asked for Stuff and Nobody Gave it to Him
By Brigid, age five.
The tarot deck used for these narratives is Mythic Tarot by Juliet Sharman-Burke & Liz Greene. It comes with a book by the same title that corresponds to the cards with Greek Myths. You could certainly use any tarot deck, I found this one works well with children because of it’s archetypal and clearly depicted imagery.