Enhancing Children’s Visual and Verbal Language skills through Wayang in Indonesia

By Luna Setiati


Before the 17th Century, Indonesia was famous for its rich traditions, local heritage and cultural practices. Art was a part of people’s lives as well as an important part of education for all children. With subsequent colonisation, the local cultures and traditions kept changing from time to time. Each time a colonist came, the cultures changed. For example, when the Indians came to Indonesia, their culture influenced every ethnic group in the Java and Sumatra Islands, to develop their unique identity and culture. Despite of this continuous change however, the ethnic groups still retained their local wisdom and co-existed with all other cultures within Indonesia. Amongst all the colonies, the Dutch colony remained for the longest period for a few centuries. Their authority made western people seem higher in social status compared to most Indonesian inhabitants who were mostly workers. During the acculturation, the colonist began to patronize Indonesian people, which then led them to believe that the western ways of life was the best way, including the form of education. Thus, this cultural levelling not only impacted the Indonesian cultures but also their traditional education system. After 250 years of Dutch colonisation, Indonesia finally declared its independence in 1945. By then however, the local cultural ways had disappeared and along with it, its local wisdom, education, art, and ways of learning and creative thinking. Before colonisation, all Indonesian schools had art activities as part of their curriculum, but during and after colonisation, all of this changed. Several Indonesian scholars observed that the exclusion of art and similar changes in educational curriculum, affected people’s creative thinking abilities and could not think as creatively as in the past. It seemed that along with the local cultures, creative ways of learning and thinking had literally vanished from the Indonesian way of life.


The problem of creative learning

Several Indonesian scholars believe that it is important to revive creative ways of learning and thinking, especially by the inclusion of the arts in education, as well as by creating a consciousness for the arts amongst the local people. After a phase of reformation in 1989, creativity was recognized as one of the main problems in our education system. The Indonesian government started encouraging the blending of art activities in the school curriculum. In 1998 however, Indonesia barely survived a humanitarian crisis, which deeply impacted our educational system and also the agenda of using the arts in education. During this phase, rapid changes in the world and globalization started influencing the Indonesian cultures, especially by Western cultures such as the United States. As a result, the local Indonesian cultures declined and many vanished. Consequently, the Western cultures became more appealing to Indonesian children and youth, over their own cultural heritage. This added additional challenge on the part of our Indonesian government as well as scholars and educators, to not only revive creative ways of learning and thinking but also revive our own cultural heritage and instil creativity using our local cultural ways. 

The task of our formal and informal art educational sectors then became two fold: first was how to make our own cultural heritage slowly attractive to our children and second was how to help them learn local traditions and blend it into the curriculum. While there was a clear agenda and interest in facilitating these aspects, there were two major problems facing art educators. The first problem was inadequate governmental support to the arts, which had changed over time in spite of recognising the importance of creativity. Art was put on a lower rung of the educational ladder in the hierarchy of subjects (as seen through Bloom’s Taxonomy), and the quantity of time allotted in schools for art also decreased. One of the major factors for this was that art is never assessed in our National test and hence, other assessed subjects became more important. Due to these issues, art became less interesting and challenging to children as well as many teachers.

The second problem facing the art educational sectors is lack of substantial teaching methods in the arts. This made integration of the arts in the curriculum very difficult and affected creative teaching as well as creative learning processes amongst children. One of the common problems found with many art teachers is that they still teach art for the purpose of copying artistic objects that they make. In such a method, everybody ends up making the same artwork. Hence, there is no creative learning; it does not provide any opportunity to create new ideas, something unique or original or be flexible and productive in the creation process. One of the biggest challenges for Indonesian authorities thus, lies in not only changing the mindset of the teachers and parents, but also providing new skills and methods for teaching and learning creatively. In view of these needs, I have as an art educator, been developing several methodologies that use the arts in creative learning and integrate the arts in learning other subjects. In this particular article, I describe the use of the traditional Wayang method (puppet) for a creative learning process.


The Wayang

Traditionally, Wayang (Wayang Kulit) is used for dramatic performances in Indonesia. It tells a dramatic story in the form of a play using flat leather puppets, which throw their shadows on the screen. Every ethnic group in Indonesia has a unique Wayang of their own. The puppets are first cut out in their characterestic profile; they are then colored, then decorated beautifully and played with their arms which are moved by small sticks. The Wayang are pierced with holes, so when held against light, they almost look like lace (see figure 1). 

Figure 1 - Traditional Wayang Kulit

Traditionally, Wayang was used for various purposes such as telling moral stories, celebrating a newborn baby, a wedding, or conveying spiritual massages from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. Traditionally, most Wayang tell stories from two Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana or other stories such as the adventure of Prince Panji, from the late Hindu period in Java. In the modern times, Wayang is also used for sending government messages through a modern character or for narrating stories about the present times. In the modern society, Wayang is not always used for specific rituals or for education; instead, it has become a public performance for the tourism industry. Most educators however believe that because of its power in mediating messages through storytelling, it can be a strong medium for children’s education. Children can easily play Wayang, because they love stories and can role-play with the characters in the story. It is thus my effort to use the Wayang to not only engage children in art making, but also enhance their visual and verbal language skills, as well as develop a sense of respect and value for their cultural heritage – all of which together contribute towards a creative learning process. 


Towards a creative learning process using Wayang 

My main concern for developing a methodology is to be able to create a process that can motivate children to be creative thinkers, enhance their creative abilities, and optimize other competencies such as their visual language and verbal skills. In developing such a methodology, I have been influenced by our traditional art based theories of Tabrani (1970), who emphasised the importance of creative thinking as a useful component in the learning process. Tabarni’s theory is critical about Bloom’s taxonomy that puts arts on a lower rung of the educational ladder (Sahasrabudhe, 2006). Instead, Tabarni values the use of art in children’s learning as a critical component and conceptualized his idea of arts integrated learning process. Tabrani believes that through art making children can enhance their learning as well as understand and processing their worldviews. Through an increased sense of understanding, expression and processing, they can further enhance their abilities for making independent choices in life.  Figure 2 shows some examples of art made by children aged 4 to 12 years. Thus, my methodology seeks to enhance creative learning skills in children, whilst learning about their cultural heritage and further apply the learning towards becoming civic citizens in Indonesia. 

Figure 2 - Artworks made by children

My methodology specifically focuses on enhancing children’s visual and verbal language. I chose Wayang for two reasons. First, playing with Wayang helps in enhancing children’s kinaesthetic, audio, and visual abilities along with art making and learning about Indonesia’s cultural tradition. Secondly, learning about and through their own cultural heritage would not only conserve the tradition but also help in developing a sense of respect and value for the grandeur of their tradition and the social values it holds. According to Tabrani (2005), visual and oral languages are the first systems of language that children use, as well as the pre-modern people, who used these languages before they learnt to read and write. In a series of research from 1969 to 1991, Tabrani (2005), found that children’s visual language expressed through their drawings have their natural, spontaneous and innate human responses. Tabrani mentions that the development of children’s visual language from 2-12 years is different from that of adult’s visual language, which is especially because of the differences in their ways of seeing and drawing. Tabrani found that children’s visual language was approximately 92 to 105 % close to adult drawings of the primitive people in the prehistoric times up to our traditional times. In a research on cave paintings, Tabrani and Setiawan (2010), found that the reason for this similarity and way of seeing and drawing between children’s drawing and prehistoric rock paintings is because of their ways of storytelling both orally and visually. The interesting thing about visual language, Tabrani states, is not just the content of the drawing (i.e. the image content), but the way of drawing images. The image way is a way to draw one image; it uses the inner grammar for composing one picture. Outer grammar, mentions Tabrani, is about making a series of pictures together, that “tells” a story beyond the individual content of single images. Thus, the use of Wayang is a very appropriate method for instilling both the inner and outer grammar in children and help in enhancing their visual and verbal language skills. 


Methodology: Arts integrated learning through Wayang

Traditionally, the Wayang was drawn in a distinctive style what is known as a Characteristic view (see top left image in figure 3).  Wayang was pictured with toes and with all fingers from ‘between their two legs view’. Further, in traditional puppets, each figure depicts the personality of the characters through their faces; hence, the “face” becomes a very significant part in understanding the characters of a story.  If any object is important in a story and needs to be recognized, then it will be drawn from the characteristic view.Figure 3 shows some examples of how children aged 9-12 years have drawn characters from the “characteristic view”.

Figure 3 - Top left image depicts a characterestic view of a traditional Wayang and the other images are examples of children's drawings in characterestic view of modern and non-traditional characters

Some characters are drawn with only one stick while others use a number of sticks. For children under age 7 years, it is easier to make Wayang with one stick. Within this technique of characteristic view, there are multiple ways of showing the view.  Most characteristic views are drawn with a lateral view that shows the leg and face. Other views are drawn from their front view that shows the chest and the hand. In my methodology, children’s participation starts by hearing a story. The messages in the story are important sources for imagination as children build upon their imaginative ideas about each character. Children then draw a character. By making these Wayang characters, they are able to visually express their imagination and stories about the characters that they create.  Figure 4 shows an example of a child verbally explaining the characters she has drawn.

Figure 4 - A child explaining the characters she has drawn

Children then make these drawings into a puppet and play with the Wayang characters by telling a story. Through these processes and the activity of role-playing, children are able to visually and verbally express their stories and the characters, which helps in enhancing their visual and verbal language skills. Traditionally, an orchestra, known as Gamelan, accompanies a Wayang performance, but in modern times, there are several variations and children may or may not use music or use a background that they create and so on. Children also play Wayang by using screen (see figure 5), which shows a traditional use of screen and an example of playing Wayang with an overhead projector. Wayang can also be played without the screen as seen in the bottom image of Figure 5.

Figure 5 - Children playing with Wayang

Children can play Wayang using a variety of techniques, such as  against a big drawing framed as a background or play with Wayang on stage like a theatre. In one program, children were encouraged to make the puppets with recycled objects and play with any kind of activity accompanied by background music (see figure 6). In this methodology, the learning happens through a creative process, whereby children draw on their own, narrate and role-play on their own, which enhances their imagination, visual and verbal skills whilst learning about traditions as well as other things.  

Figure 6 - Children playing with Wayang characters using re-cycled materials

Nobody teaches the children to draw, because they already have their natural way of drawing that fits their growth and development (Tabrani, 2005). If the teacher teaches them, then there will be no room for creative exploration in their drawing. The teacher’s task is to motivate and facilitate the children with various themes and mediums. Even though the teachers do not deliberately teach these children how to draw Wayang, there are several similarities between the visual languages of the traditional Wayang Kulit and that of the Wayang made by children in their own way of drawing. 



I have been using the Wayang as a creative learning process for several years and it has been observed that children learn, play, enjoy and have fun using the Wayang in a very productive as well as a creative way. Compared to the methodology of copying teachers's artwork, this has been very useful in enhancing children's creative abilities and thinking process. This methodology helps in building creative capacities in children which further optimize finer qualities of making conscious and independent choices, allowing them to respect their own cultural heritage as well as cultures of others. This methodology also helps in instiling finer qualities of making conscious and independent choices, which can optimize their creative capacities blending with their cultural heritage as well as cultures of others.  It is hoped that through this program, children can not only optimize their visual and verbal skills, learn and think creatively, but also value their cultural heritage as responsible and civic citizens of Indonesia. 



Sahasrabudhe, P. (2006). Design for Learning through the Arts. International Journal of Education through Art, Volume 2 Number 2. 

Santrock, John W. (2007). Psikologi Pendidikan. Indonesian Language. Jakarta: Kencana Prenada Media Grup.

Tabrani, Primadi.(2006). Kreativitas & Humanitas. Indonesian Language. Yogyakarta: JALASUTRA 

Tilar, H.A.R. (2002). Transformative Pedagogy For Indonesia. Indonesian Language. Jakarta: Grasindo


About the author

Luna Setiati is head of Research and Development program for children age 4-12 years at Chiekal, and Head of Parents and Teachers Training Division and LVEP training division at Bumi Limas. She also teaches children agred 4-6 years at Tunas Unggul Preschool. She has ten years experience as Research and Development Chairman of Children Holiday Program, three years as Principal of Bumi Limas Preschool and seven years experience in various positions in after-school activities for children. For more information, please contact Luna Setiati 



The International Interdependence Hexagon Project: Youth making a difference globally

By Beth Burkhauser


In 2003, Sondra Myers, a Senior Fellow for International Civic and Cultural Projects, University of Scranton, USA and Benjamin Barber, Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Rutgers University, USA, started the Interdependence Movement in Philadelphia, in response to the continuing global injustice and acts of terrorism in several parts of the world. The movement is a network of citizens without borders, including artists, educators, civic leaders, activists and so on, who recognize the interdependent nature of our world and advocate for new forms of constructive civic interdependence to solve the multiple challenges that confront us. As a colleague of Sondra Myers, I was invited to participate and join this movement on its yearly celebration in 2006 and the International Interdependence Hexagon Project was thus born out of this movement. 

Being an art educator with over thirty-five years of experience, I believe that education’s ultimate goal is to contribute towards an informed, creative, reflective and a democratic citizenry. By fostering an attitude of open-mindedness and tolerance in thought and behavior, we can bring about social change. The arts in education are a powerful medium and participation in the arts can develop and foster such skills and attitudes for social change. The Interdependence Hexagon Project thus aims to use the visual arts for facilitating interconnectedness amongst youth globally, which can contribute towards a global civil society.


The Hexagon project

The concept of a ‘hexagon’ in this project was chosen as a metaphor for interconnectedness. The hexagon is seen as a composition of complex relationships, and interdependent lines, which, whilst maintaining its own presence as a shape, is destined to be part of a whole, i.e. a honeycomb. A honeycomb is such a structure, that when it multiplies through numerous attachments, it provides strength and becomes a network, like a bond of human connections. This metaphoric idea of the hexagon was thus intended to challenge, inspire and contain visual expressions and illustrations about interdependence on a variety of themes pertaining to social justice. With this focus in mind, a hexagonal template was developed, which was made accessible to all interested in participating in the project through the Hexagon Project website. 

Within schools, the project aimed to engage junior and senior high school students aged 9 to 18 years. It is our belief that the project offers an invitation as well as a concrete method for teachers and students to become involved with social justice issues in a way that is practically viable within schools as well as accessible with support materials readily available on the project website. Since the inception of this idea, several art teachers from the US as well as other countries have incorporated this project into their school curriculum. A school in Ontario, Canada, for example, integrated the project into their curriculum because it reflected the school mission, which was “to seek to educate students to be involved citizens in the broader global community and to establish themselves as leaders in this capacity”. Different schools and educators have adapted the Hexagon project in diverse ways to fit their school curriculum and educational needs. Although we provide some basic guidelines for making the Hexagon artworks, there are no set formulae or pre-conceived expectations or a particular look for making these hexagon artworks. Instead, we encourage students to use a wide variety of art and media and make the hexagons in whichever way they envision. There are also no limitations to the number of hexagons used by a particular student or within a certain project. The limits only pertain to the boundaries of imagination and limitations of the mind.

Hexagons illustrating social issues

Some of the most interesting examples of Hexagon artworks come from teachers, who give their students freedom to choose and research a particular theme, find creative ways of visually illustrating it, take ownership of the issue and make a personal statement on it. One such interesting example is the Hexagon Sculptures, which are artworks produced by 6th grade students of elementary art teacher Sarrah Dibble, in New Milford, Pennsylvania. The students made hexagon artworks on the theme of endangered species, which were then utilized as donation canisters placed in shops in their local community to collect money for low-income heating assistance. This was an elegant solution which integrated the hexagonal metaphor with community social action. In another example, an art teacher at the Pennsylvania State School for the Deaf challenged her students’ definition of ‘interdependence’ against a commonly held belief of deaf children about their ‘dependence’ on society. Drawing on inspiration from Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures, her students made mobile Hexagons that visibly challenged the world ‘to meet them half way’. Both these examples demonstrate how the hexagon project was able to initiate and augment social change in their own respective ways. There are however, many such examples of the Hexagon project both nationally as well as internationally. 

Mobile Hexagons and Hexagon canister

Interconnectedness through the Hexagon project

Since the start of this project in 2006, students from different countries including Canada, Haiti, Great Britain, Australia, Africa and Nepal, have produced over 2000 hexagon artworks. Each year, we organize an annual exhibition of these artworks in a gallery space in Scranton. The exhibit makes a powerful unified visual statement on the gallery walls with strong social messages on a variety of themes. Many schools in the United States hold their own exhibitions of these artworks for the parents, school administrators and the community, before sending them for the annual exhibition in Scranton.  

Hexagons on socio-political issues

After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, we forged the ‘Hexagons of the Heart’ Project, an offshoot of the Interdependence Hexagon Project that seeks to foster empathy for the affected children in Haiti and impact change in ways that are not possible by the United Nations and other relief organizations. Often, these organizations work for the relief of masses and are unable to provide the one-to-one support that often children need for recovering from a disaster. Often children under such circumstances are so traumatized that they are unable to express their emotions verbally. We engaged Haitian children with the Hexagon project in an effort to help them emotionally recover from the loss by allowing them to express their grief and problems and visually illustrate these through the Hexagon artworks. 

In May 2011, art education students from the Keystone College, Pennsylvania, went to Haiti and worked with Haitian children and exchanged Hexagon artworks from children in Haiti with elementary school children in Scranton. By involving these art education students in the project, they have been given an opportunity to redefine themselves as art educators and experience the value of addressing social justice issues through art education. Our effort to work with the Haitian children continues and we seek collaborations with other art educators both nationally as well as internationally to come to Haiti with us and help more children there. We also initiated this project in five schools in Butwal, Nepal and they have been participating in this project for the last 4 years. We were able to raise funds to gift a need-based school with two laptops and an LCD projector. 

Each year we also confer a Community Partnership Award to a project that manifests ‘Art into Action’, which not only recognizes Hexagon art projects but also other social projects. One year we conferred the award to a New York based interior designer, for her hand-tied rug designs made in Nepal using child-labor-free facilities (GoodWeave). Another year, we recognized a visual artist-educator who used the Hexagon project as an effective medium for communication with prisoners in her local community. In the year 2012, we have a special emphasis on the theme of collaboration and seek to use the Hexagon project to foster collaborations both nationally as well as internationally. It is our hope that through the Hexagon project, we will forge greater collaborations and connections throughout the world and use the arts to foster interconnectedness in a global civil society. 


About the author

Beth Burkhauser is the Chair of the International Interdependence Hexagon Project. She is an adjunct and supervises Student Teachers in the Art Education Department, Keystone College, Pennsylvania, USA. She has been an art educator for 35 years teaching Pre-K – grade 12 students with a focus on integrating the arts in the schools curriculum. She manages the Hexagon Project with Co-chair George Barbolish, art teacher at Mt. View School District, Kingsley, Pennsylvania, and adjunct at the Keystone College. Other volunteers in the project include Sarrah Dibble, art teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary School, New Milford, Pennsylvania, and Annette Palutis, retired English and drama teacher and past President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. For more information please contact Beth Burkhauser or visit the Hexagon project site >>