Stigmatizing Mess

In a recent post I wrote about how our education system has stigmatized mistakes and how we could possibly be missing out on creative genius simply because we are viewing mistakes as negative feedback rather than as attempts to understand. Today I want to address how mess has been stigmatized.

When I set out to write a post or create a workshop, it is never a clean, straight-forward process. Books become scattered and piled up as I focus on research, papers scatter as I discard one idea after another, and I have an app on my phone and iPad that literally becomes clogged with virtual post-it notes and index cards. The paper that I am writing this post on right now is littered with notes in the margins for future posts, and scribbled editing notes to remind myself of entries when I type out the post. Yes, I am that old-school. I have to write by hand first. But the point is that creating and creativity is a messy business.

I have met a lot of teachers that frown on mess. And I can understand their point of view. I mean, why clean up more mess than you have to, right? But then I think about an activity that I did in my two-year-old classroom. Each child had an ice cube tray. Half of the wells in the tray were filled with water. Half of the water had yellow food coloring in it and the other half had red. Each child was given an eye dropper to use to move water around in the tray. The potential for mess during this activity was huge. After the children had mastered the steps needed to work the eye dropper, they began to experiment with dropping water onto their hand, or the table, or anywhere else they could observe the water that they dropped. I have done this activity many times with many different groups of children, and the progression of the experimentation is almost always the same. I become curious as to what the children would miss out on if I cut their experimentation short. I really hate to think about it.

Any time a young child experiments with a phenomenon, there is usually a mess involved. I had a child a few years ago who was obsessed with emptying baskets. While this behavior was an appropriate one for the child’s age, the act drove me nuts because all of the toys were on the floor and created a safety hazard for the other children. But we began to work on sorting skills as we put toys away. We turned the mess into a positive learning experience. And obviously, the child that continuously emptied baskets was gaining some sort of knowledge from it.

One of the unfortunate tendencies of many teachers and parents is to do things for the child in order to minimize mess. We talked in a Building Positive Relationships post about the negative effects of doing things for children, especially after the age of two when they show their first strong independent streak. We discussed a cookie-cutter craft in which the teacher had cut out pieces of a flower, provided the glue to the children, and showed them where to glue the pieces. Aside from the fact that the children obviously weren’t challenged by this craft, they didn’t learn anything from it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, three-year-olds can be provided with safety scissors, small bottles of glue, and construction paper so that they can cut and glue paper themselves. Using scissors and squeezing glue bottles helps strengthen fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and increases a child’s feeling of confidence and independence as well. Will their finished product look like the cookie cutter craft? No, not at all. But in the cookie cutter craft the teacher did 95% of the work, so saying that the finished product is that of the child is a stretch anyway. By providing the materials for the child to do it themselves, we are assured to gain a product that is uniquely the child’s work. Is it messier than the cookie cutter craft? Infinitely more messy. But we can argue that the mess is worth it for many reasons. The child is gaining valuable skills in doing the work themselves, and they are productively engaged in an activity rather than just sitting at a table waiting for their turn to glue items onto a paper. When we do things for a child, it dampens the natural curiosity that children have – not to mention their independence.

Children have the uncanny ability, it seems, to know the skills that they need to work on. It is our job to provide the tools, the time, and the tolerance for children to be able to thoroughly explore their world so that they can not only gain an understanding of it, but a mastery of it as well. If we provide:

  • The Tools – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the tools that they need to use rather than doing their work ourselves.
  • The Time – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the time that they need to develop them. In my post on the Theory of Concentrated Attention I discuss being mindful of what children are trying to learn through their actions and providing them with the necessary time to learn the skill.
  • The Tolerance – Being patient with children is a must when they are learning. They do not have the skills that we have so we must be tolerant of their early attempts to master something, no matter how messy the activity gets. And if the activity poses a safety hazard to others, it is our job to be tolerant enough to figure out how to modify the activity so that it can be done without running the risk of hurting anyone.

We can’t do this by cutting an exploration short or simply not providing it. To do either would short-change the children and not allow them to develop the skills that they need to understand and engage in the world around them.

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A New Idea for My Table

I posted on my Twitter account recently that I have rather large table in my classroom with an inch-tall lip around the edge. It had been displaying a “Little People” town for the children to play with, but since this type of toy isn’t in line with the policy of the company I work for, and since it does very little to promote actual creativity and imagination in the children who play with it, I took it out of the classroom.

Which left me with a rather large table with an inch-tall lip around the edge.

What in the world was I going to do with this table? First I tried to put rice on the table so that the children could use it to “write” letters, but what actually happened was that the rice ended up on the floor. So I looked at the table and I pondered and eventually I came up with… an art-drying table. Imaginative, huh?

It actually wasn’t too bad of an idea, but what I didn’t like about it was that the table wasn’t really being utilized for anything that would cause the children to learn something or do something. All that was happening was that they were putting their finished art on the table to dry.

And then inspiration struck. What if I put paint on the table instead of rice? Kids LOVE to play in paint, and they can write whatever they want in it and make designs and get their hands dirty!

But that wasn’t the only idea…

My big problem was the lip around the table. That lip was what made every idea that I came up with seemingly impossible. But then I saw a picture in a book of children’s weavings that inspired me. What if I string yarn or ribbon across the top of the table-top, tape it to the outside of the lip with duct tape (the tape would have to be pretty strong so that the kids wouldn’t tear the yarn off while making their creations) and let the children weave yarn or ribbon through it? It could be our weaving table!

I am so excited about this idea that I may try to implement it when I get to school this afternoon. I would do it right now, but unfortunately my own children are getting over being sick, so I’m stuck at home for now.

The Christmas Collage

I had made several colorful collage materials available to the children for their Christmas collage, including Christmas cards from years past (I just cut the back flap off of them and let the kids cut them up as they saw fit). So after a week’s worth of glue, pom-poms, sequins, and cut-up Christmas cards, we had a finished class collage. I wish I had a picture of it. The sequins were a hit, so the collage is very sparkly.

Other than that, it was a very slow day in our classroom. I pretty much let the kids play so that I could observe and get new ideas for projects. I also tried to figure out what I am going to do with my now-empty “Little People” table. I put some colored rice on the table, with the intent for it to be used for “writing” in, but the kids had other ideas; in thirty minutes the majority of the rice was on the floor. I am now trying to figure out how to incorporate the table into my studio area.

Tomorrow: Gingerbread ornaments and painting with primary colors. It will be wonderful to go into the day with projects planned!

Bug Stew

This afternoon when I took the class outside, there was water on the slides. This presented a great opportunity for the kids to throw every kind of greenery, mulch, dried leaves, and dirt onto the slide, and stir the entire concoction up with sticks. The dirt, by the way, was salt. When I asked them what they were making, they stated that it was “bug stew” because it was too nasty for us to eat, but the bugs would come and eat it up. When asked what kinds of bugs were going to eat it, they replied, “Bees and beetles!” So apparently the bees and beetles are going to be well fed tonight! I enjoyed watching the kids work together to make their concoction, though, and the thought process that went into deciding that only bugs would be crazy enough to eat the mess!

We did another color mixing activity, in which we mixed red, blue, and yellow playdough in different combinations to see what we would get. They had fun with that, even though I made the playdough a little too stiff for them to mix very well. After we mixed the basic combinations, I let them go to mix away in whatever combinations they wanted to. Of course, they loved that.

I did an art project this morning that I once again can’t give proper credit to for the idea. I thought I had saved the post in my reader this time. I feel like this is getting old and I need to apologize for it! But anyway…the project required coffee filters, water colors, and medicine droppers. We used water colors in red, green, silver, and gold so that the project would be somewhat Christmas-y. The kids basically just put drops of paint on the coffee filters, and the filters soak up the water (as long as the kids don’t use too much – if they do, it is a bit of a mess!). I found that trying to teach them how to control the flow of paint coming from the dropper was a bit of a challenge, but it gives us something to work on the next time we use the droppers. A few of the kids discovered how to control the flow of the paint, but not many.After the paint dried the colors on the filters were amazing, especially with the silver and gold paint mixed in.

Right before I started this project, the other three-year-old teacher set about working on a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer project. You know the one: three popsicle sticks glued together in a triangle shape, a red pom-pom nose on the bottom of the triangle and two eyes at the top. She had started the project with both of our classes while I was out yesterday morning, so I couldn’t very well take my class and not let them finish. I pulled out my project to do at the same time because of the amazing amount of stuff I had planned for all of them to do in the afternoon. As soon as I got the materials together, the reindeer table cleared out and headed to the coffee filter table. In fact, the whole room was gathered around the coffee filter table. And I thought to myself, “Here is a prime example of why child-directed art is so much better than the typical cookie-cutter, ‘everything has to be the same and look like this’ type of art that is done in most centers – the kids actually enjoy it and flock to it!”

Kids On Ice

Cover of "Toy Story: An Original Walt Dis...

Cover via Amazon

I heard it as soon as I walked in the door this morning:

“My mom is taking me to see ‘Toy Story on Ice’ tonight after school.”

“I’m going to see ‘Toy Story on Ice’ too!”

“You’re not going with me. My mom is taking me.”

“I’m not going with you – my grandpa is taking me!”

So this was the buzz of the day. It was great, though, because I knew exactly what we could do with this topic:

“How would you like it if we did our own “Disney on Ice”? We could take our shoes off and ‘skate’ around the classroom!”

ALL of the kids were really excited about the idea, until I turn on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”.

“Ms. Sarah, this is naptime music!” (I love classical music, and we usually listen to it at naptime.)

So I explained to them that it was actually a ballet, and ballerinas dance to these songs. Well, that excited them to no end, so they had fun being skating ballerinas to the music.

We also did another color-mixing project today, and it is another project that I saw on someone else’s blog but forgot which blog I saw it on. I get a lot of different education blogs fed into my reader, and usually I look at them really early in the morning when I have woken up and can’t go back to sleep. But if you recognize the project and know that you were the one who posted it, I hope that you know that I appreciate it to no end!

Anyway, I set out some baby food jars with paint in them, primary colors (I read somewhere that using baby food jars helps the kids because they can see the colors that they are working with, and they can practice using the paint brushes in the smaller jars and not make such a big mess). The kids painted one hand one color and made a handprint on one side of the paper. Then they painted the other hand another color and made a handprint on the other side of the paper. Then they rubbed their hands together until the colors were mixed and made handprints with the mixed colors in the middle. Oh, they loved this project! A lot of them are getting really good at knowing what color they are making when they mix specific colors. But even the ones who knew the colors that they were making wanted to do it over and over and over again. It made the afternoon go by really quickly.

While I was busy monitoring the use of the paint, I noticed some kids earnestly working together in the block area. I called over to them and asked them what they were making. “A house,” they answered. It absolutely warmed my heart that those particular kids were working so well together on that project. It showed me that the the changes that I have made in classroom management and working on projects together has really paid off, and I am so proud of my kids for the work that they are doing!

More Ice Exploration

Note: I realize that these entries would be better with pictures, but I don’t have a camera to do them right now! I am looking forward to getting a camera soon!

Today was a busy day with my class! I don’t think I have had such a busy day in my classroom in a very long time.

We expanded on our ice exploration today, but I quickly realized that I had already messed up. Since I can’t take them into the kitchen to see the freezer, I talked to each of the parents about showing their children their freezer at home and letting them compare and contrast the temperature inside to that of the refrigerator or even of the room that they were in. Most of the parents seemed pretty receptive to the idea of this little homework assignment, and I know that it will help our next experiments go a lot smoother.

We did make ice today, though, and when I asked the kids what we should put in the ice cube trays and where we should put them to make ice, I got some interesting answers. A lot of the kids were still stuck on color, and suggested that we put paint in the ice cube trays. But most of them remembered how the ice melted into water, and suggested that we use water to make ice. Of course, later in our project I will show them that water isn’t the only substance that we can make ice with! When I asked them where we should put the ice cube trays, they wanted to put one on the science table (because that was where the container was placed with the melting ice yesterday), one in the office (I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from), and one on the sand table. Of course, I put one in the refrigerator and two in the freezer, so we did have some ice to play with later with tongs! They had a lot of fun with that, plus they were experimenting with the taste of the ice, too!

We have also been doing some things involving color mixing. Today I filled one half of an ice cube tray with water, and put drops of different colors of food coloring (all primary colors) in each section. Then I gave the child (this was a one person activity, but I had three trays going at a time) a medicine dropper and let them mix the colors up however they wanted. They had TOO much fun! But (and I really hate to say this) my kids have had very little opportunities to do water play in the classroom.

We also started a new collage today, our holiday collage. I let the kids cut up holiday cards with scissors (I am not trying to be politically correct – most of the cards were Christmas cards, but some of them were Valentine’s, and there were some Easter cards thrown in there, too) and today they got to glue them onto a big sheet of butcher paper, along with some pom-poms and sequins. It is going to be a gorgeous collage when it is done, but I think that the kids were MUCH more interested in gluing the sequins and pom-poms than the cut-up cards.

My planned Gingerbread Man theme has gone by the wayside with all of this child-directed pandemonium going on, but they are definitely having fun, and I slipped a little gingerbread fun in there with some gingerbread playdough. Here is the recipe:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 Tbsp cloves
  • about 1 cup of water

You can let your creations set out a few days and they should dry hard. I plan on using this recipe to make ornaments this year, but we didn’t do that today. I just made the dough (with a little oil added for pliability) for them to play in today. The oil seemed to take away some of the fragrance of the dough. I wasn’t too crazy about that.

Looking forward to another crazy day tomorrow – it is supposed to be raining, so no outside time!