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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Documenting Children’s Learning

If there is one thing that I have become passionate about in the past year or so, it is documenting the learning that goes on in my classroom. Not only have I found it to be a wonderful way to see just what the children are learning when involved in different classroom activities, but I have found it to be absolutely crucial when it comes to figuring out how to use or augment the curriculum to enhance and further the development of the children involved.

For example, a little over a month ago (its probably been two months now) the children and I went outside to collect leaves for a project. One of the kids happened to look up and noticed the leaves that were falling off of the trees. Through asking open-ended questions I found out that most of the children in the class did not have the term “falling” in their expressive vocabulary (although it was present in their receptive vocabulary). Through documenting the children’s discovery and understanding of falling, as well as their ability to use the word as part of their vocabulary, I was able to come up with several different activities to enhance their understanding of falling, as well as giving the children more opportunities to use the word as they talk about falling.

By documenting all of this information through pictures, quotes from the children, and my own observations, I am able to see the changes in the children’s understanding and development through time. Additionally, the added documentation will lead to more activities that will lead to more discoveries.

I have often tried to explain to different teachers, as well as to parents, that – to me – documentation serves three purposes: it provides a timeline for development and a springboard for new activities for teachers; it provides the child with a set of “instructions” for how to revisit a project on their own; and it provides evidence of learning to the parent.

The idea that the child can look at documentation and use it to initiate a self-directed activity is an important one. If a child is genuinely interested in a project, they will use the documentation to help them explore a project again and perhaps expand on the knowledge that they have already gained from the project. I have seen this in my classroom, where my children are currently experimenting with ramps and bridges. Each time that we revisit the project (or the children revisit it themselves), their understanding of why objects act the way they do on a ramp or a bridge deepens.

I recently posted an article about observing during easel painting, in which I wrote detailed notes about what the children did, as well as what they said, while painting on an easel. This exercise was very eye-opening for me as I observed how the children interacted with the paint and the brushes, as well as how they articulated their thoughts about what they were doing. This information was priceless to me as I tracked their development, and the observations of the interactions led to more ideas for projects that would allow the children to explore with different materials in the same way that they explored with the paint.

For more information about documentation:

30 Days of Documentation – Yo Yo Reggio

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.

My First Day Teaching an Emergent Curriculum – Exploring Ice

Today was an exciting day for my class. Not only did our home living receive a makeover (it looks much more realistic now!) but we started our first child-directed project today!

When I arrive at work, the first thing my class does is go outside. I was somewhat hesitant about taking them outside today because it was pretty cold, but I figured that a little outside time was better than none, so we loaded up with containers to collect items for nature-inspired art and out we went.

Plans changed and gelled quickly once we got outside, though. There was ice at the bottom of the slides! We pondered how that ice got there and came up with some hypotheses (unfortunately our camera isn’t working right now, or I would have pictures!). I was hurriedly scribbling all of the comments down for later documentation, too. Some of the comments were great, like “The ice must have fallen from the sky!”

We took the ice inside and put it in a plastic tub. I told the kids that it was going to change, and asked them how they thought it would change. The dominant opinion was that it was going to change colors. They kept watch over the ice for the majority of the morning, convinced that it would turn brown (there was a LOT of dirt on that ice). It wasn’t until after nap time that most of the ice was melted and we got to see that it had turned into water.

Tomorrow we are going to make our own ice, and I am going to show the kids that the water has to get REALLY cold before it will turn into ice. We will leave one ice tray in the classroom, put one in the refrigerator, and one in the freezer.

Oh, this is so fun!