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.