Friday, October 14, 2011

The Urge To Destroy?

I recall a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy was repeatedly building a sand castle, then knocking it down, the punch line being something like, "My urge to create is equal to my urge to destroy."

I don't know if the urge to destroy is the equal and opposite reaction to the human urge to create, but there is certainly a drive to destruction in some of us, perhaps all of us, some of the time. For instance, I typically "start" our block area off with a simple structure. It is a rare day indeed that it survives the third child in the room, at least here at the beginning of the school year when the ethic of "knocking down" v. "not knocking down" buildings has yet to become fully established.

I often wonder, however, if that "urge" is an urge at all, but rather a learned behavior because it doesn't seem particularly adaptive to me. Perhaps it's the toys themselves, these blocks and the inherently temporary nature of the structures they build into, which causes children to engage in the "Build It Up and Knock It Down" pattern of play. The same goes for puzzles and play dough, these reusable toys that become one thing that then must be destroyed before they are useful again.

That must be part of the phenomenon, especially inside the classroom, but outdoors things tend to be different. This is where the things that are "destroyed" are permanently destroyed. I'm thinking, for example of Colin, who went through a phase of several weeks during which he would sit astride one of our sand pit diggers and use the shovel to tear away at the underside of a rotting tree stump, hollowing it out day after day. It looked like pure destruction to me until one day he explained that he was, in fact, not decimating a stump, but rather "making a hole." I'm thinking of Sophia who used to get to the top of our climber and strip our pine tree of needles, over time denuding all the lower branches. It looked like pure destruction until she mentioned that it was "medicine for my pony." I'm thinking of the joy we get from smashing our pumpkins after Halloween, when what we are really doing is making our own dirt.

On Wednesday, after several days of using our hand crank coffee grinder in the classroom, a difficult chore, I thought I'd let the kids have a whack at "grinding" coffee the easy way. We took our rubber mallets out to a stump, put on safety glasses, selected the mallet we wanted to use, "small, medium, or large," then proceeded to smash fistfuls of beans, taking turns. 

There is always a balance that one must find when using hammers and mallets between applying force and taking aim. All of the children experimented with this, naturally, without my saying anything. Those that started off wailing away, soon toned it down as they addressed the challenge of hitting those tiny targets, while those that started with great aim, found they had to turn it up a notch to actually break the beans. We were using a mixture of roasted and un-roasted beans and quickly figured out that the "brown" beans were much more brittle, and thus easier to crush, than the "green" ones, which required more force.

As we did this, I was reflecting on the "urge to destroy," thinking that this was certainly a purely destructive endeavor, until Rex, who has twice swung our drum sticks so hard that he's accidentally broken through the drums, but who was now carefully crushing those beans with a rubber mallet, told me, "I'm making this coffee for mom."

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kristin said...

if i let myself, i can have one heck of a good time breaking something...for the sake of breaking it...and i see it all the time...and i resist it...and i'm learning not to.

thanks, again.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I like this post. You provide some very interesting observations of your children - and reveal that the children did have purpose behind their work(destruction).

I love that the little boy was making his coffee for his mom.

I recall as an older preschooler being very involved one summer hammering rocks to smithereens (without safety eye wear) (in the late 1950s, and the parents didnt know)but being very wrapped up in it as a process and I believe we thought we were making precious powders.

Children seem to usually have a sense of purpose to their actions.

Thanks for this interesting post!

Jessie said...

Sometimes I read your posts and I just feel happy that you are out there, observing kids, reminding us of things we forget, challenging us to see in new ways. Thanks.

This post reminds me of a story I heard from a child psychologist. She'd been working with a boy whose parents were freaked out that he had been finding worms and cutting them all in half. Eventually, he explained to her that he had heard they regenerate, and he didn't want them to be lonely, so he was cutting them in half so they'd have friends.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

This has made me reflect on something my daughters did this summer. For months we'd been watching our pears get bigger and fatter, anticipating how wonderful they'd be in September (we're in Canada...growing fruit can be a challenge). One day I was working in the garden, and the girls were playing down by the fruit trees. I walked down to see what they were up to, and found they'd picked EVERY PEAR, taken one bit, found it sour, and threw it into the long grass. Every pear. Then they broke off all the lower branches. I tried not to cry :) and explained about fruit ripening etc., because they innocently claimed, "All the pears were yucky". If I view it as a scientific exploration, I don't feel so bad about it. Next year, though, I'll put a net around the tree! Heehee!
I love how you embrace the natural things children do without judgment, and without stepping in to tell them to "play nicely" with the materials they find around them.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Yes, it so much about the intention." I'm making coffee for my mom." And thank you Jessie, I love the worm comment.
Mortar and pestels are pretty cool for transforming smaller things (notice the term "transform" as opposed to "destroy", lol)

John said...

Maybe breaking things is inherent so that we can test the strength of objects. Thus making them less breakable by trial and hammer. That's my unscientific first thought anyway.