Saturday, November 24, 2012

It's All Being Used

In response to yesterday's post, a couple readers, reacting to photos of children emptying glue bottles, asked me to comment on "waste."

When I first started teaching, this drove me crazy; the urge in some children to just squeeze until it's all gone. Not only did it strike me as wasteful, but it also tended to overwhelm whatever else was going on at the art table that day. I've never been in favor of bossing kids around, even as a neophyte teacher, so I knew I had to approach the "problem" creatively.

But first, I had to ask myself, why do they squeeze the glue and paint bottles until they're empty? I suppose I could come up with a list of things they may or may not be teaching themselves in the process -- cause and effect, air pressure, targeting, trajectory, gravity, viscosity, color mixing, whatever -- but I was, and still am, satisfied with knowing that if a child engages robustly in any kind of play, he's exploring something he really needs to understand. And when a lot of kids of a certain age do something, consistently, over years, such as emptying squeeze bottles, then whatever they're learning, it's probably something pretty important. It's enough for me to know that.

So, being a clever adult person, I put squeeze bottles in the sensory table, along with water, and let the kids knock themselves out, figuring we would do this for a few weeks, then when the glue bottles reappeared the kids would have learned what they needed to learn about emptying bottles and be ready for something else. I let it run for a couple of weeks, waiting for a day during which our little bottle squeezing activity lay largely fallow. Figuring this was a sign that it was out of their collective systems, I then reintroduced glue bottles. But no, what the kids taught me that day is the great truth that glue is not water, and as a different thing, it also needs to be fully explored by emptying bottle after bottle. Back to the drawing board.

As I was contemplating our glue bottles one day, trying to crack this particular nut, I noticed that some of them had larger holes than others. As I examined further, I even found one loose screw-on top with no hole at all. Wait a minute! This is how they all start -- the teacher gets to decide how big the holes are by how much of the tip gets snipped off. How about just ordering new glue bottles, then giving them tiny, tiny holes so the kids have to really work to get the glue out? Then they won't waste so much. Hmm? Hmm? Smart, huh?

A week later, equipped with what I couldn't help but think of as my "miserly" glue bottles, I was feeling pretty confident. The first several kids, after much effort, eeked out a  few drops or perhaps a thin stream of glue. Then one girl handed me her bottle, saying, "It's too hard. You do it." Then others did the same. Okay, so maybe the holes needed to be a little bigger. I carefully trimmed a bit from the top of each glue bottle until the children were no longer trembling as they squeezed. Some of them still were unable to manage it, so I trimmed a bit more . . . Well, needless to say, before too much time had passed, we were again emptying bottle after bottle.

Alright then, this was going to have to go up a notch. If we need to learn about squeezing glue from bottles, then we were going to learn about squeezing glue from bottles. This was the advent of our first glue table, a place where it's important to empty glue bottles if you really want our garbage art to hold together. It's impossible to waste glue at the glue table.

Since then, I've learned that if you really want to use glue, and want kids to focus on something other than emptying glue bottles, and you don't want to boss them around, you just put the glue in a small dish with a paint brush. I do it not because I'm concerned about waste, however, but rather because some kids appreciate things when they don't involve pools of glue.

If it's too valuable to be used in excess, we don't bring it into the classroom. I want children to be able to explore and experiment freely at school -- that's what makes a play-based curriculum work. When it comes to educational materials, like glue, it's hard for me to think in terms of waste because it seems to me it's all being used in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. That's what the kids have taught me about squeeze bottles and glue.

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Plumbnest said...

Thank you for this! Exactly the framing my brain needed. A glue table!!! Luckily my husband has gotten used to me exclaiming from my position in front of the computer, "I loves me some Teacher Tom!" Wish I had big pile of dough (not the play kind) to send you. You brighten my day and inspire my teaching (and thinking and writing). Mucho, mucho, gracias.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's helpful to see how you worked through your thought process on the topic. I guess that maybe this is one of the benefits of being in a classroom where unlimited art/craft supplies can be provided. We home school and only have a certain amount of money that can be spent on supplies in a given time frame, and if it all gets used up, that is it until the next paycheck. Although I try to provide as many spaces in our home where my kids don't need to have limits on how they use things, since our school is our home, I'm unable to stick to "if it's valuable, it doesn't come in the door".

Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I have definitely observed the same phenomenon with glue puddling. Perhaps it is the same principal as to why kids mix paint colors until they turn brown or ghastly green. The process of observing how the glue moves, and pours, and drips is pleasurable. Perhaps making a big glue puddle and watching it spread across a surface gives a child a feeling of power. The power to control and manipulate a runny, gooey material. Recently I purposely poured water on a table so my students and I could watch it spread. Have I ever seen this happen before? Yes, and so have they, but it was still interesting. And there were a lot of things to notice as the water spread and got thinner on the edges and formed unusual shapes.
I also was thinking about when my kids would take a hose into our large sandbox and make lakes and rivers and dams, and watching the force of the water move sand or create new channels was endlessly fascinating for them. Every time they could get out to the sandbox with the hose they would. And when friends came over it was even more fun to show them what a sandbox, a few shovels, and a hose could do.
As an adult I have to admit that glue puddling does feel wasteful, but as an observer of children it does seem to be a developmental stage. Thanks again for another great post!

Deborah said...

It's funny Tom because this year, my students pretty much only use squeeze glue bottles. Oh we had a few major puddles at the beginning of the year but I guess they have moved past most of that because now they use them just like you or I would (mostly).

Recently, one student asked for the glue bottles with brushes just for something new I guess. He immediately dumped the entire bottle of glue out on his paper! LOL! I guess I forgot to show him that we are supposed to brush the glue on:)

Your glue table is one of my faves!!