Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Disease Of Stuff

There is a pile of stuff that lives in my neighborhood. This is what it looks like:

It moves around inside a strictly proscribed area, first to one side, then another, around the intersection of Dexter and Denny. I've never seen it on the move, but it does move. Sometimes there is a person inside the stuff. I've seen toes sticking out between those shopping carts, moving just enough to betray the life that hides in there. This is a mentally ill person, no question, and this person is a symptom of a societal illness that thrives at the intersection of greed, poverty, helplessness, and stuff.

Stuff is a big deal in American culture, maybe the defining deal. Everyone has too much: too many cars, too many TVs, too much clothing, too many closets and garages and cellars stuffed with stuff. And we all crave more stuff. Even our mentally ill street people have too much stuff. It's not just an American affliction, of course: Australians suffer from it, as do people in the UK, and Canada, but I would have to say that the US is ground zero for the plague of stuff. We hear people sing the praises of "scaling down" or "simplifying," but from where I sit, it seems more like a fashion than a movement.

Several years ago, I became acutely aware that my stuff was owning me, rather than the other way around, which lead to a purging project that reached a peak earlier this year when I gave away my car, but I still have more stuff than is healthy.

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling is that it can give one a true sense of how much stuff one really needs. Two summers ago, I spent an entire month in Australia and New Zealand with only as much stuff as could fit in my modest back pack. I was, in the spirit of traveling light, frustrated on my final day in Iceland last week when I realized that I'd packed four articles of clothing that I hadn't even worn. Next time, I'll travel with even less.

I've been thinking about stuff since my return from Iceland. I was there to take part in the Play Iceland conference, along with some 40 other play-based early childhood practitioners, where we attempted to immerse ourselves in the educational methods of another culture. For many of us, one of the most obvious and profound differences between Icelandic preschools and the ones we teach at in the US, UK, and Canada, was how little stuff we saw at the schools we visited. One incredible school at which my group spent a day, a place located at the end of the world called Kaldársel (which I will write more about in the coming days), was set in an old farm house that had once been used as a summer camp. It featured no more than a dozen toys for 30+ kids. Seriously. The pictures you see in this post are interior shots of the school. 

In fairness, the focus of this particular school is its remarkable outdoor setting, but on the day we visited it was cold, windy and rainy, and many of the children chose to stay indoors where they found plenty to do, goofing around on the bunk beds, running around the gym, playing house in the toilet stalls, and trying to figure out the foosball table, a relic from a different era. They were as active and engaged as any children I've seen in any school: such is the power of play.

My own school is comparatively stuffed with stuff, even if only a very small portion of it is available to the children on any given day, but we're a Spartan barracks compared to many American preschools. As I watched these Icelandic preschoolers "make do" with so little, I thought of places I'd seen back home with rooms full of computers, walls and shelves crammed with "educational materials," and floors bestrewn with toys. The children I saw at Kaldársel clearly thrived without any of it.

I doubt that Woodland Park will ever pare down to the bones like and, in fairness, most of the schools we saw in Iceland had more toys than we actually saw: Icelandic teachers, I think, are better about putting everything away behind closet doors when the play is done. As a man of Scandinavian heritage, I suspect that there is more than just pedagogy at work here. Scandinavian design is renowned for it's clean simplicity and clutter is anathema to that, so some of what we witnessed, I'm sure, was cultural aesthetics.

Still, the teachers I spoke to confirmed that the minimalist approach to toys was a conscious decision, one that is supported by evidence that too much stuff can overstimulate and over stresses young children, and indeed, all of us.

Upon my return to Seattle, I stopped by my school. When I looked over the fence at the playground, it looked as it always does, junkyard chic, but it did strike me as a bit chock-a-block, a bit overwhelming, a bit too cluttered. This trip to Iceland was good for me, in the way travel is always good for a person: it gets you out of your "house." In this case it got me out of my American house of stuff where I could see that is, indeed, a house of stuff.

I'm going to be thinking about this for awhile, and part of that will include taking my own pulse and reading my own temperature, as well as that of the kids. We're American after all and this disease of stuff is highly contagious.

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JPack said...

I saw this in Helsinki and Sweden too. In fact, in Helsinki, the young children were outdoors in chilly, sleeting weather playing in a wide open space surrounded by small boulders. There were no toys, no playground equipment. The children were bundled up, running around, climbing the boulders and looking very happy. They were there for at least one hour. Does this encourage more imaginative play? More inventiveness? I don't know.

Unknown said...

I was trying PreK at a corporate care center up until two weeks ago. I am now at a Reggio inspired center and the difference is drastic. The shelves are by no means devoid of stuff but there is definitely less of it. I now work with infants and toddlers which in my last center would mean a crazy, stressful, manic clean up time but here, it's no big deal even if every toy available to the children is out. Plus, we spend most of our time outside! Everyone is happier.

In addition, my new school is a parent cooperative. This makes all the difference for me as a teacher. Parents that will clean, volunteer, do the laundry, and hang around to talk to the teachers at the end of the day was unheard of at my last center. I spent so much energy doing the keep up with the building things, I barely had time to do activities with the children. We're a team here, as it should be.

Nancy Schimmel said...

Some play stuff is too specific, too. What I remember from kindergarten 75 years ago were the musical instruments that came out at a certain time, easels, big wooden blocks, and a play stove. But why a play stove? A plain box can be a stove or a store counter or a table or a boxcar.

Emma burrow said...

My youngest son had two months over summer again German kindergarten, where, for two months each year, they put away all toys. The children can only use desks, chairs and rugs for imangiative play. The children are engaged and happy using their imagination - and playing with others. It's an amazing place!

MissFifi said...

It's funny how you say too much stuff can overwhelm a child. My son has a little friend who pretty much has as much stuff as an FAO Schwartz would. There are toys EVERYWHERE! And her mom once commented that she read somewhere that the more stuff there is, the more creative the child will be. I did not think that was the case and instead, what I usually witness when we get together, is a child that wants whatever someone else has. She also flits about from one thing to another. Sometimes I think less is more is a much better way to go.

greyhoundgirl said...

I'm not sure I buy the link you are trying to make between an apparantly homeless person's stuff and the over accumulation of stuff (and society's support of over accumulation) by many of us who have more resources. It actually sounds rather dismissive of this person. I absolutely agree with the rest of the post, though.