Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Turning It Into Treasure

Yesterday, Teacher Rachel and one of her kindergarten kids rescued some bubble wrap that was on it's way to the dumpster. It's the new kind of bubble wrap, the kind that's been manufactured so that it's impossible to pop the little bubbles. Indeed, it is isn't even bubble wrap, but rather sheets of long air-filled tubes, interconnected so that no matter how much you squeeze or poke, it won't pop. I'm certain that it's an improvement upon the old technology, and we still had fun playing with it, but I'm going to miss the satisfaction of systematically deflating an entire sheet of the old stuff, bubble by bubble.

Not long ago, I showed you some pictures that included old-fashioned clothes pegs, the kind that look like little armless, faceless people. Generations of preschool teachers and their students have used these pegs in their arts and crafts. Of course, there may still be some people who use them to hang clothing out to dry, but for the most part, even those of us who prefer air dried fabrics use more contemporary models of clothes pins. In fact, our collection includes a few pegs that may have at one time been used for their original purpose, but most of them came from a preschool supply catalog, intended from the start as children's play things.

The same thing has happened to the popsicle sticks from my youth. It used to take us an entire summer to collect enough to make anything worthwhile. Now they've been re-labeled as "craft sticks" to be purchased in boxes of 1000. Same goes for pipe cleaners. What was once a creative re-purposing of refuse or inexpensive functional items, has become brand new items never intended as anything other than art supplies.

I wonder if that's the direction in which bubble wrap is headed. I can imagine finding rolls of it for sale, at a premium, re-branded as "sensory bubbles" complete with sales copy claiming that it's an excellent way to exercise those fine motor muscles. 

I wonder the same thing about some of our other classroom staples. For instance, I used to have so many of those little film canisters stashed away in the storage room that I asked families to stop contributing them, but the digital revolution in photography has made them rare antiques. I'm genuinely surprised I haven't yet seen them advertised as "craft canisters." Not long ago, I read that at least one manufacturer is doing away with the cardboard tube at the center of its rolled toilet paper. I don't think we could run our school without those tubes. And then there is the phenomenon of screw top wine bottles and synthetic options, which is threatening our supply of traditional corks for which we've found a thousand and one uses: the supply is still steady, but I'm beginning to hoard them against the darker days ahead. And what would happen if they did away with bottle caps?

We use the store-bought craft sticks around our place and at one point we obviously purchased some of those faux clothes pegs, but I continue to have mixed feelings about the evolution of what was once garbage into manufactured goods. I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the fundamental functions of preschools in our society is to finish using things that are on their way to the dumpster, just as Rachel rescued that not-bubble-wrap yesterday. And, of course, I don't foresee a break in the garbage flow in the near future, so there will continue to be plenty of other people's garbage from which we can choose, but there is a sadness is seeing any era end.

On the other hand, I find it magnificent that the prolific creativity of preschoolers has caused what was once pure waste to outlive the products that created that waste in the first place. It's what we've always done: give us your junk and we will finish using it, learning from it, and turning it into treasure.

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