Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Exploring Limits

During my first year teaching preschool, I was appalled at the amount of glue kids were squirting from our little Nancy bottles. It just seemed so wasteful. Committed to not bossing kids around, I tried using informative statements like, "That's a lot of glue," "It only takes a dot of glue to hold a googly eye," and even the usually more powerful, "I think that's too much," but to no avail. I attempted role modeling and narrating my own "proper" glue usage with similar results. I even purchased new bottles, snipping the tips to create extra tiny holes in the hopes of limiting the flow. The kids just handed the bottles back to me saying it was "too hard," causing me to make the holes a little larger and little larger until the good white stuff was flowing freely again.

It was only after many months that I finally gave up my obsession with waste, introduced the glue table, and started just buying gallons of the least expensive glue I could find. I no longer think of glue as an adhesive, but rather as a stand-alone art medium.

This was the beginning of my journey into the deep philosophy that "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. It's not just glue. All kids some of the time, and some kids all of the time, will use the materials at hand to what adults perceive as excess, sometimes with spectacular results (bubble printing is a classic example), but more often with spectacular messes, both of which are valid results of a trial-and-error scientific process.

One of my favorite lines from all of literature is this one from Goethe:

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

More often than not, we interpret this to mean the limitations imposed from above or without, forgetting that most of our limitations in life are of the self-imposed variety. Playing with extremes is how we learn about self-limitation, which is at the heart of self-regulation or self-control. When we're not permitted the opportunity to explore limits, it means we are under the control of others, leaving us with two choices: rebellion (the natural human response to external control) or obedience (the unnatural one), neither of which tend to contribute much positive to our self-identity or our ability to think for ourselves.

I've often boasted that our school runs upon garbage, using for one last time those things heading off to the landfills and recycling centers, not using stuff as much as finishing using stuff. The fact that this is good for the environment is truly an unintended consequence: it really came about because we value managing our budget and value exploring the extremes. You just can't waste stuff that is already waste. Garbage and cheap materials are one of the ways we accommodate these seemingly opposing values.

This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. In fact, I know she is using just the right amount.

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Patti McLean said...

Wow I wish I was there, I need to let go of control . Ouch ouch ouch

Julie S said...

Admittedly, I really struggle with this one. I'll continue working on it!

Jenny said...

Oh, wise Teacher Tom. I had let go and thought I was just "giving up" by not continuing to debate with the children about how much glue, glitter, googly eyes, etc. to use. It felt wrong to argue with them about their art creations, but I also felt guilty for allowing the waste. However, your blog has helped me to understand that it is truly a process. Little artists have to figure it out for themselves and when they do and when they're ready, we can help them to understand the value of conservation.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I like your comment that "...you can't waste stuff that is already waste." In the past I have tried to limit overuse of materials such as glue because we were on a right budget and had a limited supply of things like glue. (We even diluted glue to try and make it last longer!) What is your take on limiting consumption of a material, like glue, so that all the children can use it moderately instead of just a few using all of it?

Unknown said...

This is a great way to look at how kids use things in way we have forgotten. I am in a changing path to recover the love and joy of play. Starting to teach an art class. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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