Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Plastic Stuff

I want to save the human race as much as the next person. Despite appearances, I do have an aesthetic sense. And I think it's pretty well established that I want what's best for children. All of that said, we still have a lot of plastic things around the school, much of which is brightly colored.

There's been a movement in the preschool world over the course of the past few decades to do away with the plastic junk that has come to dominate early years environments, with an emphasis upon replacing it with more "natural" materials like wood, fabric, and metal. I support this effort on environmental, aesthetic and pedagogical grounds, yet the plastic remains even as we have greatly increased our use of said natural things over the course of the past 20 years.

One of my personal ethics, one that I think is largely shared by our school community, and I know is shared by most people who call themselves environmentalists, is that we don't throw things away as long as there is still use in them. We have a plastic shopping cart and a toy wagon, for instance, that pre-date my time at Woodland Park, playground workhorses that have managed to survive generations of children. They're garish plastic things, but how can we pitch them into a landfill (where they will remain forever) when they're still going strong? Indeed, even broken things, like trucks with no wheels or dolls with no arms, continue to have play value, I've found, with children using them in creative and unexpected ways far beyond the time that they "should" have been trashed. And even then, even when something plastic is so far gone that even the children aren't picking it up and using it for something new, it can still live on as part of a piece of art. Our "glue gun box" is full plastic items that will find new purpose as parts of sculptures or space ships or doll houses that then go home with the children to be displayed on shelves, played with, and otherwise treasured for at least a little more time before, I presume, finally, winding up as garbage, long after they would have otherwise.

Generally speaking, I do not find plastic things to be beautiful and if I could snap my fingers and turn all the plastics in our school into alternative materials, I would. I would rather spend my days surrounded by the warmth and beauty of wood and stone, and I don't dismiss the experts who caution us about surrounding children with the gaudy colors that plastic toy makers seem to favor. As we purchase new things, I strive for the sort of look and feel of natural things. The set of sturdy tables and chairs we purchased for outdoor use, made from plastic salvaged from recycled plastic milk jugs, are a chocolate brown. Our playhouse is made from untreated wood. Our outdoor environment is dominated by wood, plants, concrete, and brick, but because another of our ethics is that we favor donations over purchasing new stuff (again, I believe, an environmentally, as well as economically, sound choice) we stand as the sort of "beggars" who can't always be choosers. When someone offers their old car tires or the guts of an defunct washing machine or a collection of Disney figurines, we enthusiastically take them. From where I stand, one of the functions of preschools in our society is not to use things, but to finish using things. And while these things may not be "beautiful" to the adult eye (hence our playground's moniker, the Junkyard Playground), they are delights to the children as evidenced by how enthusiastically they incorporate vacuum cleaner hoses, the caps from dried out marker pens, and discarded office machinery into their play, creating the sort of beauty that can always be found in the eye of the beholder.

So while I am in favor of reducing the use of plastic in our environment, and I congratulate those who have achieved it, I will also never be fanatical about it. There is still use and even a kind of beauty in those plastic items, not to mention that they are, for us, free, which is good for everyone except the folks who continue to manufacture ugly plastic things for kids.

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