Friday, February 25, 2022

Cute Things and Empty Promises


I knew a fellow whose childhood approach to not wanting to go to bed was to march up to his parents’ bedroom and give impromptu lectures. The most notable occasion was when he announced himself as follows:

I am here today to talk to you about Sharp Tools and Dangerous Weapons.

Well, friends, it’s Free Form Friday.

I am here today to talk to you about Things That Look Like Things.

This is not because I am putting off any imposed bedtime but because it is a topic truly bugs me and it was bound to come up sometime.

If you’ve ever sent a child to preschool, or  have friends or relatives who have, you will be familiar with the painfully adorable assortment of crafty things that children often bring home, especially around holidays, but often in conjunction with various preschool themes. 

  • Caterpillars from egg cartons
  • Pine cone turkeys
  • Toilet paper roll robots
  • Coffee filter butterflies
  • Paper plate pizzas
You get the point. Every child gets called to the table to make one and every child brings one home and adults say, “oh, that’s so cute.”

I am here to tell you today that those things are not art, in case you wondered, and they’re very often not the best use of your child’s time, either. A preschool program that relies heavily on requiring that students make things things look like things is often not investing time in what children really need: things that they think up and create themselves.

The odd shoebox with ominous purple markings, a bit of glitter at one end and three rocks from the playground is a precious place for self-directed learning. Children don’t need us to define what they create.  They have so many amazing ideas if we only invite them to pursue what they find important. It’s almost always in the weird things that adults can’t figure out that children are doing the most learning.

And it’s not just some amorphous “creativity” I’m talking about here. Young children visualize something in their heads, make decisions, gather materials, try things out, make corrections, talk about their work, make connections to things they care about. Purely through their own interest and motivation they are practicing valuable skills, including, but not limited to:

coordination and fine motor control
spacial reasoning
sensory exploration
cognitive development through planning, comparison and problem-solving
social and emotional maturation through increased focus, collaboration with others and feeling pride and success.

To contrast, preconceived projects where a child is “called to the table” are largely exercises in:

following directions
interacting with directive adults

As well as any focused skill-building embedded in the project.

This is not to say that all such projects are instruments of the Devil. A gifted teacher can enrich such moments of one-to-one or small group work with children in any number of positive ways. But an early childhood program which sacrifices child-directed activities for an emphasis of predigested “crafts” is short-changing their students: especially when every child is forced to complete them regardless of interest or ability.

The amount of brain activity which goes on when a student is making their own choices and pursuing their own plans is enormous and the quality of it is robust and complex. Making something your teacher tells you to make, no matter how “cute”, will never compare to the feeling of independence, agency, and self-esteem derived from an environment which supports child-directed activities.

Keep this in mind when a young friend brings you something you do not understand. Do not ask, “what is it?” Ask them to tell you about it. Then, listen. Listen and respond. Good follow ups are, “how did you make it?” “Was it fun to make?” “Tell me about your ideas.” 

It’s almost always appropriate to share an open-ended expression of appreciation, such as, “Woah! That’s so cool!” But your approval is truly less important than your genuine interest. As an important adult in a child’s life your interest and attention is gold. It shouldn’t be the reason they do The Thing, but it’s an extension of their learning, and contributes to your relationship with them and their sense of well-being.

In closing: beware of Things That Look Like Things. They may look cute but they’re full of empty promises.


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