I took on the momentous task of cleaning out my daughter’s art boxes today. I cleaned out all of the dry playdough, dry markers, paper scraps and scrambled game pieces. Baby A helped by dumping out various boxes and smearing pencil shavings on the floor. I finally have it all cleaned up, and am enjoying the next hour before M comes home from school and messes it up again.
My girls are messy, not gonna lie. I wish I had one of those sparkly, organized, Pinterest houses, but I just don’t know how to make it work and still give my children any kind of attention. As I was straightening out mixed up, bent cards, I thought about something: many, many of the things my children got came in virtually new condition from other families. My kids have worn them out completely. And I’m happy about this.
I’ve been in a great many houses with children that were immaculate, some of them, even completely done in white. I always compliment them, but I’m terrified to touch anything. It doesn’t look like anyone lives there. I’m afraid if I sit on their couch I’m going to leave an imprint. I wonder how children learn in an environment like that.
Children learn by experience. They learn through exploration, through mess, through experimentation. I once had a kindergartner who cried because he accidentally ripped the corner of one of my flashcards, and was afraid I’d scram at him. I told him that I expect some bending of my materials in a room full of five year olds. I’d be a fool if I didn’t. “This is how we learn,” I said. He repaired the card with tape and we went on with our lives. Another teacher I knew once met a parent on the first day of school who handed her her son’s lunch and began giving her instructions on how to feed him. The teacher replied that teachers don’t hand-feed students, and discovered the boy couldn’t feed himself–his mother was so terrified of mess that she never allowed him access to silverware, art supplies or toys with small parts. As a result, the poor child had such poor fine motor skills he could barely function. My own father showed me all of his toys from childhood, in pristine condition–because his parents never allowed him to play with anything that was “too nice.” He told me the story with an edge of anger and resentment; all these things I’m sure he wanted to love and couldn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with organization, of course, and we do try, but I wonder how much time a parent with a white, sparkly house pays to their children. As I cleaned out the box, I looked at my daughter’s projects. A sign dripping with glitter reading “FREE HUGS.” A ball of mixed, dry playdough–she’d been playing “Master Chef” and making a mixed fruit cake, which of course won the round. A book she wrote about shapes, patterns and colors. A story made with a variety of stickers. Homemade paper dolls with princess dresses. A letter written to her baby sister about how much she loves her. a pile of broken crayons that colored endless pictures. A glue stick used to make mosaic cut from magazines. A sheaf of papers with her shaky Japanese handwriting.
Yes, it was a mess, but look what she’s learned. In that pile of writing, pictures, glitter and stickers, there’s the story of a child who loves to explore, to express herself, and to play. That’s more valuable than anything.
One of my friends has four children, and her house is ringed with large plastic bins filled with toys. At the end of the day, they toss all the toys into the bins, and it takes about five minutes for them all to be dumped out in the morning. One day, at a party, someone asked her about the bins. Did she want some ideas on organizing and hiding the toys? “No,” she said with a shrug. “I’d rather play with my kids than have a pretty house. My house will be pretty when they’re grown.” She watched the kids for a moment and added, “And I’ll miss this so much.” I will, too.