Sunday, October 5, 2014

creative mess

Look at this neat Montessori classroom: every object has its place, and every kid is working nicely with only one manipulative at a time, then cleans it up before taking out the next one... Which mother hasn't swooned over the beauty of the set-up, the clean lines, the perfect choreography to make this all work, the obedient kids who would never dare throw an object across the room or mix the materials?
It's such a dream, you know, especially for those of us whose houses are in a constant state of disarray.

I stayed home this Yom Kippur with 1 yo while my husband took the three older ones to shul. Most of the toys that are in my living room/playroom are for 1 yo. We have a wooden kitchen which we use to store bins with the toys. The toys are: a big bag of Mega blocks and a Mega Blocks car; a bin of train tracks and wooden building blocks, a  plastic cube sorter toy, two puzzles, and a bin with tea set. It is not a small amount of toys, but it is not that large, either. Usually I do not watch closely how 1 yo plays with his toys, but I do find a lively mess of everything being dumped out either by nap time or by bedtime. I often despair of cleaning it all, just to know that it will all get dumped again a few short hours later. 

I have pared down. I have thrown things out or rotated them or banished them to the basement. I live in that perfect Montessori classroom fantasy, thinking that if only I was organized enough, my children would be just as neat as those kids in the picture.

But this Yom Kippur, as I laid on the couch, I got to observe firsthand what 1 yo actually does with all those toys.

First thing, he took the whole bag of Mega blocks and dumped it on the floor. He enjoys the sound of so many things hitting the wooden floor. Then he started stacking them up. Then he figured out that he can attach Mega blocks to the handles of a push toy because the openings are the same diameter as the tops of Mega blocks. He built long drooping towers poking from the handles. Then he took the pieces from one of the wooden puzzles, dumped them all out and loaded them into the car. He pushed that around for a bit, then turned the car upside down to unload the shapes.

Then he dumped out the tea set from a solid plastic bin, and filled it up with Mega blocks. He climbed onto the couch  and tried dragging the bin with him. I helped out. He tried building with blocks on the couch, but the surface was not too sturdy. Then he dumped out the whole bin onto the couch, but there was not that satisfying sound of blocks hitting a hard surface. He started throwing them off the couch onto the floor, one by one. One of them hit a toy xylophone and produced a melodious tone. He started aiming in that direction.

He dumped out all the train tracks and started throwing them into the toy oven. Then he tried climbing inside, but it was not comfortable, sitting on all those wooden pieces. He climbed into the nearby compartment instead and worked hard on closing the door behind him.

He stuffed some blocks into the couch. He built and destroyed multiple times. He made a tremendous mess. He is obviously learning about what fits into what, and he is getting some kind of kick of placing the toys inside and then dumping them out.

I watched and thought: if I did not have all these toys out and available to play, he would surely not stay busy for as long as he did. If I made him clean up after he played with each toy, he would not be combining them in those crazy combinations. And if I spent so much time agonizing over how messy the room would look at the end, I would not be able to observe what he was doing while happily making this mess.

How many times, when the kids get older, we hand them a blank piece of paper and tell them to be creative: write up something, draw up something, fold up something new? How many times we expect them to make something wonderful out of a box, or a roll of toilet paper, or some paper scraps when we always give them only one set of preselected materials and extol them not to make too much of a mess? And then, one day, we expect them to combine random materials and make something totally new and amazing?

So here is to messy playrooms, mixed-up toys and creative kids. Here is to parents who will dare to put their kids' need to explore before their need for a "presentable" house. Here is to keeping that insatiable curiosity of a toddler alive in much older kids (and adults).

In case you are wondering, I do clean up those Mega blocks with 1 yo every time he goes to sleep. We sing "clean up" song, and he dumps them into the bag. He likes to put each block into his mouth first and then let it go right over the bag. He is also very tempted to dump the entire bag once it is full. But we do a basic clean-up.

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