“A little dab’ll do ya!”
Most of the preschool teachers I’ve worked and volunteered with used this catchphrase, or something similar, in their efforts to guide young children in their use of glue. A little dot of glue is adequate to secure a square of construction paper, or a googly eye. Using more is wasteful, and can affect the look of the project, so kids need to be taught to exert control in their use of glue. Or so I thought. My first introduction to an alternate perspective came as I spent some time in the research-based lab preschool at my college. The teachers in a 2-year old classroom allowed, and even encouraged the young children to just squeeze all the glue they wanted onto their projects. We optimistically put their work on the drying rack, but in many cases the thick layers of glue would mold rather than dry in our humid climate. Into the trash they would go. I was a bit baffled by this, and asked the teacher why they did things that way, rather than guiding the toddlers in their glue use. She smiled, and explained that squeezing the glue out was the point of the activity, not any particular finished product. The fine motor development the squeezing provided was well worth the cost of the glue.
That made some sense. So, I amended the rules in my head. Glue use should be controlled, unless I’m trying to promote fine motor development. Got it. But then I ran across this post by my favorite preschool blogger. He takes the position that allowing kids to use what appears to be an excess of glue or other materials actually promotes their development of self-control. “When we’re not permitted the opportunity to explore limits,” he says, “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.”
For me, this wisdom resulted in a much more profound mental shift. All of a sudden, I was seeing a child’s exuberant, excessive use of materials in a whole new way. It is a first step on the path towards self-limitation and self-control, not a bad behavior that requires correction. A necessary first step, at that. One that can be experienced fully, embracing all the joy those moments can provide, with no need for direction or control. Of course I want Cat to develop self-control. But she can’t learn to limit herself if I’m constantly imposing external limits on her actions. I realized that perhaps it was time to consider sacrificing a few bottles of glue and give this new idea a try.
In embracing this philosophy, I’ve had to battle back a lot of inner voices. Shifting away from a concept I’ve embraced my entire lifetime is a process. Primarily, I’ve had to reevaluate my assessment of value and waste. When I see Cat squeezing out a mountain of glue on her paper, or covering her work in googly eyes, or scattering sand or other sensory materials around the yard with glee, I panic internally for just a second. She can’t do that! She’s wasting the materials! But no. I stop myself, and correct my thinking. She is not wasting the materials. She is using the materials. Moreover, she is using them to play and to learn. To what better use could they possibly be put? The real risk I run if I wait until a proper use for our glue and sand presents itself, is that those materials will sit on the shelf forever – and that would truly be a waste.
Now, some of the materials Cat plays with cost more than others. There are financial and environmental reasons I might not want Cat to just squeeze an entire bottle of paint directly onto the grass. If that’s the case, I try to find a reasonable alternative that meets the same need for her. For example, if Cat wants to pour out a bottle of paint just for the sake of pouring it, I might swap the paint with water that’s tinted with a few drops of paint or food coloring and let her pour to her heart’s content. Maybe add some flour or cornstarch to thicken it up. If there is a logical, practical reason to redirect Cat’s destructive or excessive play, I absolutely do so, But I try to impose limits only for practical reasons, rather than simply responding to some internal rule about how materials should and should not be used. Cat knows the difference, and she knows that when I tell her ‘no’, I always have a reason. Sometimes she independently thinks of a way around my objection, and we both celebrate her successful problem-solving.
This has been a humbling process for sure. I’ve learned that in constantly imposing limitations on resources, I have also been imposing limitations on learning. A little dab of glue will secure a googly eye, sure, but a large amount of glue? That gets really interesting. The way it pours and pools is interesting. The way it sticks to some things and not others is interesting. The way it dries out in different ways depending on its thickness is interesting. Mixing it with other materials like paint or shaving cream just adds to the learning and fun. In embracing excess, I have learned just how much I had been limiting learning potential by imposing stricter limits.
But those habits go deep. In addition to troubling me about waste, the voice in my head likes to nag me about what Cat is learning. This voice has a simple refrain. “She’ll learn that it’s ok!” I can’t let Cat dump sand out of the sandbox. She’ll learn that it’s ok. Can’t let her squirt all the shaving cream out all at once. She’ll learn that it’s ok. Can’t let her dump a big cup of water into her playdough and squish the resulting mess between her fingers. She’ll learn that it’s ok. The reason I consistently hush that voice has to do with the core of my unschooling philosophy. I do not want Cat to spend her childhood learning that life consists of a bunch of rules that she should just follow without question. I do not want her to learn the proper way to play with playdough and paint and glue and glitter. Instead, I want her to learn that she can do what she wants, and that her actions have consequences. The single best way I’ve found to teach that is to sit back, allow her to make her choices, and experience the consequences of those choices for herself. If she uses all the googly eyes for one project, she experiences the consequences of not having any left for the next time. Perhaps she learns that there are benefits to being frugal, or perhaps she learns a new way of putting eyes on her project. Either way, she’s learning.
Through this process I’ve learned that exploring limits is a need, like any other. When our needs are filled, we feel less driven to continue to engage in the actions that filled them, not more. I was worried initially, that allowing Cat to dump lots of glue or squeeze out all the shaving cream would mean that would be her way of interacting with those materials going forward. The opposite has proved to be true. She explores the limits as she feels driven to, and then, her need satiated, she moves on to different ways of interacting with the materials. All in all, I am thrilled to have discovered this alternate approach. There is absolutely no doubt that as I have begun exerting less control and restrictions, Cat’s self-control and self-restraint have skyrocketed.