It Needs To Be Enough

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There was a time when I kept a collection of styrofoam around the place, but over the years I disposed of it and not just because it takes up a lot of storage space. Sure it's engaging to stick or hammer things into it, like golf tees, but that idea invariably and ultimately turns into a festival of breaking, then shredding, leaving those static electricity filled tiny toxic balls all over the place, which is a mess worse than glitter and not nearly as festive.

Still, when someone from our community purchased new electronics or something that came with large pieces of the stuff, they often thought of us. I didn't even know where these pieces came from, but I'd spotted them stashed where the kids couldn't reach them on the playground so decided to make use of them for a day.

My idea was to combine the styrofoam with pipe cleaners. It was not the first time we'd done this and while there are usually a few kids who get into the process, it's not generally one of the most popular things we did at the art table. This particular day, however, there were even fewer takers than normal. The parent-teacher assigned to the project did her best to role model playing with the things, but the station evolved into a game in which kids were placing "orders" for things like pipe cleaner "bracelets," "flowers," and "glasses," which the adults then manufactured for them. It's a fine activity, I suppose, and I guess the kids had found a way to make it fun so who am I to judge?

That's how things stood when my friend took a seat at one corner of the styrofoam and pulled a container of pipe cleaners toward himself. If he had taken note of what the others were doing, it wasn't apparent. He started by successfully sticking one end of a pipe cleaner into the styrofoam, then another, then another. As he worked, he began to twist the fuzzy wires, bending the pieces together, weaving them together, purposefully tangling them. He didn't say a thing as he worked, concentrating fully on his creation.

I was tempted to sit beside him to narrate his process in the hopes of attracting more kids to the project (because everyone wants to be part of our classroom's ongoing stories) but I didn't. Instead, I left him to his solitary work, a man with a vision. I stopped by several times over the course of the next half hour as his magnificent tangle became increasingly complex. When he was finally finished a half hour later, he pushed himself away from the table and didn't look back.

I gave some 40 kids the opportunity to play with the styrofoam and pipe cleaners over the course of the day, most of whom declined the invitation and even those who accepted it tended to treat it like a kind of drive-by activity, something not worthy of their full engagement. But one boy did and that's enough for me to call it a success.

At the end of the day, we carefully uprooted his sculpture from the styrofoam and put it in his cubby to take home. I'm sure from his mother's end, it just looked like he had simply crushed and twisted a collection of pipe cleaners in his fists, the work of a moment. Most preschool art goes home this way, a product that can't by itself tell the story of how it came to be. I've described the visible part of his process here. I can make guesses about what he learned. I could question him. I could even, I suppose, devise some sort of pre-test and post-test and compare the results to produce "data," but at the end of the day no one but this boy will ever know what questions he asked and answered while creating this purposeful tangle of pipe cleaners stuck into styrofoam. 

It needs to be enough for us to know that it engaged him until he was ready to walk away.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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