Messy Play

This morning, I completed a morning of arts and crafts. Not being the most artistic person in the world, I rarely reach for the PVA glue in my free time. However, as part of my Sunday teaching job, I joined twenty 5 and 6 year olds, in rolling up my sleeves and picking up my felt tips.

As a five year old, we have already been trained to love arts and crafts. Talent does not really come into it. Sure, some kids are better at staying in the lines and glueing accurately, some can be trusted with the glitter pot whilst some clearly cannot, but generally, kids are not aware of these differences. The enjoyment of icing your own cookies is not marred at all by the fact that the kid next to you has a pretty passable flower on his biscuit, while you have mixed so many colours that you just have a pool of brown sludge on yours. Cover it with sprinkles, that’s right-no one will guess.

But as we get older, we let go of the hobbies that are not either ‘for our own good’ or that we show some proficiency in. If we are not artistic or creative, then the enforced lessons after primary school until we can let go of the subjects, are at best- an annoyance, and at worst- highly embarassing.

Where does this embarassment come from? We weren’t worried as a kid to have our ‘artwork’ proudly displayed on the refrigerator, regardless of its similarity to whatever it supposedly depicted.

I think the answer is praise. As a kid, we are clapped and cheered for the smallest acts, whether we deserve it or not. Without this praise, we are unable to develop as we should, and we have no encouragement to repeat and learn behaviour which enables us to grow and change.

I found myself doing it this morning, “wow, that’s lovely!” to a child who basically tipped the bowl of icing onto his plate. “Is that a picture of the Greeks?” to a kid who’s scrawlings resembled a pretty intentional scribble. Before a child reaches a certain age, it is impossible to be critical of their artistic endeavours without simply coming across as mean.

And then we grow up. We start to understand that we are in competition, even when it is unspoken, and our competitive urges come out. We want to be the best, something most young children dont even think about, and so in order to keep ourselves at the top of the game, we search for the activities we are most skillful at, and improve on those further, leaving our poor efforts of other genres behind without a second glance.

I dont think this is necessarily a bad thing. We can’t do everything, after all. So why not stick to what we are really good at? As a kid, we are praised for everything, giving us the ability to explore all our possibilities and decide what’s right for us. Later on, we learn the difference between false and real praise, and hopefully gain the truthful kind once we’ve found our path.

But this morning, picking up my gluestick, and sitting next to another teacher, we engaged in competitive behaviour of the most juvenile kind. Both having qualifications in real grown up subjects, and having left artistic endeavour behind many years ago, we pitted ourselves against one another, laughed childishly when each others projects were going wrong and forced anyone who walked into the room to judge our work against one another. Laughing throughout, it was still truly interesting to see the twenty 5 and 6 year old’s reaction to our playful opposition.

Firstly, throughout our game, and letting the kids get on with their own work, we never once heard one of them boasting about their own work or putting down one of their peers. The contentment with which they created their own masterpieces was truly enviable. It didnt matter what anyone else was doing. For the two of us, the competition was a huge part of what made it fun.

Secondly, on showing the kids our own creations, they not only could barely see the difference between them, but while they voted for and against our respective models, a few kids took it upon themselves to do exactly what I had been doing only an hour earlier with their biscuits.

“wow! you both worked really hard on those!”

“you put lots of time and effort into that!”

Placated by a five year old. I think I made the right choice saying goodbye to arts and crafts and sticking to the writing.

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