It started one morning as I watched a group of small hands moving back and forth across a paint soaked paper, something sparking in my mind. Even though I had what felt like a million other things to do that morning I couldn’t help but stop to observe the beautiful dance before me. My eyes moved all around the table I had set up with jars of different colored paints, watching to see what the children would do, waiting for their ideas to unfold. I watched as Bexley pulled bits of paint and splashed them onto the paper, creating golden circles with the swish of her hands. I listened as Alleyne and Grace, dug their hands deep in to the jars, giggling every time it would splatter onto the paper or their clothes. I sat just behind each one of them watching the intention they all had in their use of each color, and the joy they clearly felt in being able to engage in this sensory experience.
And then there was Coretta. Her hands seemed to move in a different rhythm from the other children, bouncing from jar to jar gathering up globs of paint as they went. I watched her for a while as she dipped her hands into each jar, her fingertips literally dripping with paint. Then all of sudden I heard a splat. Coretta’s hands smashed against the paper creating a large grey pool with streaks of colors bursting off the sides. My eyes were drawn to her wondering what she would do next, expecting the enthusiastic energy she gathered the paint with to funnel into her actual painting. But, she surprised me. As soon as her hands touched the paper I saw her body relax, her eyes focus, and her fingers begin to move with obvious intention. I observed for a while as she carefully moved her fingers across different colors, mixing two at a time and then sliding her hands over to try the same technique on two more.
In just a few minutes a rainbow of new colors was spread across the paper. Coretta’s hands, still soaked in paint, gently massaged a soft purple that formed in the very spot where the mess of gray used to be. With all the other children now off to try something new, I sat next to her and scooted in close, listening as she told me about the colors she created and all the amazing things she now saw in the paint before her. In this moment I saw a spark, small but still powerful, one that had inspired Coretta and myself to see more than just the mess.
As I thought about this moment for the next few days I began to reflect on it in the context of some of the discussions we often have here at Little Owl. Whenever we introduce materials we always give children the opportunity to explore things in a sensory way, which usually means they are going to get a little “messy”. This is a process we and I’m sure other teachers value, and an important part of introducing materials to children. I think many us can appreciate the creative awakening that happens when children get to slide their hands through paint or roll their bodies against a big block of clay. We know what that means for children and we know how deeply they connect with materials when given the opportunity to experience them in that way.
What I wondered more about however, was how people might view Coretta’s version of this.
While the other children who explored the paint still got messy, they did it with a purpose, with a clear intention from beginning to end. They carefully chose the paint they wanted to use, were very aware of how to keep from mixing the colors, and when they were finished with their plan cleaned up and moved on to something new. The exploration on their end was perfectly aligned with how I think many teachers hope experiences like that would play out and that idealized version of what it means to have messy exploration/play.
Coretta on the other hand took a very different approach. She didn’t come to the table with a plan and choose her colors the way other children did she used them all. She mixed colors in all the jars and splashed paint all over herself and the table. She came to the space with an energy that could have easily been seen as “too much” for this indoor space, but for this particular artist it was the door to her creativity.
So what happens when children challenge our ideas about what “messy” play should look like? Do we put limits on these explorations or follow the children’s lead?
While these answers will always be dependent on both school’s, teachers, and even parent’s individual philosophies and comfort zones, I think there is a lot that we can discover just by looking at the experience Coretta had. Sometimes as adults, I believe we get so caught up in our own perceptions of what happens when children get “too messy” that we tend to forget the value that it holds for young children. We instantly see a mess as a problem to be fixed rather than a sign that learning has taken place. We infuse our own feelings, ideas and intentions into experiences where children simply need freedom to explore without adults looking over their shoulders and telling them the way things should go. We guide things that should be self-guided and don’t trust children to make mistakes and grow from those experiences.
Pablo Picasso once said that “the chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.”
When I first noticed Coretta mixing all the paint, I will admit I had a moment where a voice in my head wanted me to stop her, to use my “good sense” and preserve the paint for the other children, to make sure that my intention was seen by the coming groups. My adult mind assumed what would happen if Corretta continued, and how the other children would feel about the paint being mixed. What I realized in that moment however, was that I was the only one at the table who was worried, the only one who thought about stopping this expression of creativity from taking place. The other children, even with their specific visions and precise painting styles, didn’t care that Coretta was mixing the paint or about how fast she was moving. They didn’t worry about it at all they simply let her be, honoring her process and giving her the space to express herself in her own unique way.
Looking back now I realize that listening to my “good sense” and giving into those adult urges would’ve have halted a process that was far more enriching that I ever predicted through my assumptions. I might have preserved the paint for other children but the cost would have been Coretta’s ability to fully experience her own creativity.
But how do we support children’s creativity even in times when that process might challenge our thoughts about what works?
The answer to that, I believe, is just to take a step back.
Many times things that challenge our intentions as adults, lead to some of the most meaningful explorations for children. In those moments children gain new perspectives, generate new ideas and learn about themselves and where their ideas fit into the world. When the freedom to explore, get messy, and make mistakes, they feel more inclined to go all in and to share their ideas with those around them. Its through those explorations and those opportunities to be self-guided that children feel like their thoughts and ideas belong and where they are motivated and inspired to keep exploring, to try new things, and to be unafraid to step outside the box.
But all this can only happen if we give children the time and space to explore these things, to embrace their own creative process (whatever that might be) and do so free of judgement and input from outside voices. It can only happen if we trust them.
Coretta may not have had a plan or intention coming in but she still had ideas. She saw the possibilities of the paint and literally (and figuratively) laid it all out on the table. Like many children her age, she needed the freedom to use too much, and do too much to find that thread of inspiration that would guide her vision. For Coretta and most children, this is an essential part of their creative process, a space for them to visualize all possibilities so they can imagine what to do next. It’s where their natural instincts guide them to find something meaningful in the messes they make and empower them to share these unique discoveries and creations with the world.
So the next time you are working with children like Coretta, and have that voice in the back of your mind telling you to step in take a moment just to ask yourself why…..
Why do I want to set a limit right now and how will my limit(s) impact this child?
Why are they challenging my intentions for this space/project and how can I adjust to meet their needs?
Why is this moment or process important for the child and how can I show them I value that?