Staying Outside The Lines

By Susan Straccia Rupert

I can remember a teacher once correcting my artwork. The assignment had something to do with drawing my family. I had my stick figure mom and dad, sister and dog pictured over the pinkish cement of our driveway by the basketball hoop. I was told that cement isn’t pink—it can’t possibly be pink—and that I needed to pick another color. I was outraged. Not only was my teacher getting in my business, but the cement by our basketball hoop, for whatever reason, really and truly did have a pink tint. And short of inviting my teacher over for a game of H-O-R-S-E, I had no way to prove it.

Now that I’m riding shotgun in my own daughter’s childhood, I’ve realized I have a core belief that children should be given the freedom to create however they see fit (as long as I’m not scraping gluey glitter off the furniture the entire rest of the afternoon). Just think where we’d be today if Einstein or Edison stuck to perfectly arranged macaroni art. Or if some of the greatest tech minds didn’t dare get a little messy with code in their dorm rooms.

I’m a believer in giving children space to use their imaginations, make their own decisions (safety permitting, of course), express themselves and make a mess every now and again. In the beginning of my daughter’s toddlerhood, as she and I tried out new classes and activities together, it became apparent to me that environments in which a little paint in the hair and on the tip of the nose—or even an entire hand and arm—were definitely our happy place. I find myself having a strong visceral reaction if we’re anywhere where the final product trumps the process and where unrealistic expectations are placed upon the kids. In fact, it makes me start looking around for the eject button.

Kids are messy. Really, really messy. And to me, that’s a beautiful thing. They need to touch, smell, taste, see, hear—employ all of the senses—to learn. I mean, what’s summer without a little Popsicle drip? And what’s a visit to a public garden without running your fingers and toes over the gravel and then sneaking a quick rinse in the lion fountain? There are plenty of years ahead for wearing pressed shirts and following the conventions put forward; now is the time to encourage our little ones to live it up— every last sandy, glittery bit.

As my husband, daughter and I embarked upon the preschool tour process, we quickly realized that a play-based school where a connection with nature is emphasized would be ideal for us. That much we knew. What none of us could have predicted was how much I would personally grow as a result of our choice. Every day I accompany my daughter to Bunker Hill, I’m challenged to really think about my interactions with the kids and make them as meaningful as possible. I’m encouraged to ask open-ended questions… to not dictate that a series of brown scribbles with a line is a squirrel… to see the beauty in finding new uses for recycled materials… to let the kids inform me of what materials they want to use.

Watching kids light up as they’ve realized their own vision—seeing the neurons fire—is a great reward for all of the time, effort and energy put into the co-op experience. I’m grateful that I’m surrounded by like-minded parents and educators who have shown me that asking questions about what kinds of things are on a bus rather than telling a child to draw wheels, windows, etc., is what it’s all about. I’m thrilled to spend my mornings in a place where a child’s interest can become a project for the whole class to participate in. A place where there’s a whole lot more “yes” than “no.”

I’ve learned to enjoy touching banana slugs and their slime, and have even learned how to get that slime out of clothes (air dry and then wipe off—water makes it worse—in case you’re wondering). Trust me, as a recovering perfectionist this is all very much outside my comfort zone (especially the bug stuff). But somehow letting go a bit and joining in the mess feels so right at this time in my life. I dare say it’s downright exhilarating.

Susan Straccia Rupert is a professional word wrangler who enjoys dancing like no one is watching with her preschool-aged daughter.