When a group of children from Toddler 2 North arrived in the studio, to continue the work with glue that we started a few weeks ago, I asked them "What can we do with glue?"
Phineas answered, "We push it out."
N. said, "We squeeze it," clenching and unclenching her hands.
E. added, "We brush it away,” describing the way we use brush-like tools to spread our glue.
This conversation set the tone for my thinking that morning. I found myself paying special attention to children's interest and mastery over the processes of using the provocation's materials (glue bottles, glue spreaders, shakers of colored sand, and flat, wooden tiles set in trays).
When Phineas first picked up his spreader, he said, echoing E.'s earlier idea, "I'm going to spread it away," moving the tool across the mound of sand and glue piled on his tile.
N. actually squeezed glue straight onto the spreader, then sprinkled sand on top, then spread the materials onto her tile. She was not interested in shaking the extra sand off of her tile at all.
K. built up layers of sand upon glue upon sand, stopping now and then to shake off the extra sand.
When children emptied their shakers of sand, they were offered spoons for scooping the sand. E. used his spoon both to refill his shaker and to transfer sand directly onto the glue. Phineas figured out how to remove and return the lid of the shaker without help. He also noticed the glue and sand sticking to his tile. He began to find a rhythm: take off the lid, add some sand, put on the lid, shake some sand, "dump it out and see it stick."
Watching all of this, I had a habitual thought, a kind of a early childhood proverb: "It's about the process, not the product." Early childhood educators emphasize that children's early work with materials is about exploration, and the tangible work produced is simply a byproduct of that time, not a piece of art to celebrate as it is for most older artists. This idea is nothing new to me; however, the work I saw today forced me to reconsider the word "process.” Usually “process” seems to me to mean something ethereal, fluid, abstract, the opposite of the solidity of a product. “It’s about the moment, not about the artwork,” you might say. However, “process” can also be concrete, something created or collaborated upon. It can be a set of steps needed to accomplish a task, to make something work, or to solve a problem.
These steps intrigued the children. They explored the ones we described when we came together (add glue, add sand, then shake off), and then recombined the different tools and materials to determine new processes with potentially different outcomes. True to the cliché, they were less invested in the product of their work – N. was not even interested in finding out what her glue looked like under all that sand – but their participation in the process moved beyond said cliché into something more.
Sometimes an idea becomes so familiar that we forget to take time to examine what it really means. Watching these children work with these materials, I was reminded to review my own understanding of what "process" means and why we stress its importance in the investigative and creative work of children.
Our center's teacher provocations for the past month have all been focused on how to stay curious - curious about the families we work with, about our teammates, and about our environments. This visit from Toddler 2 North seems to suggest a fourth possible topic - staying curious about the language and concepts that inform our teaching. Part of our work as reflective teachers is to think about what we witness in our classrooms, what it means, and why it strikes us as important; another part is to consider ourselves within the greater nexus of the work we do - the principles that inform our thinking.
I found myself reconsidering my understanding of a precious axiom with greater care thanks to how it was beautifully illustrated by Phineas and his friends as they worked. I am grateful to be reminded that the words we try to live by still deserve a second or third look in light of our observations, and lived experience.
Which parts of your everyday life are “about the process” and which about “the product”?
What are the axioms or principles that you live by that have had deeper meaning by considering them in light of your own lived experience? How did you become curious about them?