When we start giving the control over their learning to our children, we need to learn how to relinquish control over their time and the way they choose to spend it, as well as control over the supplies they will need to create projects and explore the world in their quest for understanding. There is little point in allowing your children to be free with their time if they cannot be free with the supplies they need to create stuff in that time. And yet: supplies have a cost (time does too, but we are more used to overlooking that). We can run out of them, and sometimes the whole family relies on those supplies being there when we need them. Getting the balance between free use/conservation right can be pretty tricky indeed.
An Everyday Example: Making Horse Clothes
Last week the girls had an idea: they wanted to make clothes for their horse stuffies. “Great!” I said. I love making stuff, and I love it when my girls want to make stuff too. So I got out the box of fabric and they started looking through it. Bea pulled out a piece of gorgeous quilting cotton, bright red with a pretty flower pattern all over it, and another piece of white cotton with a subtle white print on it. “I want to make a saddle out of this, mom, with straps made of this white!” And she reached for the scissors, holding the fabric ready to make a cut right through the middle. My inner fabric hoarder started freaking out! “Don’t cut that nice piece right through the middle!” I wanted to scream, but I took a deep breath and said, “That’s a really nice piece of fabric, and once we cut that fabric we can’t put it back together if you change your mind. Let’s draw a picture of the saddle first. Then we can cut it once we have got the design right on paper.”
Drawing a pattern on paper turned out to be too tricky, because Bea doesn’t yet have the knack for imagining a 3D item as a 2D pattern, so we switched strategies and laid the fabric over the horse and she drew a line with fabric pencil where she wanted the edge of the saddle to be. I explained why it’s better to cut a piece from the edge of the fabric instead of from the middle, nesting the pieces as close to each other as possible to minimize waste. Bea worked away at her saddle, using the design and fabrics she chose, while Claire came to me with her horse and requested a shirt for her. “What kind of shirt do you want? Do you want to choose the shape or should I choose a shape for you?” She asked me to make it for her, so I figured something out quickly. Bea spotted my design and quickly decided she wanted her horse to have clothes like that too, and I showed her how to copy a pattern by laying it over another piece of fabric and tracing around it. She took this new information and flew with it, abandoning the saddle and making her horse a raincoat, pyjamas and everyday clothes instead.
Strategies for Mindful Use of Supplies
My goals are to teach my girls how to use good quality supplies without excessive waste as they learn, create and explore in the world. I use these strategies to guide myself and my girls:
- Creativity is often as much about the process as it is about the product, and that’s OK. Using something without a particular goal in mind is a still a valid creative use. Sometimes a project will be abandoned partway through, and that’s OK too. There is learning happening through the whole process.
- When you’re working with truly expensive materials (fancy fabric, expensive canvas or paper, etc) take some time first to think about what you want to make, sketch out ideas and plan out where things will go.
- Show your kids how to use materials with minimal waste by cutting from the already cut edge, pouring a small amount of paint first, cleaning out brushes after use, etc. Talking about the environmental cost of waste is helpful too, if your kids are older than toddlers.
- Store most materials where kids can reach and use them freely.
Sharpies are an exception in my house! You may have your own category of supplies that are always stored out of reach for reasons of safety or preservation of furniture.
- Create an atmosphere of abundance and freedom in creativity. Paradoxically, when supplies are freely given kids often feel less of a need to take a lot of what is there.
- Think about the actual cost of the materials your kids are using. Most of the time, the cost of “excessive use” is actually pretty reasonable when you compare it to other activities a child might take part in. For example, what if my kid uses up a whole roll of scotch tape making a rocket? A roll of scotch tape costs me about $1.50. If the child takes an hour to make that rocket and uses supplies from the recycling bin for the body of the rocket, the whole project cost $1.50. Let’s say it rises to $1.60 if they cover it in tempera paint and Sharpie. A store bought rocket-making kit would cost $15, and would rob them of the creative, self-directed elements that are such a valuable part of the rocket-building experience. $1.60 for a whole roll of tape, some paint and an hour of self-directed learning is actually great value. And compared to the cost of a year’s worth of violin lessons or haircuts in a salon, both of which cost a dollar a minute or more? I could have 50 rolls of tape around the house and it would still be a bargain!
- Stock up on supplies when you find a deal. We’ve found some great project supplies at second-hand stores, craigslist, and in free bins.
- If you have your own stash of creative supplies, consider separating out the supplies you’re comfortable sharing from those you’re not. I have a collection of yarn that is OK for my kids to play with. My lone skein of cashmere is stored safely elsewhere, along with yarn that I have earmarked for my own future projects.
- Watch where and when your drive to hoard supplies comes up. For me, it’s often another way the urge to control and direct manifests. Letting go takes time and practice. Reminding myself of the actual cost of the supplies helps me keep that hoarding drive in check.
Over the next few weeks I’m taking a couple of classes on facilitating self-directed learners, and I hope that I can edit or add to this list as I learn more. How do you deal with managing creative supplies at your house?