Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Lessons from the box of crayons

"... Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of the river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point." (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Imagine this is your world. The world of great unknowns, of all the magical things, of all these possibilities for discovery. Imagine nobody is telling you what to do with what, what will 'work best', or 'be easier this way', or that 'it should be done this way'. This is, I want to believe, what all artists and scientists do daily - discover; explore; wonder; test; hypothesize; try again and again... and this is what we admire them for.

Recently Pawel bought Antek a box of lovely beeswax crayons. The boys then came home, Pawel showed Antek what was in the box, and put the crayons with his other toys. Where they happily stayed, forgotten, for the next three days. Now, weeks later, the crayons have been around for a while, Antek takes them out now and again and uses them quite a lot in his play. He has not drawn a single dot or line. In our house, crayons are not for drawing. Not right now, at least. What are they for? Now, did you know that:

1. Crayons roll when thrown on the ground.
2. Crayons roll faster when thrown on the ground, than when placed carefully and pushed lightly.
3. Crayons roll faster and in one direction when put on the ground and pushed hard
4. When thrown, crayons may roll fast, but not always in the direction intended (this may also result in lost crayons, misplaced crayons, wet and dirty crayons)
5. Rolling rocks (sic!)
6. Crayons looks lovely when put on the floor, but much more impressive when put on a box, one next to the other (the effects often produce applause)
7. Crayons make a very good sound when you bang them on the floor
8. Crayons make an excellent sound when you bang them on the fridge door
9. The sound when crayons are banged on the pillow is not exciting at all
10. Some crayons float
11. Crayons are not delicious
12. Pink and red crayons look lovely when put  next to herbs in the garden
13. Blue crayons not so much
14. Crayons don't really fit into the box they came in. No matter how you try. (They do fit in the bowl though, perfectly)
15. The cat in the garden is not happy when crayons fly in his general direction

When I told a friend we will not really be 'teaching' Antek what crayons (and other things) are for, she was surprised. 'It's like trying to break in, when the door is wide open' she said. 'He will learn to draw eventually anyway.' Sure he will. The important point though for us is - HE will LEARN. WE won't TEACH him. And also - when he's ready he will. And I want to be there to see the smile on his face when he finally DISCOVERS that crayons make colourful marks on things (and I will make sure to do what my Mum did - cover the walls within Antek's reach with paper).

Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.  (Magda Gerber)

There are oodles of recent studies that have demonstrated, over and over again that children are more creative, more involved and more persistent when allowed to EXPLORE toys without instructions, than when told what to do with them. We see it daily.

In our house, now is not the time for drawing. Now is the time for rolling, throwing, pushing and pulling. The time for drawing will come. But in the meantime, its a lot of other learning that is going on.

When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself. (Jean Piaget)

In all of this crayon business, I can't help but admire how creative and resourceful our son is. How much he is like a scientist or an artist, or both, in his explorations - in experimenting, discovering, hypothesizing, testing...

We admire creative thinkers. We admire their ability to think outside the box; to put old things to new uses; to come up with innovative solutions. We are amazed how some people are ahead of their times in their view of the world. We want our children to be all these things in the future... why not let them start now?

[somewhat related, very thoughtful and wonderful posts from Janet Lansbury and Teacher Tom]


  1. This is so beautifully stated, and the lesson of your Antek's crayons illustrates the point so perfectly. Thank you so much - I know I will be sharing this gem with others.

  2. Very cool, I try and help all my doula clients relise that when babies come sometimes more is less, sitting up, playing with toys, and all of that will come when it comes, be in the moment and enjoy what you child is doing, not what you want them to be doing

  3. Beautiful! I have to giggle as I gave my 2.5 year olds their first set of 8 colored markers. What was it they wanted to do with them? The found out they could connect all of them into 1 large line of markers. What fun they had. And I breathed a sigh of relief I had gotten the washable markers as everything in the area was colored!

  4. Claire, this is great :) made me giggle.

    Melissa - thank you. Always happy to hear your opinion.

    Brandi - I know, it's not easy though. Too many expectations we have, and the hardest thing to do is let go of them and just be :) Thanks for joining in the conversation...

  5. I love this! My son is 9 months old and I so much want him to learn by himself too. It is so easy to be quick to show him how things work and what to do with certain objects. I am so glad I found your article! Thank you! :)