Select Page

What is the purpose of paint?  I am confident that this picture does not do justice to reality.   You might look at this cake pan and think, “Wow – there is a good deal of paint in that pan!”  You would be nearly right.  There is a massive amount of paint in the bottom of this pan.  What started off as a reasonable squirt of a single color whose destiny was to mingle with a brush and end up on a piece of paper transformed into an end product all together different.  Because, you see, to the artists with whom I rub shoulders, the process is the art.  The end product is not even a blip in their universe.

I am firmly dedicated to the notion of child-directed, process-oriented art and sensory experiences.  Yet, as I sit and observe the mind of the child at work with the cake pan and paint, I feel an urge to interrupt with a discourse on responsible consumption of materials.  Is it responsible to use such a large quantity of paint in an experience of color mixing?  The case could certainly be made that simple color mixing can be observed with less paint, but there is something unique and novel about such a large quantity that builds a basis for new learning.

There are two values I hold that often find themselves in competition. On the one hand, I value the child’s vision for learning, and on the other, I try to live and model responsible use of resources as a practice for sustainable lifelong living.   On this particular day, this child began adding paint, and discovered with amazement that as the paint was mixed in, first the new color swirled in with the original.  Then swirls grew smaller and smaller until the whole mixture began to reveal a new color.  When the paint was mixed to the desired level, a new color was added, and the process was repeated.  There was no painting – at least in the traditional “brush + paper” sense, only experience.  An experience on which later learning can be built.  Through close and careful observation, I felt comfortable with this extravagant use of resources, clinging instead to my value for child-directed learning.

I find myself asking this question, or some version of it, almost daily in my work with young children.  What is the purpose of paint?  Who decides?  The one who purchased the paint or the one for whom the paint is intended? And where is the line between experience and responsibility?  At what point is it imperative on me – the teacher – to teach children how to use materials responsibly?  And what is responsible use in this case?  I feel strongly that for me to interrupt this particular experience because resources were being wasted would have been irresponsible.  It was responsible for me to allow this child’s sense of wonder and exploration to find fulfillment in this extravagant use of paint.  On this day, this was the purpose of the paint.

This will inevitably be a question that continues to surface in my work with children.  For now, a few snapshots of our purposeful use of materials – traditional or not, and the learning those materials are helping to support.

What is the purpose of paint?  (a la egg carton)

What is the purpose of glue?  Can you spot the glue lake on Henry”s paper?  He methodically constructed it by way of a popsicle stick and a single section of an egg carton filled with glue which remained stuck on his paper for a 3D effect when all was finished.

What is the purpose of sequins?  I caught Simone using two pieces of sequins as a literal lens through which to assess her progress.  The sequins on her paper were not glued in place, but they were all being tested for their use as looking glasses.  She put them down and picked them up sequentially in order to look at the world in new ways.

What is the purpose of hands?  Even bodies can transform the use of materials. In this case, I gave popscicle sticks to help the kids spread glue. Addie discovered after some time with the “glue stick” that her hands became sticky.  For those of us who have experienced glue between the fingers in our lifetimes, it is a sensation not easily replicated!

What is the purpose of a table full of compelling materials?  For our experience today, the kids had their choice of a number of different compelling mateirals: glue, sequins, crayons, markers, small sections of netting, cardboard, etc.  Christian found a black crayon and started using invented spelling (a key early literacy activity!) to write her parents a letter.   I was surprised to see she chose a fairly sparse product.  But in the context of a day in which she was missing her parents, this was exactly the experience she needed to feel connected.  After she was done, I asked her to dictate it to me so I could write it down.  “I hope I love you.  Love, Christian.” Amazing.

What is the purpose of cardboard?  Robot parts.  And great small motor exercise for hands that will soon be writing novels!

What is the purpose of glue?  Rather than use the glue to stick one thing to another, Addie worked to create a whole masterpiece dotted with glue.

Extravagant gluing #1.

Extravagant gluing #2.


May you find wonder in your day like we do in ours through purposeful (and at times, extravagant) use of materials.  Thank you for reading!