Early childhood development: Turn on the lights!

One of the things I've recently been told is that any environment for children should be elegantly reserved, beautiful in its simplicity, soothing, calming and quiet. The whole idea is to shhhh the children by keeping the colors muted, the lights low, and the d飯r non descript. The walls, we are told, should be plain and the decorations few. This removes stimulation which encourages quiet play, control, and what, nap time?

Ok, let's turn on the lights, guys. A real place for children to play has to be FOR children which means delightful from a child's perspective, and a child's perspective is rarely, if ever, composed. Children are loud by nature; they are messy by nature; they are careless and neglectful in their daily activities. They move a lot, so by adding an artificial "low" to a child's play and taking away color, light and movement, we are not gaining balance, we are losing connection.

Lots of people like the "put it away" clean line atmosphere at home, but at the same time will flick on TV because there is nothing else to look at or to tinker with. As a teacher, I advocate leaving lots of things around. Artistic things to look at, things to touch, to smell, to play with will do more to teach a child than toys, and teaching is the name of the child rearing game. I always ask the kids, "If you were all by yourself - then what? Children need to know about things we use and how to these things work. And if a child never tinkers, he won't know.

Last week, my four year old grandson discovered that in the old hutch in my kitchen there is a flour sifter that holds 20 lbs of flour. Because my house is an antique, I have antique furniture. The flour sifter has been in my use 25 years, and now Bill has discovered it. He now likes to climb up on the hutch and sift out five pounds of flour at a time. He also discovered my rotary phone which is near by.

When he's not busy with these, he will restock Newburgh's original post office cubby with all kinds of trinkets he finds on one table or another. He also enjoys filling odd teapots, cups, containers, boxes and other things with lentils or beans that he rifles from the hutch.

What does he learn? He learns about space, measurement, balance, weight, full and empty, circles and squares, pieces and wholes - in other words, he's learning math. He learns something new every time he comes over, and he LOVES to come over because of the things he finds.  "Can I come to your house?" he says every time I see him, and when he is at my house, he's a delight; he's busy, he's making and doing and the TV is off.

At school, I try to present the same confusion of stuff so that the children will be able to touch and discover real life stuff all day long at school. The walls are alive with teacher's and children's art work. The shelves are crammed full of toys, books, stuffed animals, dolls, science specimens, giant pickle jars full of art stuff, puzzles, musical instruments, and too many other things to count. I've heard over the years, "Put them away; reduce the clutter; tone it down; get rid of all the plants that make the place look like a jungle," and I just laugh because I know the kids are learning.

I think children learn from organized and usable clutter like old jewelry boxes filled with pounds of junk, from drawers filled with odds and ends, from boxes of ribbons and buttons and old wooden spools of thread, to jumbles of old game parts, trunks filled with somebody's very old clothes to scraps of wood and beads and stuff most people would throw away.

I think the high style of modernism is lost on children because children never stop asking questions, and how do you ask questions about plain walls and scant things?  Children never stop wanting to touch and smell and play with junk. Gypping the kids out of this kind of clutter with an absence of things to look at and touch and think about stifles curiosity, and TV is no substitute. Beautiful things, simple things, things with parts, things that move, things that grow, things that change are things that teach.