Sunday, November 18, 2012

Process Over Product

Last year I gave up on handprint turkeys, footprint ghosts and all the predictable handprint projects that daycares churn out during the holiday seasons. My reason for doing so was because we were too busy with all of our really super important projects that engage the kids in imagining, creating, or learning something of value. Last year we were focused like laser beams on construction, so much so that we went weeks without any artwork going home because everything the kids were really interested in was disassembled at the end of the day. 

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really miss the handprint seasonal art, it’s kind of a lot of work for me. Other than sitting still for five minutes to let me trace or stamp their hands, the children don’t have much to do with the “creative” part of the project. I show them what the turkey looks like, I cut the project out and I help them assemble it so it looks like a turkey. They listen to my directions, work with the materials I choose and glue stuff where it’s “supposed” to go. The whole thing feels hollow to me and when it's done everybody has a similar teacher directed product to take home.

As I was surfing the web for more creative seasonal activities, I came across an article written by a fellow blogger who was appalled at the fact that someone commenting on her handprint turkey post said that the birds “robbed children of their creativity”. She went on to argue that the turkeys were in fact a creative activity and that no Thanksgiving day would be complete without them. While I didn’t agree with her perspective, the article made me wonder if my enthusiasm for process based learning over seasonal “artwork” left some of my moms feeling a little bummed out. I wondered if they had wished for a tiny turkey of their own to hang on the fridge - after all, anything made from toddler hands is pretty darn cute.

I have to say that as a teacher I agree with the evil turkey hating blog commenter but as the sappy mom of two high school students, I also understand why the blog author felt the need to save handprint turkeys from extinction. After careful consideration I decided that perhaps there is an element of truth to both sides of the argument. Maybe turkey handprint projects do rob children of the opportunity to be creative AND maybe no Thanksgiving day would be complete without them. I decided to reframe my thinking and view handprint turkeys as a childhood keepsake for the parents instead of artwork to ease my conscience. In the end, I resurrected the turkey handprint project and added it to my fall lineup this year. 
While I got to work cutting up turkeys, I set out some scraps of paper, markers and glue sticks to give the kids an opportunity to work independently. As I worked I noticed them huddling together engaged in the true process of child inspired creativity. They showed each other their drawings, made “letters” for friends, helped the younger kids figure out how to use the glue sticks and told animated stories about the pictures they were drawing. They wandered between the sensory bin and the table leaving a trail of discarded paper strewn from one end of the room to the other. Every so often they would proudly show me their scraps covered scribble letters and glue globs exclaiming “Look Ms Geraldine, it’s a firetruck for my mommy!” They also asked questions like “Why don’t the letters on my paper look like the ones in the book?”  and “ Can you show me how to hold my marker again?” As I watched them I thought of how all of these great ideas, questions and observations simply cannot emerge in cutesy cookie cutter projects. 

We do our children a huge disservice by discounting the process of developing thoughts and celebrating product based projects with wild enthusiasm. Adults viewing those scribbles out of context fail to identify the painstaking process a child endures as they teach their hands to recreate the image they hold in their minds. Without the dialog that accompanies their drawings it’s easy to miss the cognitive processes that unfold as a child learns to organize his thoughts and put them to paper for the world to see. Those are the processes that are paramount to every aspect of learning and true self expression. Product based “art” may look cute but it’s really about imitating someone else’s ideas to make something that everyone else will like and accept as beautiful. I worry that celebrating the handprint turkey devalues the child’s journey to self expression 
and sends the message that conformity is preferred over creativity.

In an attempt to illustrate all the children had learned that morning I collected those beautiful little scribble scraps and framed them just as carefully as I had the turkeys. I pinned them to the bulletin board and took a moment to marvel at just how far the kids have come in the last few months. What you can’t see in their work is how Yoli made several pictures for Jackson giggling while she handed him each one. The pair bonded as she prattled away alternating between Spanish and English, then when she set each one before him he rewarded her efforts with a quiet smile. You won’t notice how Addie stopped her work several times to patiently teach Carmen how to manipulate marker caps or how she read Carmen’s gestures then made space at the table for her tiny friend. You probably wouldn’t know that the boys congregated for a full twenty minutes over Sam’s drawing, laughing hysterically as they collaborated in constructing an animated story about bad guys who fell down a lot. 

If you ask me there isn't a handprint turkey in the world that compares with the awesomness of that.

This thanksgiving I hope families realize the turkey handprint is not a symbol of their child’s creativity but a teacher’s feeble attempt at documenting the tiny hands that harbor the seeds of greatness. If you really want to see the truth of your child’s creativity, you will find it hidden within the folds of crumpled paper and globs of glue that were scooped up from the floor and framed for you to see. Those images may not be pretty or even remotely identified as anything of value but they are an honest portrayal of where your children are in their personal journey to self expression and that my friends is something to get excited about!


  1. As I read this post, I'm getting teary-eyed. I'm not really sure why. Possibly, it makes me think about how much I miss while being a working mom. I don't get to see that magic you are talking about very often. The time I get to spend with Carmen usually consists of dressing, feeding, changing, teeth brushing, and putting to bed. I'm lucky to get a good hour of magic time.

    Another possibility is that I've found someone to take care of my child that puts this much thought into what most people would consider trivial. Turkey hands, we've all seen them and probably done them ourselves at one point in our lives. As one of the moms who loves seeing the little tiny hands because honestly, I've never put that much thought into it. But now that you bring it up and I'm given the opportunity to really think about what those little turkeys mean. I think you'll like what I've come up with.
    1) Tradition: Traditions are important in our family. Xmas eve dinner, Christmas breakfast, birthday dinners, Christmas lights, baking are all traditions we've started with Carmen. Turkey hands can just be another way to teach her the meaning of tradition.
    2) Patients: As you pointed out, the kids have to sit still long enough for them to get their hand drawn. For someone Carmen's age, this isn't an easy task..
    3) Different is ok: Even though, they are all the same (Turkey hands), each are very different. Some used more yellow than red or red than yellow. Some did their right hand, others did their left.
    4) It's life: Everyday I go to work. Mostly because I have to. In life, there will be times when you have to do things that you might rather not do.

    Thank you for the Turkey hands. It will look fabulous in my next shutterfly album!

  2. So happy you enjoyed the turkey handprints and I especially liked your thoughts on tradition, it sums up the underling feeling I couldn’t quite articulate. Funny that now it’s so obvious! As for missing those magic moments, I can promise you that they unfold against a bustling backdrop of toddler mayhem, toy explosions and minor wounds. It’s taken me many years to learn to be still enough in the madness to see the magic but if you know how to look it’s always there - in even the most mundane tasks. Being a working parent has its challenges but it’s also a gift for your daughter to see you achieve. Seeing strong women in the workforce gives her permission to pursue any future she can imagine for herself.