Marching to Different Drummers

A group of preschool children were involved in an art project involving paints and brushes. They all seemed quite engaged in what they were doing. One little girl looked at her paper and suddenly with great pleasure pointed to something she had created and called out, “a banana, a banana!” She looked around eagerly for someone to come and see what she had done but sadly the teachers were all engaged and were not aware of her calling out about her painting. She was clearly disappointed not to be able to share her delight in what she had created. But after a moment accepted the situation and went back to her work.

Another girl in the group was clearly more interested in the paint itself than in using it to create a picture. She painted her fingers and then her arms. In the process a great deal of paint was spilling on the table and floor. Another child around the table became aware of this and seemed quite distressed by what she was seeing. She herself looked very neat and clean and was working in a tidy fashion with no paint spilled on the table or on her hands. She was clearly upset and stopped her own work in an effort to get the teachers to pay attention to what was happening at the other end of the table.

What is interesting about these little vignettes is the way they illustrate differences in children’s personalities and the way these differences are manifest in the way they approach and respond to various things in their world. Parents are certainly aware of individual differences in their children but it is not always clear when some of these differences are strengths.

The little girl who thought she had painted a banana, clearly wanted to share her accomplishment. Who knows if anyone else would have seen a banana in her work but importantly she was taking pride in what she had done. What was striking was that while disappointed, this was only momentary and she was not deterred from pursuing what had captured her interest. While we may regret that the moment went unnoticed, the fact that she was undeterred by the absence of adult praise or comment is certainly a strength that will serve her in good stead.

The girl who was painting herself and the table blue brings up other another point. It is developmentally typical for young children to enjoy exploring sensory materials such as water, sand, clay or play dough and paint. Teachers of preschool children are aware of this and in fact, using these materials is part of a typical preschool day. Children almost always wear smocks (although some are known to resist wearing them) and teachers are undeterred by the messes that can occur.

Actually, a current criticism of much that is happening in nursery schools is the absence of opportunity to engage in sensory activities and too much developmentally inappropriate focus on academic skills. In this instance, the child seemed to have lost control of the paint which was getting away from her. One judgment of this scene might be a positive one; the child in question felt free enough to fully explore the material she was using and this was more interesting to her than creating something on her paper.

On the other hand, the reaction to the child who was upset by the mess could be that she herself might be constricted in her work, or feel disturbed by a child who is doing something “wrong” with the paint. But it was fascinating to see that this child’s actual work was more fully developed than that of most of the other children. She was setting a high standard for others – possibly for herself – but in this area she was at a different level of development.

These children are a reminder that as parents and teachers we need to think about differences in children as just that – differences that need to be respected rather than labeled. Different drummers have different contributions to make – and also make life more interesting.

Happy Holidays everyone!