What I learned From the Messy Marker Episode — And How We Apply These Lessons at School

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When my daughter Cailey was not quite 3, she asked me if she could color with markers. Up until that time, she’d only used crayons, chalk or colored pencils for her art endeavors.

Without a thought, I produced the markers that I’d bought sometime before and gave them to her to use. She took out a sheet of paper and dug in.

When I checked in with her a few minutes later, I received a mild shock.

First, I saw that Cailey had colored vigorously all in one place so the paper was wet through and beginning to disintegrate. Second, caps and open markers were strewn all over the table and carpeted floor around her. There were also colorful marker streaks on the table, her hands, her face, and the front of her shirt (where the open markers had inadvertently rubbed as she colored).

Even with "washable" markers, it was going to be quite a job to get everything cleaned up. How quickly it can happen! Big sigh.

The mess wasn’t Cailey’s fault, of course. Rather, it was I who had neglected to show her how to use the markers.

What’s the big deal? –You might be asking yourself. Isn’t this par for the course for the under six set? They make a mess and we, the adults, clean up after them. You might be thinking that I’m lucky she didn’t color all over the wall.

On the contrary, I think this kind of outcome (one that’s frustrating for parents and doesn’t do much for our children) can be the exception, not the norm. Everyone–parents, and with their guidance, children too–can strive for and reach a better standard.

Let’s contrast this scene to the time I showed Cailey how to use watercolors, a much more ambitious activity than markers for her to do independently. (It involves many items: an apron, tray, paintbrush, paper, water bowl, paper towel, and watercolor set.) That time, I consciously prepared in advance what I would say and gathered the necessary materials before demonstrating to her. When I guided her through the process, I did so with simple instructions and a few parameters. She was able to go from the first step of carrying her tray to the table, to the last step of rinsing her water bowl in the sink, without so much as a "Remember, watercolors need a brush that’s good and wet" from me.

Now, looking at the mess of markers and stains before me, I couldn’t avoid having to point out–in as nice a manner as I could–how her paper was falling apart, how she and the table were covered in marker, and to please take a look at the floor…all because I hadn’t prepared her or myself in advance.

Indirectly, I was implying a whole host of things done wrong, putting a damper on something that could have been a home run.

Sure, no disaster took place. But I don’t think life with young children is about just getting by and avoiding disasters. It’s about creating optimal circumstances for their healthy development–development that includes accomplishments with the big and little things, an ever-increasing sphere over which they have mastery, and ensuing feelings of pride.

I’m not saying we should carefully orchestrate everything so that we can protect our children from bum experiences with markers or anything else, not at all. But life already hands us many situations that are rife with disappointment and "learning."

My point is that, as parents and teachers, with a little planning, we can provide experiences that promote a strong self-image in our children because they are confidently prepared to meet the challenges that come their way (even the ones that provide appropriate doses of frustration or disappointment).

All I would have needed were a few statements beforehand about how markers are different from crayons, a guideline or two, an-easy-to-access container for the markers, and a damp sponge. What ended up being something of a fiasco could have instead been an enjoyable experience for both Cailey and me.

At LePort Schools, our Montessori teachers apply this type of forethought throughout the classroom. It’s what we call "setting up a prepared environment," and it includes everything from how the materials are displayed, to how we introduce them to the children. Our teachers consistently use the "watercolors" approach described above, in which they prepare their students in advance by showing them how to. This enables each child to experience success as the norm, not as the exception, even when tackling tasks that many view as challenging for two-year-olds–such as painting with watercolors.

After the messy marker incident, I vowed to not settle for less as a parent. Now, in my role as Montessori Curriculum Coordinator at LePort, I see this "advanced preparation" carried out every day in our classrooms. And seeing the results is truly a delight: toddlers who joyously engage in learning activities that fascinate them, who succeed at what they attempt (at times, of course, after constructive struggles), and who become confident, eager explorers in the process.

This is what every toddler can experience at LePort. See for yourself: come in for a tour, or start by taking a sneak-peak into our toddler rooms with this video. Enjoy!