Sometimes a Mess is Not A Mess

Do you know that large collection of marker tops that we all have in the classroom?  The ones that become loose parts because the bottoms mysteriously disappear?  Yes some markers dry up and you throw them out but we always wind up with an abundance of marker tops without bottoms.


We save them because teachers save everything, because everything could have potential. This year I put a bucket of markers in the pretend area and another bucket in the block area.  Knowing the risk of dumping lay ahead with a class of new 4 year olds, I was still willing to take the risk.  After all, what was wrong with dumping, especially if there was intention and the children learned to clean it up?  True to form,  every day we would find the bucket dumped in the pretend area.  Marker tops were scattered all over the rug, dispersed with the food.


Every day I would look with wonder and puzzlement. Thinking I had had enough of risk-taking, I would take them away if they could not play with them appropriately.  Then I paused and thought, what defined appropriately?  My purpose may not be their purpose and that had to be ok. So we had a group meeting, I needed to understand their intention. I showed them the bucket and said, “I notice that these marker tops get dumped every day in the pretend area.  What are you using them for?”  “Carrots” came one response. “Food for the baby and the pets” came another. “Roller skates” came the next reply.  I said, “roller skates?”   “Yes they roll” came the answer.  Here again was the emergent curriculum I was waiting for, visions of STEAM was dancing in my head!  So I asked, “how are they roller skates?”  The answer; “you put them on the bottom of your shoes.”  “Oh! ok, and how would you do that?” I pushed for more;  “with really sticky tape” came the reply  (silly me.)  “Oh ok, tomorrow I will give you tape and you can make your roller skates.”  I went home thinking this was going to be our in-depth investigation; The documentation title on our bulletin board would read, WHEELS IN MOTION.  I would have to bring in skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, scooters and more.  We would learn about speed, velocity, motors, circles, the possibilities were everywhere. I expected the children to put marker caps under blocks, build their own roller skates or skateboards and a new investigative study would be born. The next day I put a tape dispenser in the pretend area.


This drew much attention and excitement from the children. They couldn’t wait to get their hands on the tape.


As they pulled the tape from the dispenser they began to struggle. The conversation flowed.

“It’s twisting.”

“I’m next”

“We need 2 pieces.”

“Somebody get this.”

“Get it for me too?”

“How about you get 3 so you can really roller skate.”

What I noticed was that a skill adults take for granted, children easily struggled.  The controlled motion of pulling and dispensing proved challenging.  They had long strips of tape and couldn’t cut it shorter. The roll of tape kept coming out of the holder.


Through problem solving and collaboration, several children volunteered to figure it out.  The group allowed them to try. They pulled and pulled but still, the tape would not cut.  What now?  They all wanted to be in charge. Long strips of tape kept coming off the roll. They went from one hand to two hands to try and pull it off. Some were successful, some needed adult help.


Several children figured it out. I saw determination.




Some taped marker tops to the top of their shoes.


Finally, success was achieved and marker tops were sticking to the bottom of the sneaker.  Now, will it roll like roller skates?


They quickly figured out that they could not roller skate but that did not matter anymore.  Their focus became the tape dispenser and getting the marker tops on their shoes.  Some of them gave up easily from frustration.  When we asked the children why they thought it wasn’t working they simply said, “They won’t roll with the tape on it.” When we asked what would roll? “They said, “I don’t know” and went back to playing with the tape dispenser. Once again I paused and listened, trying not to have expectations.  The children did not want to explore further, they were too busy taping. They learned, however, to cooperate, collaborate and test a theory.  They learned how to take the tape off a dispenser, and some were determined to stay on a task even through their own frustrations. They were excited with their independence, they communicated and helped each other. Sometimes a mess can be a valuable learning tool for both teachers and students!  Before you react ask the questions, the answers may surprise you.

So how do the children in your class use those extra marker tops?

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