Who Really Made That Paper Plate Gold Fish?

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You know that paper plate fish that your preschooler brought home in her backpack last week? Take a good look, she may not have made it.

The sad reality in many early learning settings is that adults end up putting more time and effort into craft projects than children.

Craptivity Fish

Planning Time

A preschool teacher, we’ll call her Miss Kendra, sees a paper plate fish she finds awfully cute on Pinterest and decides it’d be a nice project for her class in six weeks when F Week is scheduled. Kendra pins that fish and a bunch of others to her Curriculum Board (go back and click that link–how many of the images look like they were made by children?).

As F Week approaches, Miss Kenda starts preparing to make paper plate fish with her class. She stocks up on plates, decides to only offer paint colors that start with the letter F, and after many trips to Pinterest finally selects the paper plate fish variation she prefers.

Then, over the course of a few days, she sits in the corner of the classroom, in the dark, during rest time cutting fish scales and fins from appropriately colored construction paper. She deliberates over which size googly eyes to use. She imagines her bulletin board. She lovingly creates a Teacher Version–a perfect paper plate fish her students will look upon in awe and attempt to emulate.  

Making A Fish, Day One

When it comes time to do the project, Miss Kendra informs the kids that they will be making fish because it is F Week and Fish starts with the letter F. She may even read a fish related book in an effort to give the project some relevance. Then the project proceeds with assembly line efficiency. “OK, friends, you have three colors to pick from: Fuchsia, Fennel, or Fluorescent Orange. Pick you favorite color and be sure to paint your whole plate. Make sure you paint all the way to the edge. Jimmy, one color please! See Miss Kendra’s Fish? I only used one color. Kim, don’t paint your nose, this is not N Week. When you’re done painting, wash your hands and we’ll work on our fish more this afternoon.”

At nap time, Miss Kendra writes children’s names on the back of plates. She may or may not be 100% sure which plate belongs to which child.

In the afternoon, everyone is given 12 perfectly pre-cut fish scales and a couple fins they are allowed to glue onto their paper plates. “Friends, see Miss Kendras fish? See how it’s not covered in dried mounds of glue? That’s because Miss Kendra uses dots. Can you use dots? Jacob, those are puddles, not dots.”

When Jacob proudly declares he’s making a rabbit, not a fish, Miss Kendra jumps in to quell any craft-related rebellion with a singsongy but stern “NO, Jacob, it is F Week and we are all making Fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffiiiiiiiiiiiishhhhhhhhhh.”

Making A Fish, Day Two

While her co-teacher is on the playground with the kids, Miss Kenda deftly wields a pair of sharp scissors and a stapler. In fluid, well practiced movements, she cuts a triangle wedge from each paper plate and then staples the wedge to the other side of the plate–creating a mouth and tail.

When the kids come in, their are handed a googly eye and allowed to glue it onto ‘their’ fish. “See where the fish eye goes, Friends? Make sure you put your eye in the right place! No, Jacob, move that eye. Fish Do Not Have eyes on their tails.”

At nap time, Miss Kendra works quietly to create her bulletin board, pausing to hush a whispering child from time to time.

Let’s Recap

Who did most of the work? Who really made that fish?

The kids did some painting and gluing under Miss Kendra’s watchful eye. They each had an average of 27 minutes invested in the project and some were done in five.

Miss Kendra had the initial inspiration for the project, picked the project, organized the materials, selected the color palette, set the schedule, cut the scales and fins, chose the googly eyes, dictated how much glue was used, scrubbed paint and glue off the table, cut the fish mouths, wrote the names, stapled on the fish tails, and created the bulletin board. She invested hours in the project.

A few more questions:

  • Did the kids learn anything useful about the letter F or about Fish?
  • Did they get to practice making choices by deciding what to make, what colors to use, where to glue their scales and fins, and where the googly eye went?
  • How much creativity did the children put into the paper plate fish project?
  • Did they get to practice scissor skills?
  • Did they get to practice writing skills?
  • How many of these projects do you have room to display in your home?
  • How about stapling skills?

What’s The Takeaway?

Children learn by doing. They are hands-on learners who gather knowledge and build skill through active engagement with the world. The more steps in any process the teacher owns/controls/leads/dictates, the less opportunity children have to learn.

The Miss Kendras of the world may create cute craft projects to hang on your refrigerator, but in doing so they also swipe moments of learning from your child.

Is There An Alternative?

As a parent, you can advocate for more process based art in your child’s classroom. In process based art, the focus is on all the yummy learning wrapped up in the creation-process instead of on the appearance of the final product. (Here’s another link you may find helpful.) Process based art is also much more playful when presented in an environment that embraces Peter Gray’s Conditions of Play.

If your child’s backpack is overflowing with craptivities and you want that to change, take action. A few things to consider:

  • Read up on process art and share what you learn with other parents and your child’s teacher.
  • Ask questions to teachers or the program’s director such as “Why are adults cutting out all the pieces for projects?”, “Why do all the birds on the new bulletin board look so similar?”, “Is there a way our classroom could offer more time for child-led process art?”
  • Create opportunities for process art at home.

You may find resistance. Some teachers are very attached to their way of doing things and struggle with change.

On the other hand, you may find a look of relief. There are quite a few preschool teachers out there mass producing paper plate fish because they believe it’s what parents want. They may be eager for a chance to break the vicious craptivity cycle.

Your thoughts and conversation are welcome in the comments.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.

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