When I was a pre-school teacher starting my role with great verve many years ago, I remember putting together my first handbook for parents and writing a section about sending children to pre-school in ‘appropriate’ clothing for play, such as old t-shirts, jeans and jumpers. As time progressed I watched many horrified parents come to collect their designer-clad children only to find them covered in dirt, sand or glitter or all three and my message became more insistent when on occasion I watched girls in my groups nearly end their days tripping up on long dresses and skirts whilst climbing the fort.
The irony of this whole situation was that the parents who insisted in dressing their children like dolls and keeping them clean and tidy were often the kids that ended up getting into water and sand and art activities with aplomb during pre-school sessions – go figure, maybe it had something to do with having the freedom to finally be a kid, rather than a mantlepiece statue!
Some pre-schools and schools don’t often help these matters either, with many choosing the path of least resistence with parents or controlling pre-school time in a tidy manner that suits their needs more than the children’s. I recall the first days of my life as a pre-school teacher yet again as my assistant asked me during my first week…exactly ‘which’ days would be ‘messy play days’? Trying to absorb a concept totally foreign to my own experience of pre-school and my teacher training, I looked at her quizzically, stating simply “what do you mean – every day is a messy play day!” To me that was what pre-school and childhood was all about. Needless to say she and I parted company after that first year.
My point is this though, in a world that is increasingly controlled, scheduled and restricted for kids, early childhood and primary educators have a duty to not only advocate for open-ended, messy, explorative and creative play, but to provide it in their centres as well. You run these programs for the benefit of kids, not your tidy centre and not their parents washing load. Insist on kids wearing old clothes to pre-school and teach your parents why. If you are struggling a little provide smocks or aprons where necessary, boots for outside and slippers for inside.
Clothes are replaceable, children’s childhood experiences and learning are not.