Too many cooks ruin the broth, but the availability of too many materials creates a maelstrom of disorder in many classrooms. Children are like any other people in that they find decision-making daunting or overwhelming, and often feel more comfortable taking all alluring options rather than narrowing their thoughts down to a single point. Presented with a layout of collage materials from shiny stones to tiny twigs, students inevitably become greedy and defensive, especially if there’s glitter or texture involved.
I learned quickly when I first started working with preschoolers four years ago that measures must be put into place when it comes to divvying out the goods. However, the real pickle is ensuring that limiting what a student has in front of them does not limit their creative freedom as much as teach them appropriate restraint.
The illusion of choice can do wonders in a classroom that’s still finding its feet. Human beings are trained to think in binaries, for better or for worse. This remains true in adulthood, of course – notice that when you’re in a group of indecisive friends and no one can decide where to eat, you only ever get anywhere when one person says, “Look, it’s either Chinese or hamburgers – decide.” When you give a child seven options, they inevitably have a hard time. But if you say, “You can have this or you can have that,” the decision is a million times easier, and yet still remains their decision.
The key during art projects is in setting clear rules to begin with. I like almost making a game of this. If there’s an array of materials spread on a back table, students should be given a set number of items to take – say, five items to start with. They should also be timed when they approach the table, because goodness, some students will absolutely use all the time you give them, and woe unto anyone who gives too much.
Additionally, teachers and artists should also consider carefully which areas of a project actually benefit from choice. While having the correct choice of paints may be vital to a portrait, how much difference will beige versus gray paper make as a backdrop? In some cases, perhaps a little, but in most, no difference at all. If materials can be set on the table before class without being a detriment to artistic expression, by all means, lay them out early!
We’ve had more practice than our kids when it comes to decision-making, and we can put that to use during these unavoidable processes of doling out and delivering. Even these moments, the passing out of things, can become a lesson for us all.