Manipulation of materials – Safety or Sanity

Children, right from infants, need to explore and play with different materials in a safe environment. These could be seemingly safe materials like stuffed toys or seemingly unsafe ones like soft moulding wires. In today’s borderless world of contamination and cross-contamination, no material is completely “safe”. Yet adults, who are entrusted with the supervision and safety of infants, work with the illusion that restricting their childs interaction to just a few supposedly safe materials, makes them safe. It is easier for us to manage the environment so that our lapses and neglects do not jeopardise their safety. In our enthusiasm to make the environment safe, we forget that the elimination of certain materials from children’s environment makes learning very one dimensional and caters to development of some senses more than others.

In North America, the safety of kids sometimes borders on paranoia. The litigation culture prevalent there makes them rely so much on one kind of research that supports stringent control over materials, conveniently ignoring the other body of research which supports the contrary. In Canada, my infant son was not allowed to play with little cars by his daycare provider as there was the risk that the wheels might come off and may be swallowed by him or other infants around him. Whereas in Reggio, I witnessed the spectacular engagement of an infant with a metal object, something that would have horrified my son’s Canadian caregiver. The learning and the communication of the learning that emerged from such interaction was a visual delight for me as a mother and an educationist.

This is not to say that infants should be allowed to interact with sharp knifes and rat poison! But we need to broaden our choice of materials for kids, especially the very young ones, to interact with and learn from. Our fears as parents and care providers should not interfere with their sensorial development. Every material that has any educational value has its potential strengths and risks. It is more about vigilant supervision and common sense than about a false culture of safe, sterile environment. Somehow, the preschools in North America seem colourful but dull to the senses after Reggio where aesthetic repackaging and layouts of discards like orange peels gave them a new identity and potential purpose as a multi-sensorial, learning material.