The Power of the Scribble
It was the last day of pre-school before the summer break. My son was smiling at the thought of whiling away time for two long months, and my joy matched his. Until a pile of stapled worksheets was placed in my hands, the top sheet labelled “HOLIDAY HOMEWORK.” My grin faded.
Sixty sheets of A4-sized paper for a 2-and-a-half-year-old – more pages than months he’s been alive. Each split into two columns: the left side for the child to complete by following the completed example on the right. From top to bottom, I saw a scarlet apple with a green leaf, a blue boat on a blue sea, a green frog on a green leaf, and a yellow sun on a blue sky.
Very real, very boring and very neat – all examples were coloured in without a single stray line.
“Karake dekhiye (Try getting him to do the work),” my son’s teacher told me, as I stared at her in disbelief. Her frustration at having to deal with a singularly homework-unenthusiastic parent was palpable. Possibly for good reason: I threw the lot in our re-use-for-grocery-lists pile of paper as soon as we were home.
It’s not holiday homework as a concept that I abhor, as much as it is the kind of homework educators tend to assign children; had the teacher handed me a list of suggested activities like scribbling or shape-drawing, say, creating alphabet trains or even just recognizing and copying art in the child’s own way, I would’ve happily tried out at least some of them with my son, because as a parent and preschool educator myself, I understand the value of pre-writing.
Pre-writing refers to all the things that a toddler/child has to learn and practice, in order to eventually form written letters and words and sentences. Writing is a function of fluency, you see, exactly like the ability to speak a language or swim or ride a bike; practice is paramount. Actually riding a bike is a really good metaphor: Just as it would be very difficult to ride a cycle if you couldn’t first pedal or balance, there are a great many things toddlers have to get right, before they can write.
These things are pre-writing skills. In a 2015 article on the development of handwriting skills, the author, an early childhood education expert, describes how, for children to write, they need to have upper-body and finger-hand strength, be able to reach across the middle of the body, learn how to grasp a pencil correctly, develop hand-eye coordination, be able to coordinate the two sides of their body to perform a single task, and have many other physical and perceptual abilities. These might not sound that difficult, but they actually require a great deal of brain power. Phew.
Many experts suggest the best way to develop this brain power and these skills is for children to simply put pen to paper – but not (and here is why I threw out the HOLIDAY HOMEWORK) between the lines.
So instead, on any given day, my house is flooded with scraps of paper featuring my son’s doodles – his Bees and their B’s, his curved moons and half-moons and full-moons and moons with his grandmother sitting inside them. He is happy to scribble, and I am happy to let him, knowing he is developing the skills he needs to write later on.
But it’s not been easy to get everyone on board with what, to my half-Bengali family, comes across as a very lackadaisical approach to an important skill. My Bengali side (as might be expected) places great value on reading and writing. And balancing this cultural tradition isn’t quite as simple as tossing homework into the bin.
One of the more interesting rituals Bengalis have for young children is what is called the Haathe Khuri celebration, when little (ostensibly school-ready) children are introduced to formal writing. During the ceremony, while the priest chants a mantra, the child for whom the ceremony is being held has to typically put pen to a lined notebook.
When my mother discovered that my son had started drawing and doodling, she promptly announced that the ceremony had to be held, so he could properly learn to write. It was already too late, she grumbled, he can draw a complete circle already.
But I balked. To my mind, there was little difference between the Haathe Khuri ceremony and those summer worksheets. Both old and new traditions were trying to achieve the same thing: Get the toddler to write formally as quickly as possible, regardless of whether he had the pre-writing skills to do so.
I didn’t want to skip this important step for my son. I wanted him to scribble as long as possible, building the ability to write within the lines with every stray streak. All of those pre-writing skills above? Scribbling helps develop them. (Yes, even if it’s all over the walls.) I felt like my mother and my son’s teachers wanted to skip a step. Why couldn’t HOLIDAY HOMEWORK or the Haathe Khuri be a scribble?
Well, it was. Ultimately we did the Haathe Khuri – and summer worksheets, too. But the apple was purple, the frog, pink, and none of it was inside the lines. As for the first writing, my son made a wild, beautiful scribble on a blank sheet of paper. Meaningless to some, but not to me, and not to boy he’ll grow to be.