We frequently use our classroom animals - anatomically correct figures of animals - with salt dough to make impressions and such. Often the animals are returned to their special basket with dough clinging to one side or the other of them. This hardens and is still present the next time they are used. I decided that they should all be cleaned before we closed for Spring break; that the children should give the animals a bath - a washing of the animals. I would also invite the participating children to dry the animals as their parents dry them with a towel after their baths.
I had no idea if my toddler students would engage this work or not. I was going on a hunch that they might. I knew they would enjoy playing in the water, but would they be able to resist just doing that and focus on the task of cleaning the animals. What I didn't imagine was how profoundly beautiful this work would be or that I would be reminded of Robert Coles great work, "The Spiritual Life Of Children."
Too, I did not prepare myself for the emotions that rose up within me as I watched my very young children devote themselves to the tender care of the animals. They engaged in empathetic actions towards each one. I do not think they believed them to be alive, yet after washing each, they named them and placed them carefully on the table. They never splashed the water or tossed the animals. These are objects that represent real creatures; living things. Unable to express their emotions with words, the toddlers expressed their attachment to these representational beings via tender actions. Too, their actions and engagement could easily be classified as play therapy.
I sat watching them work. They were working with such concentration. At times their bodies were bent forward and their shoulders lowered. Animal in hand, they washed and patted each dry. Beautiful; so beautiful. Toddlers as St. Francis himself.
A gathering of animals, all in the care of the wonderfully young.