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Dealing With Baby-Gap Syndrome


Don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time you have said, “Please send your child to school in clothes you don’t care about!” We can encourage, demand, threaten, bribe, write notes home, scream, post signs and tell parents until we are blue in the face about the importance of wearing “play clothes” to school, but to no avail! It is frustrating to feel like our words are ignored, and even more so when, after all our efforts and insistence, the children still come to school suffering from what I call, “baby gap syndrome”.

And it affects the children the worst – over the years I have seen children cry because they got a little bit of paint on their shirt, have witnessed emotional breakdowns on the play yard because mud was on the new sneakers, had children tell me to throw their “dirty shirt” away so mama won’t get mad and have had children bound into school announcing that they aren’t allowed to paint anymore because it “ruins my clothes”. I have seen children proudly drag their parents out onto the yard to show off the tree forts, castles and mud houses they spent all day building and creating, designing and painting only to be asked, “Why are you so dirty?”, or be told, with a heavy sign, “Oh no…there’s paint on your new shirt!”

What kinds of messages are being sent to the children when there is so much emphasis on their clothes and shoes? Can the shirt really be more important than the opportunity to engage in a new creative experience? If it is, then it is a shirt that does not belong in preschool. I actually had a child come to school once wearing a green, crushed silk, flower girl dress…and her tap shoes! Like you, I have really struggled with this over the years.

What are we to do?

We tell our families, “Send them in clothes you don’t care about!” and then I show a slide show of the children “in action” and they immediately understand why! I met a director who tells parents, “If your child doesn’t get dirty at school, then we aren’t doing our job!”. Another friend who provides family childcare tells all her new clients, “I guarantee I will ruin their clothes!” And a colleague who teaches preschool tells her families, ”If you want the children to be able to wear it in public again, don’t send it here!” The reason I like to show parents the slide show is so that they can then see for themselves what the children are doing. They can witness the creative process first hand! I have discovered that parents sometimes have a misconception that their children are getting dirty because teachers are not paying attention. Slide shows, short video clips and photographs are tools for educating the parents not only on the creative process, but also of your involvement and investment in the activity as well.

Educators and providers need to be able to verbalize why creative art and other kinds of messy play is important and be able to identify for the parents the skills that are being developed as the children are engaged in these experiences. Remember that the parents aren’t there during the day to see the creativity, cooperation and process first hand; all they might see is the red paint in the hair and the glue on the jeans.

At our schoolhouse the children are not made to wear smocks. We use washable paint for all projects and, at orientation, parents are informed of the high level of creativity we encourage at our school and as such, are required to have lots and lots of extra clothes in their child’s cubby. Knowing that having lots of extras can be taxing for some families, there is also a big tub of clothes I have accumulated over the years at garage sales and consignment shops that children can “borrow” if they run out of extras.

Through parent workshops, parent meetings, articles about hands-on, creative messy play, a back to school orientation and well-written contracts and parent handbooks, you can begin to battle baby gap syndrome.

©2002 Ooey Gooey, Inc.
Lisa Murphy www.ooeygooey.com

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