In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Mollie McQuarrie, Blue School’s Pre-primary Studio and Materials Specialist. Mollie is a parent, visual artist, musician, and educator specializing in aesthetic education. Here she shares ideas for fostering engagement and expression and finding novelty during our extended time at home.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now, we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you're finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous and compassionate.
I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment and proud parent of a Blue School Graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, Blue School Advisory Board member, or special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing.
Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager, or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together, we will find our way.
I am so excited to be talking to Mollie McQuarrie today. Mollie McQuarrie is a parent, visual artist, musician, and educator, specializing in aesthetic education. She is Blue School’s Pre-primary Studio and Materials Specialist.
Mollie, welcome to On Balance. I know that how are you can feel like a loaded question these days, but I’d love to start by checking in with you. How are you doing today?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: I’m okay today. Doing all right.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I am sitting here in my apartment in Queens. And I hear birds outside my window. It feels like one of those perfect days to get outside with our children and explore. And I’m so aware of how right now so many of us are stuck for the most part indoors. As a parent, as an educator, what are some of the thoughts you are having right now about how to keep that element of adventure available to our kids?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: I think the whole thing is an adventure really. I mean, you know, how we have to change our mode of being in our homes especially, but also outside of our homes if we’re choosing to go outside. And so it’s really all kind of an adventure, and maybe just embracing that is — is a huge part of it. But I think, you know, I feel so much for people who have young children. My youngest is ten and she’s doing okay, and I can only imagine what it’s like if you have a two year old or a three year old, or kids who need to move around a lot. And I guess the adventure has to be inside, and kind of following the lead of your child is really the best thing that you can do. And listen really carefully to what their needs are. And to do what you can to make what you are doing at home just feel like a positive thing.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah. I wonder if you’ve felt a shift in the way that — and I sort of would love to talk to you both as a parent and an educator. I know — I’m sure you’re wearing both of those hats in really fluid and complicated ways these days as so many parent teachers are. But I’m wondering if as a parent, if you felt a shift in the way you are thinking about that relationship with your children and thinking about the possibilities in your home?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Definitely. I mean, I’m — you know, there are some funny silver linings of all of this. And a lot of it is that we are spending a lot of time together. My kids have only each other as far as younger humans to interact with. And I don’t want to play Minecraft with them, but they’re very happy to play Minecraft with each other, which is thrilling to me because they don’t like doing a lot of — I have a ten and a 15 year old, and a boy and a girl, and you know, they don’t have a lot of crossovers in their interests, you know? And so when I see them connecting over something, and the two big things are Gilmore Girls and Minecraft — and that’s just wonderful. And you know, we used to have rules about screen time and how much that can happen, and we just don’t, you know? I can’t, when they’re on the screen so much of the day, I think they’re pretty good at gauging what they need.
And my daughter who used to be on screens a lot, you know, she’s leaning into books a little bit more, and she’s on screens Zooming with her friends, but that’s how she’s socializing, and that’s fine, you know?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Exactly. Yeah, I definitely am aware of a shift in the way I see screen time for — I have a teenager too, and I’m — now that screens are the social, they are the way to connect and think together and plan together with peers, yeah it feels like they have a different value.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, and in a certain way it has kind of brought social media back to what it should be for me. It’s like, well wait a second, if this is actually the way that we can connect right now, like who cares how many likes you have, or who cares if you’re an influencer or — you know — three months ago, social media was still very market driven. And people on there wanting those likes, and getting that dopamine rush. And I don’t see my kids engaging with it that way. They’re just engaging with it as a way of getting information and connecting with people, and that feels valuable to me.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Lovely. And I know that also in your school life you spent a lot of time with much younger children. So you are also having the experience of seeing into the homes of two and three and four year olds and their families, and sort of holding them through this transition. And it feels like it’s a very different reality to deal with screens and relationship at those ages than it is for our older children who have some context for relationship in that realm even if it’s evolving.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah.
DAWN WILLIAMS: So I wonder if we can talk a little bit about the space of home also as a holder for the experiences of very young children, and how parents can sort of rethink or find new opportunities in those home spaces.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, I mean I think — you know, for me personally — when my kids were young, and this was before this time, I know that I struggled a lot with just like mess, you know? And I can only imagine, and I’m doing it to some degree or another with my kids even though they’re much older, of just sort of — you know, I have to let it go, you know? I mean, you know, there’s going to be mess, you know? And kids spread out, you know? And they need to spread out, they need space. And so their homes are now their space, whereas at Blue School we have the wonder room and we have the activity space and we have the studio, we have the classroom. And they have so many spaces where they can spread out. And now they’re confined to their home, and you know, I think that requires a shift in what we can tolerate as grown ups, and what we sort of have to tolerate a little bit.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Some of it is just letting them spread out, you know? And letting them own it. I mean, because I’m sure they do. I’m sure the parents of little kids are maybe pulling their hair out to the degree to which their children have turned their houses into obstacle courses or gyms or whatever, you know? But I don’t know, have a sense of humor I guess. What else can you do?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Totally — I’ve been thinking a lot about the way you hold space at school. That you hold physical space in specific ways in your art studio. And I’ve heard you talk about the need for children, especially children who live in the city to have wild spaces. I’ve heard you talk about thinking about the art studio as a kind of forest, right?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah.
DAWN WILLIAMS: As a kind of space for mystery and the unknown a little bit. And it feels like that messiness is a part of that as well. Do you have any thoughts about how to hold those wild spaces in our homes?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: I mean, I think really like the big theme of what’s going to come up over and over again, I’m anticipating in your questions, are you know, the repeated need — and Larry Cohen talks about it too, of just leaning into it, you know? I mean, I think our kids have huge expressive capacities and needs. And the way that they process feelings is through play and expression, and the things that parents would prefer often that their kids did in school. And they need to keep doing those things. And so to arrive to a place where there’s a little bit of wildness I think means leaning in even that much more and seeing the potential of what is in your space. I mean, you know, furniture doesn’t have to be upright all the time. You can flip it over, you know? And you may not want to, you may have very fancy heavy furniture. I don’t — you know, some people have limitations. But you know, I think to whatever degree that you can create a sense of novelty within the familiar space that they’re in all the time is going to help activate that sense of exploration that comes when kids are outside.
Because there needs to be something new, right? When kids wander — if you imagine yourself when you were a kid, or see your kids just wandering on the beach or just playing, there isn’t a plan, you know? They go from one thing to another. But that means that there has to be something to discover. So I mean, I think the element of surprise can go a long way. So changing how things are, moving the furniture around, you know? Changing how it looks, making whatever changes you can to your space I think can help that feeling.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I’m thinking about scale. And actually something — you have two spaces that you use at Blue School. And it feels like you use them in different ways, and to sort of different ends. I wonder if you could talk about scale for small children.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, so I guess I’ll start with the work space which is a space on the second floor that we use primarily with two year olds. And we have found that though it’s a very small space, that it works really well for twos because twos are wanderers, right? I mean, they’re like on a perpetual walkabout. And they have to feel and experience the world in their entire body. And so they’re always picking up sensory information from their toes to the top of their heads, you know? And so — but if you give them too big of a space, that they tend to get sort of lost in it, or they just sort of run around, you know?
And the small space, when used I think in the way that we use it, where you know, we do flip furniture upside down and we turn it on its side, and you know, the whole entire space is free game for the twos where they can — we put paper on the walls, we put paper under the tables. We try to use every corner of the space. And there’s something about the containment of it that works really, really well for the twos. You know, the fours, it’s too squishy for them just because their bodies are bigger, but so in the studio, I like having open spaces a lot of the time unless we’re doing tabletop work. But you’ve seen me turn out the lights a lot. And when we turn out the lights a lot, the kids run around a lot, you know? And maybe that’s — like sometimes it’s sort of like, huh this is a studio, is this really the best way to be in a studio?
And then I watch what they’re doing, and they have so much control. I mean, it’s almost like seeing them play in a small playground or something. They are so aware of their bodies in space, they never run into each other. They never run into the walls or the furniture, you know? They’re perfectly aware of where everything is. But you know, having that — that space, even if it’s — I mean, I — this is a little tangential, but I lived in a very small apartment before I lived where I live now. It was 850 square feet, and my son when he was between two and five, very, very, very active young boy, and he really just needed to run all the time. And we had an island in our kitchen, and he would literally just do loops around the — I mean, he would just run around it. And it was really small. I mean, the island was maybe like, I don’t know, three square feet or something. But he would just run circles around it all the time, you know? And that was fine.
I mean, he needed bigger spaces at some point in the day or every other day or whatever, but in the context of our home, he made that space work for him in the way that he needed it to work for him. You know, so I think that even a small space, there’s a lot of potential for thinking about all the potential surfaces. Everything that goes under, everything that goes over, anything that’s tall. I mean, like whatever you can do in your space becomes fair game during COVID.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Totally. It takes me back to that thinking about wild spaces, and I think I’m especially interested in it because it feels like as parents there’s something — I mean, especially in these moments when so much feels out of our control or unknowable, there’s a hope that we can find ways of controlling or limiting — and yet I’m hearing this, and I felt it in your rooms before, the possibilities of what happens when you allow a certain amount of wildness. I wonder if you have thoughts about why that’s necessary. What comes from allowing some — I don’t know if wildness is the right word. I think —
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: I think I would just use the word kind of — you know, exploratory. I mean, I think most little children, and I think children as they get older too, they need to experience the world through all of their senses. And so — I mean, the forest, if you think about what the forest has to offer, there was a tremendous amount of mystery unless it’s a forest that you’re very familiar with. And even then it’s forever changing. And so there’s always something new.
So the sense of novelty, the smells, the sounds, the way that light shifts, there’s movement. So it’s sort of a perpetual changing scape. And children respond to almost any sensory input. So I mean, I think because so much of how they experience the world is through the senses, the more sensory input they have, the more they’re going to use that to their growth I guess, you know? They will turn that into play, and they will process it, and that need for play is so essential. It’s how they cope and how they process and how they learn. It’s how they do everything. And so you know, by providing experiences where there is a sense of novelty, but also some safety I think. I think children can be in that experiential place, that exploration place. Does that make sense?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, so much. I also wonder about sort of layering on the way that you think about materials, and I know at Blue School we talk about material work all the time, and mostly are thinking about open ended or repurposed materials. Can you talk a little bit about what material work means to you as a form of expression for little ones? And any ways that you’re thinking about how we can translate some of the work that you do at school into our homes.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah. Well, I think my approach to material work — I mean, to kind of continue on the idea of experiences, if you can think of that in contrast to what I would consider the opposite, which is a very didactic way of teaching, where kids have to learn phonics, and kids have to learn —I don’t think teaching them skills is keeping in mind what is so important about who children are and how they process the world and how they learn. And I think they learn through experiences, and so with materials, I’m not interested in showing them how to use a material, you know?
I mean, if it’s a pair of scissors, yes, I’m interested in showing them how to use a material because I don’t want them to get hurt. But that’s more of a tool, not a material. And you know, with materials they need to discover for themselves how that material is meaningful for them if one of the goals is for them to have a sense of who they are, or one of the goals is to have a sense of independence or to understand what their own expressive capacities are. And they can’t learn that if they’re being told how to do it, or if it’s just about, you know, imitating a product or creating a product. And so the longer I teach, the more the work that I do with kids is really less about product and more about process, and providing context and provocations with materials. So putting things together in a way that might create some surprise and might make them use the material in a way they haven’t used it before. But I don’t tell them what the answer is, it’s for them to discover what the answer is, you know?
So a lot of it is about, I mean, I use the same materials over and over again, and I feel like some teachers think they need to have a light table and they need to have all of this fancy stuff, you know? But the reality is that paint and clay and paper and some drawing tools are really, really what you need. And the magic is how you put those things together or where you put them or how you’re talking about them, you know, so that there is something unfamiliar for them to discover and there’s an endless number of variety in all of those materials for how you can do that.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I’m wondering if there are tools that you can offer parents that can support not just the sort of laying out of those materials, but ways that they can support their child to have a deeper, more meaningful engagement. I remember being the parent of a young child and feeling like — you know, my child was going to engage for a moment and then would be on to something else, which is fine too. But I noticed in your art studio the sort of deep, meaningful engagement that children are having with materials and provocations. Can you — ?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, I think there’s a funny thing that happens when teachers start doing clay with kids, where you know, they think it’s like magnatiles or something which — I mean, kids can work alone with magnatiles forever because they’re fascinating and they’re easy. Clay is a little bit harder and a little bit more mysterious. And if teachers put out clay, but the teacher is not at the clay table, kids won’t come, right?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Right, right, right.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: If the teacher is at the clay table and they’re doing things with the clay, the kids will come. So I think that part of it is that, you know, kids are social creatures and so, you know, sometimes with a material — unless it’s a material that they just love automatically. I mean, some kids just love to draw for hours and hours and hours, and lucky you if you’re that parent. But if they’re not that kind of kid, then it’s going to last a lot longer, the experience will last a lot longer if you do it with them. And I realize that doesn’t help right now for parents who are looking for things to do while they’re trying to get work done. But you know, I mean sometimes it’s about the principles of separation I think apply, where you start by being close, and once your child kind of trusts that space, that drawing space — let’s just use drawing as an example. Once your child has been drawing side by side with you if your child has an experience of drawing that is social, and in this case it’s going to be a parent or a sibling, then that’s become a much more deep experience than if they’re just being sat down in front of materials by themselves. And their ability to build on that as something that they have good feelings about is going to be amplified a lot if it starts as a social interaction. And you know, some kids are going to say, “Keep doing it with me, keep doing it with me.” And if that’s what they need, that’s what they need, and that’s hard. But I think that you can slowly pull away, in the same way that you would with sleep training or with teaching them to separate, or whatever. And you know, you can help them to develop their own vocabulary with a material being side by side with them.
And as you do that, you’re giving them some skills to develop some independence with that material. But I think sometimes it just has to start socially and in a connected way. And that’s one of the reasons I really empathize with people who have young children right now, because that’s really hard when you’re a working parent. Or even if you’re not a working parent, I mean that’s a lot of responsibility.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I’m thinking a lot about how much so many of us are holding during these days, grief and exhaustion and over work, or not enough work. Fear. And we’re holding these in spaces where we’re very visible to our children, and our children are holding these in spaces where they’re very visible to us. I wonder if art making or materials exploration for you is a way to connect with these emotions. And if you have any thoughts about how parents can use these tools to be in a certain kind of relationship with their children and their children’s emotions.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, well I mean I think some parents are really good at games, like my husband’s really good at games. You know, he’ll do the art thing sometimes, but he’s better at games. You know, I’m more of the, hey let’s do a painting together. So I think some of it is just having a range of options, and art provides one of those — or many options, because I mean kids like to make things, and they like to make things with a lot of different materials, whether it’s pillows or paper or whatever.
You know, and so I think that making is another form of play for children. It’s all about play for children, you know? And art is a funny kind of play because it’s discreet, and so it’s often very quiet. You know, your child may make a drawing and they may have nothing to say about it. But they’ve still created an artifact of something, whether it’s a feeling or an experience or — it is still something that exists in the world that you as a parent may or may not choose to reflect on it. I mean, kids can produce a tremendous amount of drawings and god forbid if we all reflected on all of them and had a deep thought about what it tells us about our child. But I don’t even think you have to do that. I think you just have to know that it is a way for children to process their feelings, and they need to do it in a lot of different ways, you know? So the more variety they have, the more they’re going to be able to articulate themselves.
And there may be a particular way that you really connect with, you know? Whether it’s playing cars or doing the obstacle course or whatever it is, you might be like, oh that’s what they’re thinking about, okay. And that might make sense to you.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m thinking about how — so it seems to me, I’ve heard children who are reflecting on their work, and especially in times like this things come up that are dark or uncomfortable or maybe troubling to parents. Do you have thoughts about how parents — like what do you do in that moment when your child is drawing something or working with clay or their play moves to that darker space?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, well you know I think this goes back to the previous question actually, because I think as grown ups we’re extremely verbal and we’re very linear, you know? We think in time and we think through words and we process by talking. And young children don’t process by talking a lot of the time. Very verbal children can process by talking, but there are probably more children that it takes them a few years to become verbal enough to talk about their feelings. And even then their ability to really articulate what they’re feeling is hard. You know, and so that’s where all the materials come in, is that it is another language for them. It’s another way for them to process what they’re going through, and to communicate about it. I mean, they are communications if nothing else. And I think as parents we have to get a little comfortable with not quite knowing, you know? And just sort of — they might make a really dark drawing that feels scary to us because we’re applying our adult brain to looking at it, but in all likelihood it is really just a child who is expressing something.
And it may be a fear, it may be a concern, you know, whatever it is. But I think, you know, to sort of go back to the child and try to say, well what does this mean, you know? Well they’ve made a drawing of it because they can’t talk about it. So asking them to talk about it sort of defeats the purpose, you know? So I mean I think just being with your child with the drawing and just saying what you see. And this is what I say all the time, is you just have to describe to children what you see.
And that’s the feedback that they need a lot of the time. And often just knowing that they’ve been seen and that they’ve been heard is enough for them to start saying more. Not always, but sometimes. You know, and then if you don’t get what you’re looking for from your child which is understanding or clarity or, you know, whatever it is you’re looking for, I think as parents, we need to be okay with that. And just be with your child and the discomfort. I mean, I don’t feel afraid of darkness with children. And I think, you know, if they’re having a strong feeling, you know, it’s every parent’s prerogative to choose how they’re going to respond to that. But trying to make it go away is never going to work, you know?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Trying to explain it away is never going to work. I mean, I think finding books that relate to that feeling can be helpful, and you know, sort of cushioning the child in a sort of aura if you can imagine of just understanding and comfort, I think is really important. And if they want to talk about things, then talk about it. And I don’t lie to kids that I teach, or my own kids, about dark, scary things. I will choose my words carefully about dark, scary things. But you know, we talk about monsters and scary things all the time in the studio, and kids really, really, really need to talk about that stuff because it scares them, you know?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Exactly.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: We make and we play and we enact monsters, and we are monsters, and you know, we go full out on the monsters, you know? We do monsters in every possible way. And that’s what they need. They need the multimedia monster exploration.
DAWN WILLIAMS: They totally do. We all need multimedia monster exploration.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: We do. We do.
DAWN WILLIAMS: It’s so, so special to talk to you and hear your thinking especially in this time where I don’t get to walk into your art studio and just see it and feel it. I want to close with an almost — it’s such an overly practical question, and I feel like in ways we’ve already talked about the fact that in a way this is impossible with young children. But I also just want to pull out any tricks that you might have up your sleeves, because although as parents we might want to engage all the time and we might want to provide that aura of understanding, I think we’re also finding ourselves in moments where we don’t want to put our children in front of a screen again and we need to be on a work call.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah.
DAWN WILLIAMS: And so I just — I wonder if you can reach into those sleeves?
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, yeah, the tricks.
DAWN WILLIAMS: And pull out some of those tricks, like some of those different materials or novel ways to approach familiar materials that might give us 15 minutes to take a shower.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yeah, well I mean I think, you know, this question could go on forever depending on what materials we’re talking about, but it works a little differently at home because the materials don’t change as much as they do at school. But it’s essentially just like taking the paints and putting them somewhere else, you know? Like just making some kind of a change, and it can be sneaky things too.
Like maybe you take one of their favorite stuffies, and you put it inside a pillow or something, you know? You know, it’s sort of playing on this idea of surprise and novelty. And you know, giving your kid something to discover or find. And you know, that is sort of with the assumption that they’re going to stumble on it, but — you know, in a more explicit way, you can set up their drawing materials. Like you can take all of the red things that they have to draw with, and put them next to a piece of paper with some red tape and put it on the table. And that’s probably not something that they would do on their own. But just by you doing it, they’re going to come across it and be like, “Oh, this is different,” you know? And so trying to find ways to use what's familiar, but to present it to the child in a way that is novel is going to go a really long way.
I mean, I remember at a Reggio conference, there was this one slide that sticks out to me, and I talk about it all the time because it stuck out so much. And it was actually Reggio in the way that it’s practiced in Finland I think. And it was this woman who, she showed this slide of what they did to one of the spaces, and the teachers had taken a chair and they pulleyed it up to the ceiling and they strapped it to the ceiling just to see what the kids would do. And you know, you’re probably not going to do that in your home, but the idea applies, you know? Or maybe your kid wakes up and the furniture is in a different place, you know?
DAWN WILLIAMS: Right, right.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Like you have to be a little bit playful, like novelty is very juicy for little kids. And you know, you’re not just going to keep having Amazon deliver new art supplies, or maybe you are, but it’s not going to solve the problem, you know? And so using what they’re familiar with to try to create that sense of novelty and surprise, I think is huge, you know? Or you know, like putting paper under the table and letting them discover it, or showing it to them, or whatever.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yeah, that sort of revelation of object, that a table could be something to look up at from underneath, or up to.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Right, exactly.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I feel like those things happen in school — or scale, like the —
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Scale, yeah.
DAWN WILLIAMS: You know, you’re working on a post-it note one day, or like a piece of paper that’s all over the floor another day. I feel like in school that happens pretty fluidly.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Yes, yes.
DAWN WILLIAMS: But yeah, I think those are things I know I often don’t think about in my home. Yeah.
MOLLIE MCQUARRIE: Well, and it may be that you have to get playful with it. Like maybe you take away their pad of paper that they’ve been using every day and you hide it, you know? And you just put out a bunch of post-it notes. And they go to you and they’re like, “Where’s my pad?” And you’re like, “I don’t know. All I could find was post-it notes.” And you know, maybe you make it a game, and maybe the notebook reappears again, and you know — you can sort of turn some of these things into a game that doesn’t require a huge amount of time, it requires a little bit of ingenuity and a playful mentality.
But, you know, you could set up a whole lot of things in your apartment in 15 minutes. You know, that are super simple, that when your kid wakes up and walks out of the bedroom, they’re going to be like, “Huh?” And it’s going to be interesting for them.
DAWN WILLIAMS: It is. Thank you so much, Mollie. I know this is just scratching the surface of your expertise and I so look forward to ongoing discussions of these topics. We appreciate you and this conversation.
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