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A mother trusts that her son's smashing of his toys and penchant for drawing and paper ripping lead to learning.

Free to Smash His Toys
By Maggie Bennett Simonsen

A mother trusts that her son's smashing of his toys and penchant for drawing and paper ripping lead to learning.

A life learner, Sean (age eight) has a penchant for drawing comical but outrageous faces. Sometimes they have tiny stick bodies and giant heads. The faces are crazy, and sometimes there is lots of blood, gore, guns, and stabbing knives. Some have crazy amounts of teeth, and they usually have teeny-tiny stick figure bodies beneath enormous heads.

These faces are sarcastic, humorous, exaggerated, and comical representations of our most obnoxious extremes and lunacy as human beings. He has even created a “Murica” series. Some have evolved into stories that we staple together for mini-books.

He will go through a lot of paper (or a stack of post-it notes) drawing these faces in one sitting. As a compendium, they are quite impressive.

Since he has freedom to choose media and no limits on screen time, he has watched every episode of many popular animated programs like South Park, Family Guy, and American Dad. I feel like he has picked up some intuitive gesturing from the stylization of these exaggerated and sarcastic shows.

This penchant for drawing hundreds of faces is accompanied by another outlet for expression and creativity: He has always been a shredder. Shredding labels from plastic bottles, tearing plastic wrappers from candy, or even picking apart foam objects is not uncommon.

Some parents might be alarmed by such behavior, but not me. I see it as the reflection of cerebral processing, similar to the methodical thinking that I might do when folding laundry or organizing areas in our home. Just last night, I cleaned his processing from the sofa. He had ripped the pages from a Lego magazine and crumpled each one into a similarly sized ball.

It is not unusual for me to find neat little piles of uniformly ripped candy wrappers or peeled plastic containers when tidying our living space. I've even found take-out bags and straw wrappers (and plastic straws with tiny tears) in my car in these same little piles.

I marvel at these traces of himself that he's unintentionally left for me to find. I even feel proud of these odd little “surprise” messes that I discover, as if they are little offspring I could raise into magnificent reminders of the child and his wit, which I cherish so much!

torn paperHe sometimes asks if he can destroy or smash (he calls it “deconstructing”) old toys. This is no big deal since the majority were thrift purchases, and they are his toys. He has smashed one of those advertising light up buttons to find that if he connects certain wires that he finds between the layers of plastic, he can still produce a light.

Once, I gave him a cardboard box to hold a plastic and metal car so that he could smash it safely with a hammer (and not have pieces flying everywhere). Another time, he even stripped an aluminum can into uniform shreds. I was at first and momentarily horrified, but then relieved and impressed that he did not cut himself. Still another time, he filled the bathtub with torn magazine pages because he imagined what it might be like to lay in it like one might sink into a ball pit.

Lately, he is tearing paper into shapes of faces and figures, carefully creating torn, patterned hair; eyes that have torn flaps for opening and closing; and other features that he pokes or tears into these shapes. The finished products remind me of primitive figures from ancient cultures. This latest trend all started while waiting for our food at a restaurant, where he fashioned the paper utensil wrapper into a tiny face.

I love watching how he satisfies his need to draw faces repeatedly, or manipulate and shred, and how this process allows him to translate his perceptions of the most absurd aspects of people onto the faces, or how he invents almost an art form from a destructive process.

The process is unique to him (at least in our family) and provides a window into his thought analytics. It reminds me that he is not me, and I am not him, and then I marvel at his individuality. I've noticed that when he forms repetitive actions freely, the process leads to creative expression, similar to the builds he created from blocks, then Lego as a younger child, and now in Minecraft.

I have seen him, in this less-than-a-decade of life learning, practice seemingly insignificant actions repetitively just to turn such practice into impressive skill (such as the way he practices riding back and forth on his skateboard or scooter in our living area, developing skill that will translate impressively to concrete). I observe and invest that all of this cartooning, tearing, shredding, and smashing will eventually reveal significant purpose. I respect his need to do these things, and embrace its value in the overall process that is whole life learning.

Maggie Bennett Simonsen claims that organizing chaos generates her inner peace. Born and raised in South Carolina, her diverse career path included numerous roles in higher education and entrepreneurship. She coined the phrase parts + parts = whole for her master's thesis (MFA, painting) about process being the most important element in life and art. After parenting her two (now adult) step daughters, she raises her son as a whole life learner. She lives in partnership with her family at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, in Buffalo, Wyoming and can be found at

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