The Emotions of a Toilet

When my children’s interest in dinosaurs began to wind down, my co-teacher and I started listening.  We listened for what questions they were asking about the world.  We listened for the stories they were telling each other through play.  We listened for clues to what emotions they were feeling, and for ways we could help them grow.   We were ready to embark on another exploration, we just needed to figure out what would captivate their interests and tap into their feelings.  

I was expecting that our exploration would be something relatively generic:  Outer Space, maybe.  Or trains.  Interests that are shared among most preschool classrooms.  But what seemed to capture my children’s interests the most was toilets and plumbing.  They began to tell stories about clogs.  The long cardboard tubes that had been our dinosaur’s trees were now plungers.  

I’ve discovered this gem from NPR.  This author suggests that children are interested in toilets because they are natural scientist.  I saw this to be true:  my children were fascinated when we looked inside the ceramic tank of our toilets.  They loved understanding the mechanics behind this apparatus that they use every day.

 In addition to the scientific inquiry, I believe that another reason my children were fascinated with toilets was the way toilets allowed them to tap into some pretty deep emotions.  When young children play and explore their interests, they have the opportunity to discover more about themselves.  They can create a pretend scenario where they feel silly, scared, or powerful.  Pretending opens up a safe space to release real emotions.  But, they are in complete control of the situation.  When the emotion becomes too intense, they can stop or change the play scenario, in a way they cannot do when they are in the adult world.  I was grateful that toilets were able to give them this opportunity.  

I think their interests initiated from a feeling of joy and silliness.  I wonder if anyone has done research on the universality of potty humor, but it seems pretty pervasive among people young and old.  Throughout this exploration, our three year old plumbers unclogged food, toys, other children from toilets, sinks, and bathtubs.  They wrote stories about clogging someone’s mouth.  They pretended to be honking toilets.  Our class continually bubbled with a healthy dose of laughter.  

Not only did this allow my children to feel the amazing emotion of joy, but it allowed them to connect with their peers.   It is empowering for a young child to realize that something he or she did or said was significant enough that it elicited a genuine laugh from a peer.  I strongly believe that humor is one of the most powerful tools in making friends.  When people can laugh together, they are connecting with each other.  They are sharing an intense emotion in a safe space. 

The toilet can provide powerful moment of fascination and humor, but it also triggers moments of fear and sadness.  For the young child, toilets can be terrifying.  Here is a fixture that is almost as big as they are.  It makes a loud noise as it sucks down something that CAME OUT OF THEM.  It sounds like most of my children have had the unfortunate experience of flushing a favorite toy, which they may or may not ever see again.  In the beginning of our exploration, there were moments when the levity would stop, and a wide-eyed child would ask me if a kid could ever get flushed down the toilet and get stuck in the pipes.  Young children are innately sensitive to the feelings of loss.  Losing a favorite toy can be traumatic, and they do not yet understand the limitations of what can and cannot disappear.  They can imagine what it would be like to lose someone they love the same way they lost their toys.

I take that wide-eyed child on my lap and we talk about how sad it would be to lose someone in the pipes, or be lost himself.  I assure him that water pipes are too small to fit any person, even a small one.  We also discuss why toilets make such a loud noise.  We bring in a plumber who teaches my children how to remove things stuck in pipes.  We work together to target this feeling of fear and vulnerability.  They pretend to be plumbers. As they use plungers to unclog the pretend toilet in dramatic play, they are realizing that things that are lost can be found again.  They are now able to feel another powerful emotion– hope.

I learned a lot from this exploration.  Not only do I now have a greater awareness of water pipes, I also have a greater respect for my children.  They found a way to turn something mundane into something therapeutic.  With this single exploration, they were able to discover new ways to build relationships and to handle their fears.  I hope that as they grow, they will continue to see the greater significance in commonplace experiences.  And I hope that us grownups can keep encouraging them to pretend, even when their interests are unusual.

-“Pretend you are a lost baby, a frantic mother, a heroic sister:  feel the pain, celebrate the rescue.” -Vivian Paley, The Kindness of Children