The Fine Art of Recycling

When my son began toting home his first finger paintings from preschool, every piece brought tears to my eyes and was clearly destined for framed display. Some actually did make it up on the walls, thanks to blue painter's tape. Yet alas, for all my good intentions, most of the paper ended up stacked in a cabinet, stored away for future curating.

But one day the five-year pileup became too much for even this pack rat. After I'd sent my now-7-year-old off to school, I spent hours creating two piles. There were the treasures that tugged at my heartstrings, featured fabulous splashes of my favorite blues and greens, or captured a special moment in time when my boy still had a headful of glorious curls. And then there was the much larger collection splayed across my living room rug, featuring 19 of 20 nearly identical versions of rainbows. Let's face it, we're not talking Monet here. Determined to recycle as much as I could, I methodically removed buttons and other crafty glue-ons. (While it now occurs to me that I might have saved these bits for future projects, I confess that I'm not quite that green.) I managed to finish up just in time to chuck the castaways in my building's recycling bin before the kid arrived home.

I know I'm not alone in this paper chase. I've chatted with other parents and read numerous threads on online message boards as moms adrift in a sea of artwork struggle with how to display or store the precious pieces they can't stand to edit out of their collections. So I wasn't surprised when The New York Times recently tackled the topic. What I did find shocking was the featured mothers' mode of disposal. The first mom profiled, who works at an academic research center -- shouldn't she know better? -- said she's "always on the lookout" for her 4-year-old daughter's "exceptional" drawings. But the latest batch would, in her words, "soon be archived in the rubbish bin." The rubbish bin? Why not the recycling bin? I read on.

The second mom, an artist herself, boasted that she's "getting better about not recycling." Apparently, doing so would leave the art out where her 5-year-old daughter might find and retrieve it. These days, she said, "it goes in the garbage." Egads, woman! Where are your subterfuge skills? The author of the piece divides the moms into two camps, the "keepers" and the "chuckers." The former are those who lovingly frame every stick-figure rendition for grandmother while the latter, the writer seems to insinuate, are somehow crasser for turning Bobby's 50th train drawing into wrapping paper.

To my mind, using art as wrapping paper is a genius way of reusing. And just imagine how doubly pleased grandma would be to receive a piece of art wrapped in another piece of art! Just when I was verging on apoplectic, I finally read about an arts educator so ruthless that back when her daughters were churning out the work, she wouldn't even let it reach the car. "I was the mom who opened her child's school folder at school, walked to the office and recycled 9 out of every 10 pieces," she said. While tough mom's approach seems a bit cold-hearted for this mushy fool, I salute her environmental efforts. If this generation of mothers feels especially buried before their kids hit kindergarten, we're not imagining things. According to David Burton, a professor of art education quoted in the piece, kids as young as 18 months are scribbling away with ergonomic crayons. Years ago, he says, even art educators "believed that children would just waste materials when they were really toddlers." But now, he adds, we know of the importance of art in early child development. For instance, drawing helps build cognitive and fine motor skills. When it comes to keeping our kids' artwork, it boils down to sentimentality and space. All I ask is that you recycle, people. As long as your little darlings are using nontoxic paint and crayons -- and let's hope they are -- you're good to go.

How much of your kids' art do you keep? How do you dispose of the rest?

Beth Arky is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who wishes she could locate her own early master works.