Several summers ago I spotted a collection of strange red, black and yellow objects arranged artfully on the lawn in front of one of my neighbor’s houses. I’d already pulled over to take a closer look, when I realized they were part of a larger yard sale.
Before even knowing what they were, I wanted them for the preschool. As it turned out, they didn’t belong to the homeowner (who was coincidentally a preschool teacher), but rather to an artist named Scot who had gone dumpster diving under the cover of night behind the Erderer factory in the Sodo district of Seattle. His plan had been to build one-of-a-kind furniture from them, but it hadn’t happened so he was trying to liquidate them. He wasn’t exactly sure what they were called, but he said they were wooden patterns used in making molds for parts to be used in the manufacture of heavy machinery. Cool!
I explained to him that we’re just a wee and pitiful non-profit preschool, while at the same time demonstrating my extreme enthusiasm for the objects. I was obviously hoping to get a deal, because the prices were a bit dear for us. Scot said, “If you want some, I have a whole bunch more at my house.”
So the next day I visited Scot and he took me to a dirt-floored basement that was crammed full of these magnificent things and let me pick out a collection for the school. I didn’t know it at the time, and he might not have either, but this was an amazingly generous gift on his part. I’ve since come across similar items at construction salvage vendors for $200 and up.
They were very dirty, so when I got them home (much to my wife’s chagrin) I washed them, then broke out the Johnson’s wax and buffed them up to a shine.
During one of their first visits to our classroom, one of the fathers lit up, “These are manufacturing patterns. My dad used to bring old ones home from the factory where he worked for us to play with.” Needless to say, he had a great day clambering around on them with his son.
I like that they’re “real” things, first of all, bristling with the potential for splinters and being dropped on toes. And some of them are very heavy. That large circle in the center (below) probably weighs close to 150 lbs. Even all the kids working together can’t budge it, and yes, they’ve tried. The rest of them can be moved by the children working either solo or in teams. A few of them can be taken apart and fit back together, but they ain’t unit blocks so it takes creativity to actually build with them.
On Monday, the kids, working together, built a boat. The piece at the top of the picture below was used as a tiller. They later built a space ship. On Tuesday, the 2-year-olds used them to work on their climbing and balancing skills.
I never know what they'll do with them. This piece above works as a rocker, but the kids often turn it over and use it for a bridge.
As I "negotiated" with the artist Scot on my neighbor’s lawn, the preschool teacher joined us, listening. She seemed confused by my enthusiasm and asked, “Do you mind me asking what you’re going to do with them?”
“Take them to the preschool.”
“But what are you going to do with them?”
She shook her head, “How will they play with these things?”
I answered, “I don’t know.”