The bulk of our classroom day is taken up with free play, either inside the classroom, outside, or in the gym, and that’s exactly as it should be for preschoolers. There are two parts of the day-to-day curriculum, however, where we expect the children to toss their own desires and interests into the stone soup being cooked up by a larger community: Circle Time and Small Group.
Circle Time is when we all come together around a single big urn. The younger children mostly sing, dance and read books together. It makes for a delicious, predictable broth, which is just the kind of thing 2-year-olds go for. We could sing the same songs over and over throughout the year and they would push away from the table full and satisfied every time.
In our multi-aged 3-5’s class, we still have many younger children who would be satisfied with the good, old familiar potage, but they’re sharing cooking duties with four and five-year-olds who have developed a taste for something with a little more kick. Conversation is an amazing spice, but one that’s unpredictable, and can be easily overused. The resulting soup is sometimes a delight, but just as often it’s a bland mash or an overwhelming, eye-watering gumbo into which each cook has added his own dash of Tabasco without tasting first to see if it’s needed. It often takes several months of experimenting to get it right, but that’s the only way to learn to make Circle Time soup together.
Our Small Group Activities are when we retreat into four separate kitchens with a handful of buddies and cook something up on our own under the guidance of a parent. Our 3-5’s class has been doing this since day one, while it’s a part of the Pre-3 curriculum that we’ll add shortly after the winter break. This can be anything that might be of interest to a group of 5-6 preschoolers: a collection of kitchen tools, a board game, planting seeds, a science experiment. In other words, parents are responsible for the “stone” that will form the basis of the soup the kids are going to make together that day.
My favorite part of the being a parent at the Latona 3-5’s Cooperative Preschool was the days when I was responsible for a small group activity. One of my earliest classroom lessons, however, was that while I might be the one providing the stone, and maybe even the kettle, it was not my job to bring in the recipe.
One time, following up on the tip from Teacher Chris to bring in something of interest to me, I thought I’d lead the kids through an examination of how books are made. I have a huge library of hardback books and had spent time learning about how they’re made, so I brought in a collection of different types of books (paperback, hardback, leather bound, etc.), a junker book, and a box cutter. The idea was to let them look at the books for a couple minutes, then break out the box cutter to perform the sacrilege (little did I know what I would later be doing to books) of cutting the junker apart to examine how the binding is attached, signatures are assembled, and the invisible role sewing plays in traditional bookbinding.
It went smoothly, I was holding the kids’ interests, and they were clearly excited by the prospect of a “super sharp knife” being present in the classroom. It was at this point that Teacher Chris stopped by our table to see what was going on. Her presence reminded me of the guideline to let the children get their hands on things, so I started carefully separating the signatures and handing them out to the children to examine. That’s when it all went horribly wrong. The children, in a joyful frenzy, set about tearing what was left of the book into tiny pieces.
My educational consommé had turned in a moment into a food fight of that consisted, of all things, in ripping a book to shreds. Making it worse, was that it was happening under the nose of Teacher Chris. I’ll never forget her calm smile as she looked me in the eye and said, “The children have made your activity their own.”
As a teacher, I have bad days and good. When I examine what went wrong on the bad days it almost always comes down to the fact that I came into class with my own “recipe” and clung to it even when the children clearly wanted to try a different one. Rather than helping the kids "make it their own," I’ve doggedly tried to control and manipulate them into sticking to the instructions. The best days are the ones when I remember that it’s all about stone soup.
It’s not always possible in our day-to-day lives, to set aside our agendas in favor of those of our children. We have things we must get done, we have schedules to meet, and we need our children to behave in certain ways in order to make it happen. But I'd also like to point out that every conflict we have with our children (or anyone else for that matter) is a conflict over agendas. In the midst of the rush and crush, however, it’s important strive to keep the principles of free play alive, and to remember that our children need the experience of making community or family activities their own, and that can only happen when we agree to put down our recipes and allow them to wear the chef's hat for awhile.
Sometimes the results are revelation, like the time this summer when Amanda helped her son Thomas achieve his vision of bacon cupcakes (at least, I hear, Thomas liked them). And sometimes they're awful, like when she helped him add mint cream cheese frosting.
The point of stone soup isn’t that it’s always delicious. The point of stone soup is that we make it together.