At the 3-5’s class parent meeting on Monday night our parent education topic was toys. Our educator Elizabeth Bird got things rolling by having us discuss our own memories of toys and play. It was remarkable how similar our experiences were. Mostly we remembered playing outside, relatively unsupervised, with few if any toys. And most of the toys people did mention tended to be those either of their own creation, or of the bicycle, crayon, blocks, dolls, and balls variety, open-ended play stuff that lent itself to physical, intellectual, and creative exploration.
Of course, scientists tell us that most adults have very few reliable memories that come from those years before 5 – the core preschool years – so I’m assuming that most of these memories are of somewhat older children. I suspect our parents were keeping a closer eye on us as toddlers than we were perhaps aware, but the point is nevertheless well-taken.
My own recollections of those years are similar ones of outdoor free play, and I try very hard to draw on those experiences as a teacher. I often think of our school as a neighborhood and each of our stations (blocks, art, sensory, table toys, drama, snack, library) as someone’s backyard. As a cooperative preschool a parent is responsible for supervising each of these station, and I urge them to think of themselves as a suburban or rural mom standing in the kitchen window keeping an eye on the kids who happen to be playing in her backyard. Ideally, her role is simply to keep the children safe, to make sure they’re not mistreating each other, and to help only when help is obviously needed. Otherwise, the job is to stand back and let the children experiment with one another and the stuff they find there.
One of the ways that I differ, it seems, from my fellow Woodland Park adults is that I have very clear memories of my childhood toys, many of which have since been banned by various regulatory agencies. There were, of course, the infamous Jarts (lawn darts). And I have many fond memories of lighting off firecrackers and bottle rockets. SST’s were a kind of racecar that used a rip cord to get its large center wheel spinning at such high speeds that the vehicle, once released, could put a hole in dry wall and raise nasty welts on shins. We didn’t have many battery-powered toys, instead they had to be plugged into wall sockets. I had a wood-burning set, and several “toy” heating elements that got hot enough to melt plastics that we then poured into molds and cooled in water. My friend even had a set that allowed us to melt down hunks of lead that we then used to make toy soldiers. I understand why these toys are no longer available, but looking back, I’m impressed by all the science I learned through these “dangerous” toys.
Some of my less potentially hazardous “science” toys, however, were preserved in my parent’s attic and have now found a home at the school.
The “Skittle Bowl” game, which involves tossing a wooden ball on a chain around a pivot to knock down bowling pins, comes out when we’re experimenting with pendulums. Fortunately, this toy retains the inherent risk of being knocked on the head by a wooden ball if you're not careful
Our old “Battling Tops” game involves high-speed tops contesting against one another for supremacy in a convex arena. Fortunately, this toy retains the inherent risk of tops flying out of the arena so you need to watch out.
One of our single most popular toys is an old Fisher-Price Sisyphusian garage that features three dump trucks that leave their payloads (wooden balls) on the upper level, then drive down a ramp to collect them again by backing into the garage causing the balls to fall into the truck bed. When it’s out, it tends to be in such demand that I have to duct tape it to a table top to avoid someone walking off with it. Fortunately, this toy retains the inherent risk that you'll wind up in a tussle with someone, so you need to learn to negotiate.
And then there is the game “Rebound” that is a tabletop version of shuffle board, using marble-based pucks that you have to bounce off taut rubber bands. Fortunately, this toy retains the inherent risk that your knuckles or fingertips will be bruised by a fast-moving puck, so you make sure to keep clear when its someone else's turn.
We don’t necessarily play with any of these games in the way in which they were intended, but as a collection they offer a pretty solid basis for a preschool physics curriculum, complete with a slight sense of danger.
Still, I worry that children are missing something important in this world of “safe” toys. That undercurrent of danger simply isn’t present in a world of guard-railed and padded playgrounds. Danger teaches caution. Bumps, bruises and even burns teach concentration. As our mantra goes, “The only way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.” Learning to not get hurt is a much shallower thing than learning to not get hurt again.
That said, I’m a teacher. I wouldn’t be long for the profession if I was sending home too many injured kids and we have to keep our insurance, so it’s a balancing act. Our Pre-K class is my place to introduce a bit of that risk-taking in a controlled way. For instance, we always do at least one project that involves hot glue guns. And our “break or bounce” experiment (which involves me dropping various things, including glass, from the top of a ladder onto the asphalt) gets our hearts racing. But nothing tops yesterday’s Pre-K science experiments for creating the giddy sense that danger is lurking nearby.
We started off by playing with chunks of ice in the sensory table until the conversation turned, as it always will, to melting. That was our cue to turn on our electric burner and use it to rapidly melt a piece of ice until it turned into liquid, then into steam. We talked about what was happening at the molecular level with molecules moving faster and faster as water moved from it’s solid state into a gas. The children cheered at each stage of the process. Jack was so excited he bounced around the blue rug, although it’s important to note that he separated himself from the group and only did so at a safe distance from the red-hot burner. We then talked about what else could melt. We knew that paper and wood would burn, but we thought we could melt a candle stub. Sure enough, it melted and we cheered again. We then tried a crayon. Same result.
When it came to metal, however, there was a lot of doubt about what would happen. We passed around a small piece of lead, feeling it and discussing it. Would it burn? Would it melt? Maybe it wouldn’t do anything. Memories of those lead soldiers dancing in my mind, we put on our coats and went outside to avoid breathing the fumes that melting lead would put off. I used a lighter (danger!) to light a candle (danger!) then put the lead in a spoon and held it in the flame. I told the children they could run around and play in the playground while we waited, and they did a bit, but mostly they hung around watching to see if we could really melt metal.
Finally Ella, who hadn’t left her post, said, “It’s melting!” and sure enough the edges were shimmering fluidly. Within seconds we had a spoonful of molten lead. We cheered. I shook it gently to prove the point, repeating over and over that melted metal was “very hot.” I then tossed it into a bucket of cold water where it instantly turned back into a solid. We passed it around, discussing again what had happened to the molecules.
When I blew out the candle several of the children cheered again. I guess that was in appreciation of our survival.