If I were a toy manufacturer and I really wanted to know how sturdy my products were, I’d test them in a preschool classroom. I can’t count how often things get broken the first time we play with them. It’s not because the children aren’t careful. They’re mostly under 5-years-old and they’re playing with those toys exactly the way they should be playing with toys, which is to say, like mad scientists, poking, prodding and seeing what else this thing can do.
Things break. It’s in the nature of preschool for things to get broken and when they do it’s an opportunity to teach about repairing them.
A few years back, for instance, one of our bathroom sinks was clogged solid. A child had apparently poured a cup full of hard red wheat berries down the drain. One of our parents said that she would take care of it. The next day she arrived in class with a European brand vacuum cleaner that had a special attachment made for sinks. She’d never had the opportunity to use it at home and wanted to give it a try. As part of her small group activity she took 7 kids into the bathroom and they blew those wheat berries out of our pipes. The kids came pouring back into the room cheering like they’d won a championship, then escorted their friends back in to demonstrate their handiwork.
Books often need repair. I love that inexpensive printing and binding techniques have made it possible for small, non-profit operations like ours to afford an extensive library, but those 2-staple binding jobs are not designed to last in a multi-user environment. Fortunately, one of my predecessors had the foresight to purchase a special book-binding stapler, which I use to return loose signatures to their proper place.
I usually start by holding up the damaged book at Circle Time saying something like, “Look what happened. These pages came out of the book. Now no one can read it.” I try to infuse it with the kind of serious concern that an unreadable book deserves. The statement never hangs in the air very long before someone pipes up with, “We could try to fix it.” That’s the cue to break out the special stapler, make a show of repairing the book, cheering, then quickly reminding everyone that we need to be a little more gentle with the books.
We have 3 plastic pizza-wheel type cutters that we use as play dough toys. A few weeks back one of their handles snapped under the pressure of someone who really wanted to make sure he was getting all the way through to the other side. We had a long discussion about how to go about fixing it, settling on tape as the solution. When it broke again after a couple weeks, we opted for tape and glue. Here it is:
What I've noticed about this repaired dough cutter is that in spite of there being two un-repaired wheels available, this one has become the cutter of choice for our 3-5 class. Ever since the repair-job it always needs to be put away at clean up time, while the other two languish in the toolbox. Yesterday, when Ella spotted it she enthused, “Oh look, it’s the one we fixed!” and went right to work with it.
Kids often bring books to me and say, “I’m reading the one we fixed,” usually showing me the page we returned to its rightful place, even sometimes pointing out the new staples.
It’s important that the children are learning that broken doesn’t need to mean forever and that sometimes, in fact, the repaired item is more valuable because its been repaired.
It occurs to me that these are concrete examples of a larger lesson we want our children to learn about damage and loss. We can’t help feeling sad or disappointed – that’s normal – but we needn’t give-in to despair. Repair is often possible. Sometimes our “repairs” return things to a like-new condition, as with our books or a friend to whom we genuinely apologize for an inadvertent hurt. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we can never completely return things to the way they once were, like with our dough-cutter or a betrayal of trust. We can still use that dough-cutter, but we’ll always have a reminder in the form of duct-tape and popsicle sticks that it can be broken, which probably makes us use it a little more cautiously than we once did, but we can use it nevertheless.
Of course, there are some things that can’t be repaired. We’ve taken apart enough old vacuum cleaners, radios, and other machines in class to know that some things are broken for good, but you never know what those things are until you first try to repair them.