One of the best things about being a preschool teacher in a small private school is that sometimes you get to live out your own unrealized childhood fantasies. Even before I'd taught a single day, I knew I wanted to build a balloon cage.
I cover our circle time rug with gym mats, encircle the entire area from floor to ceiling with flexible, orange caution fencing (sometimes called snow fencing) and flood the cage with over 100 balloons (I arrived a half hour early on Wednesday to blow them up). I've been doing this every February since I arrived at Woodland Park and it has become one of our signature activities. It's a happy accident that this also happens to be when families tour the school to see if they want to enroll for next year -- I love that they get to see us at our best/worst!
Last week Finn V.'s mom Karolyn, who has already ushered her two older sons through Woodland Park, asked me, "Are we doing the balloon cage this year?" I answered, "Next week. What a coincidence you ask me about it now." She replied, "I've been here long enough to know that you give the balloon cage to yourself for your birthday."
It's true! I would have done it last week, but we had a field trip on Wednesday and I wanted the kids to have two full days of wild balloon fun.
The first year we went with this set up wasn't so fun. Vaughn's mom Faythe was one of the first to arrive that day. She joyfully leapt into the cage and went to work teaching her boy how to pop the balloons by sitting on them. I remember thinking, "I guess popping balloons is part of the fun," and let it go. Soon the classroom sounded like a war zone, with pops coming every 30 seconds or so. About a half hour into our session I found little Paul hiding in the tiny dark space under our loft.
It almost made me give up on the balloon cage altogether, but it had been a lot of work to set up, we had a lot of balloons left over, and it was one of my lifelong dreams, so for the following day we tried a new rule: No popping balloons on purpose. And to it we added the corollary, If a balloon does pop, everyone has to stop playing, find the pieces, and throw them away before play can resume. It worked like a charm, mostly because no one wanted to have to stop playing. Not only did Paul come out from under the loft, but he actually spent time playing in the balloon cage.
Our other special balloon cage rules include: no shoes, the balloons must stay in the the cage, and no hanging on the fencing.
The truly remarkable thing is that while there are times when as many as 15 kids are in that small space at once, there are relatively few injuries. I admire their ability to maintain that level of self-control while still managing to play wildly. The ability to walk that fine line between gentleness and good, clean, sweaty fun, to me, is one of the most difficult and rewarding life-skills anyone can learn.
We've been living in the balloon cage for 2 days now (including during circle time) and when I get there this morning, it will come down. Every year I contemplate leaving it up for the Pre-3 class, but between the popping, the relatively complex set of rules, and the fact that I'm pretty sure they would kill each other, I always talk myself out of it.
As far as disposing of the 100 balloons, they will spend the weekend in our gym, and on Monday the kids (and parents) who want to intentionally pop balloons get to go after them to their hearts' content, while the rest of the children play in the new playground, safely out of earshot. After all, popping them, for some of us, really is part of the fun!