On Friday, my friend and former Woodland Park parent Teacher Aaron came by the school. He teaches the North Seattle Fives which is located across the street, and like any good neighbor was dropping by see if we wanted to a share in a bounty of roasted coffee beans to use as a sensory material.
Aaron's daughters attended Woodland Park during the days when our outdoor space was little more than a slab of asphalt, a slide and a very muddy place we called "the garden." So it's only natural that when he visits, our conversation always touches on the transformation to our current outdoor classroom. As he stood looking at the space, he said, "It's like Roxaboxen."
He was the second person to make that connection in a week, and as I stood there with him talking about what we loved most about that incredible book (Aaron's favorite part is that their imaginary cars have speed limits, but if you're riding a stick horse you can go "as fast as the wind"), it struck me that for the first time since I started teaching I had skipped reading Roxaboxen to the kids last year.
I've always read Roxaboxen to the kids. Alice McLerran's celebration of the imagination of childhood has been a staple for me as long as I've taught. It's about the magical town a group of children create using only simple things they've found in a patch of desert like sticks, rocks, crates, bits of glass, and friends, told as a memory, and made alive by the wonderful Barbara Cooney illustrations. I've always started by reading it to my Pre-K kids. After a chance to discuss the book, I would then unveil our magnificent sensory table and the makings of our own mini-Roxaboxen: sand, sticks, rocks, beach glass and small rectangles of wood (in place of the crates).
It was a ton of fun working with the children as they made houses, outlined roads, collected "jewels" and, unconsciously imitated the children in the story. It wasn't the same, of course. Roxaboxen isn't a place that was created in a day or a week, but rather over the course of a childhood, and without the limits imposed by a sensory table (no matter how magnificent) and the adults hovering overhead, no matter how hand's off we try to be. And, naturally, the real Roxaboxen was outdoors.
As I stood there with Aaron I realized that maybe we hadn't read Roxaboxen last year because we hadn't needed to. Instead we have installed it at our school, almost without realizing what we were doing. As first glance it might look like "any rocky hill," but our outdoor classroom -- with its Little World now spread across the entirety of its landscape, with tools available for putting things together, with "stages" and other venues for acting things out, with paint, and water, and rocks, and sticks plentifully available, with flowers, food, worm, and spiders growing in the garden -- is Roxaboxen for our children. The children who are entering our 3-5 class as 3-year-olds will be the first class to spend 3 full school years in that place. How will they shape it and how will it shape them? Will they come back some day to see the outlines of a place that never existed, yet will live forever?
A few adults have complained that our outdoor classroom looks like a "junkyard," just as I'm sure that a rocky desert hill covered with "nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo," looked to some like a patch of wasteland. But they are wrong.
As one of our parents wrote in a comment to a post from a couple days ago:
I think of our outdoor space as "The Magic Place." I love that there are so many things for the children to discover and remake there. And, it is totally their space. There is such beauty in a cracked piece of terra cotta stuck into a heap of rope and torn up fabric when you understand that a child actually created that and wanted to leave it for others to find.
Or as McLerran writes:
It (is) a special place: a sparkling world of jeweled homes, streets edged with the whitest stones, and two ice cream shops. Come with us there, where all you need to gallop fast and free is a long stick and a soaring imagination.