I slipped up while introducing The Den Experiment materials to our 9 Pre-K boys yesterday, introducing the word "fort" when I really wanted to let the kids create their own destination. I don't know if it made a difference or not.
We'd started tinkering around with the bamboo canes and zip ties yesterday, giving us a running start on the fundamental mechanical challenge of working with these materials (canes, ties, clothes pins, fabric), but there was still a lot of, "I need help," as we got going.
We started with the basic teepee shape we'd developed on Monday, all of the boys wanting to create one of their own. Once they'd figured out the challenge of pulling the ties tight, most of them were successful in erecting one, although we quickly discovered that they were prone to collapse, especially when inattentive friends bumped them, and there was quite a bit of frustration and lots of blaming.
Nothing will kill cooperative play faster than frustration and accusation, so it was time to step in with a new concept. Orlando, Dennis and I talked through the inherent instability in the three-stick-standing-alone construction technique and I lead them to the idea of reinforcing the bases of the "teepees" with three more sticks, creating a basic pyramid. After we'd reinforced a few of our foundations this way, I again tried to step out of the construction business and back into the business of narration, basic zip tie instruction, and crowd control (an important part of the beginning stages of the project, given that a few of the guys were tending toward rough housing which jeopardized the work in progress).
It took awhile, but as their structure began to take shape their conversation turned away from "I need help, Teacher Tom," and toward one another as they began to plan their next steps.
One of my frustrations is that our The Den Experiment starter kit came with truly reusable cable ties designed to be easily removed by simply pressing a small lever that releases the grip of those tiny plastic teeth. I've not yet been able to locate a similar thing here in Seattle, which means that the process of learning how to do this is going to require going through a lot of those one-use strips of plastic.
It was sooooo hard not to step in when the guys started deploying the fabric, tending toward the idea of just sort of heaping it on top of a their rickety structure. I didn't want all their work to simply collapse under the weight, so when their backs were turned I did quietly remove a few of the more egregious wads of fabric.
As we built, I also began to wonder if I would be the only one to notice a basic flaw in our "fort": there wasn't a lot of room under there to accommodate their bodies. I began to wonder if I shouldn't break out a box of Little People or stuffed animals to live in there, but I'm glad I held off. At some point they began referring to their work as a "maze." And, indeed, that's what it was.
They moved their bodies through with great care, not wanting to knock it down.
When it was time to clean up, there was general consensus that the maze should remain in place. We'd built it right in the middle of where we do our circle time activities and even with all those zip ties in place, it didn't look like the kind of thing that could be successfully moved. Given that it was only our smaller Pre-K group yesterday, we solved the problem by convening on a small rug elsewhere in the room.
I'd had other plans for that circle time area today as the Pre-K boys will be joined by a dozen or so of their younger friends. I don't have a lot of hope for this particular structure's survival. The boys who built it, as it came together, had gone from a high-energy rough-housey kind of vibe to one of keen focus and a kind of precise, delicate care that can only come from understanding the fragile beauty of what they had created with their own hands.
The 3-year-olds were not part of that process. My question for today: how can I support the older boys in bringing their younger friends into this newly discovered world of construction? We have a couple hundred more ties, as well as more canes, fabric and clothes pins. Will we continue building where we left off or will it be important for the entire group to begin again? Will it still be a maze or will we make something else?
Of course, it could just wind up a pile of sticks. That's why we finished yesterday by reading several versions of the story of "The Three Little Pigs."