On my first Monday in North England (where I was to take part in the EarlyArts International UnConference), I had the opportunity to visit the preschool located in the Eureka! National Children's Museum in Halifax. Not only are these kids lucky enough to attend school at an award-winning museum, but the school itself is located in the former Victorian Station Building and the current location of an active train platform right outside their window. Holy cow! What kid wouldn't like that!
The idea of my visit was to tour the facilities, visiting the classrooms, playing with kids, and talking with teachers, then to lead a "training session" with the whole group at the end of the day.
The plan was for me to start off in the infant room, then work my way up through the "preschool," which is where I'd meet the 3-4 year-olds.
The school has the high ceilings of a Victorian era train station and thankfully they didn't feel the need to pop in an artificial ceiling or build solid walls, opting instead to divide their long, well-lit space with half-walls. Mondays are apparently not their busiest days, so there weren't a ton of kids, and it was fairly quiet as I made my way from age-group to age-group, asking questions, but mostly just playing with the children. I did notice, however, that at each stop the sound level rose a little, not from the "room" I was in, but farther on, up where "the big kids" hung out.
By the time I got to the room with the 2's and young 3's there was a line of fingers and eyeballs across the top of the dividers. The "big kids," anticipating my arrival in their room, were peering over to get a peek at this curiosity making his way toward them. There was a lot of giggling.
When I got to their room, however, it appeared vacant at first, and suddenly quiet. They were hiding from me, but not for long as first one, then the rest of them burst from their places, squealing and shouting. I'm not sure what they'd been told about me, if anything, but they certainly were expecting me. And they were plenty wound up.
I was to later learn that male early childhood teachers are still a rarity in this part of England, which sort of explains their response, one that I received to one degree or another at every school I visited. I've written before about how I'm not entirely certain what people mean when they say "we need more male preschool teachers," but I do know that the important men in many children's lives (fathers, grandfathers, uncles) are much more likely than the important women to rough house and generally play wild, high-action, high-volume games with them. I did it with my own daughter (wrestling, lava monster, tickle attacks) and still do it with my several nieces and nephews, but it's not something I'm interested in doing as a teacher -- I'd spend my entire day in a pig pile if I did.
The entire preschool group then gathered around me, I had their full, giddy attention. I asked them to show me around their classroom, asking about where they built with blocks or played dress-up. As a group, they showed me where they painted, I sang a couple songs, we goofed around with some toys, but it was clear that I was the toy of the moment and before long I received my first friendly hit. That's right, a full-armed swing at me, executed joyfully by a girl in a Cinderella dress. The next whack came shortly thereafter and soon I was ducking under a hail of tiny fists.
I said, "I don't like to be hit. It hurts me." The hitting stopped, but I could tell it was only a temporary pause unless I took advantage of my opportunity. "I like to play gently. I want to play a gentle game with you."
One of the boys answered, "We could stroke you," and those little fists unfurled to pat and pet my arms and torso. Before I left, I was again subjected to a bit of good natured pummeling, but I escaped in one piece.
The following day, at the conference, I ran into these preschool kids again, this time a the Square Church where the conferees were gathering for a performance of A Smile is a Bridge from Ear to Ear, a production the Tell Tale Hearts Children's Touring Theatre Company. I'm not very bright sometimes and as I caught sight of them sitting on the floor together with their teachers downstairs from the theater it did not occur to me that they were waiting to see the performance. All I knew was that I'd spotted my new friends and this time I was going to take the initiative and show them how to have a wild old time without hitting. Oh I wound them up, pretending to be a giant among other things.
It wasn't until I got into the theater and saw Becky, the Eureka! Nursery director, sitting on the colorful mats on the floor in front of the audience that I realized what I'd done. I said, "I'm afraid I wound them up pretty good." She answered something to the effect of, "Thanks a lot." The school had come with an adequate supply of teachers, who I recognized from Monday evening's training session, but I figured I owed it to them to stand by as reinforcements just in case things got out of hand, so I took a seat on the floor with the audience at my back.
My worries were unfounded, thankfully, as the kids were absolutely transfixed by the show, one of few words, lots of simple clowning with boxes, tubes and cardboard, and themes of sharing, play, conflict, and cooperation that were spot on for the age group.
The best part of the performance was its ending, when the two performers carried their props to the children, set them on the floor and said, "For you."
At first these kids, who had so recently been on the verge of shrieking and pummeling, sat in a kind of stunned silence, not sure what to do, but as the performers brought more and more boxes and tubes to them saying, "For you," the children began to play. For a brief moment some of them were distracted by the adult audience responses, but soon, especially once the actors joined them on the floor to play with them, they blocked us out entirely and got on with the job of childhood.