"Well, first, I ride behind him. Then he fights. And then I pick him up off the ground." ~Sancho Panza
I like wandering aisles of the hardware store, not the big box kind, but the neighborhood sort where the owner, or sometimes even one of his relatives, will ask if they can help you find what you're looking for. Around here it's places like Stoneway Hardware, or Hardwicks, but I can find reason to browse an Ace or a True Value as well, franchises locally owned and strategically located within walking distance in most Seattle neighborhoods.
There are all kinds of things to tinker with, like these tubes and fasteners.
In the spirit of Tom Sensori's divider and window concept, I like to use plastic milk crates and large funnels made from the tops of 2-liter soda bottles to give the set up some more vertical dimension. We have a couple of old Brita water cisterns as well, something that is often off-limits at home.
We also have some clear rigid pipe and fittings. I think these are what's left of an actual "science set" because I've never seen more like them in my frequent forays into the hardware store aisles.
They work with the milk crates, of course, but they're also fun all by themselves.
They even have spigots!
We could do the same thing with our collection of 1/2" PVC pipe, but I like how much more manageable this set is because of it's size, not to mention that the pipes are clear.
Even so, it's useful to have adult support handy as well.
I recently linked to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education in a post about how many of us have gotten off onto the wrong track when it comes to what it means to be educated. In that article, the writer Tom Bartlett divides us into 3 camps:
There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction.
When it comes to school, I suppose I'm more of a "Play Moderate," if these are the choices. I teach in a cooperative, after all, a place choc-a-bloc with adults who are expected to guide, support, and reinforce concepts in the children's play. We're there to assist them in executing the experiments that hold answers to their questions.
We're there to ask questions and remind them to assess their risks in order take real responsibility for their own safety. We help them figure out how to get along with their friends. We suggest vocabulary, propose next steps, and kindle the flames of a smoldering passion. It's child lead, of course, but we're the ones with the experience to see ahead to where they might be going and to perhaps suggest directions that will get them to where we know the view is most spectacular, without merely forcing them along that path. They are Don Quixote. When we're at our best, we play the role of the squire, Sancho Panza, telling them when we see windmills not giants, but letting them tilt at them anyway, then picking them up when the battle is done.
I don't just toss all this stuff into into the water and let 'em at it, at least not the first day. They arrive to find a few of the connections already made, suggestions of how they might want to play with the tubes, fittings and funnels. And I remind the other adults that it's perfectly fine for the children to dismantle anything I've started should they find it in their way. I tell our parent-teachers that it's our job to neither solely sit back and observe, nor to direct, but to play with the the children, role-modeling the "Let's pretend . . ." or the "What if we . . .?" style of cooperative play that includes the other kids, that expands the basic concepts, that goes forward from one thing to the next.
Naturally, there is time for us to leave kids alone as well. They need that time to test themselves, carry out their own explorations without their squire at their shoulder, to learn how to blaze their own trails. The adults need to be aware of that, watching always for when the proper momentum or trajectory or moment or whatever has been reached that signals us to step back, put our hands behind our backs, and be proud of the teaching we have done.
Prepared all the while to pick them up off the ground where they will inevitably fall, dust them off, and send them back into the fray.