Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This Place Was Just A Slab Of Asphalt

It's hard to believe that it's been only a little over a year since we transformed our outdoor space from a slab of asphalt and pit of mud, into the outdoor classroom it is today. Even harder to imagine is what occupied our gang of engineers when we played outside in those days before we had our sandpit. 

We tried to satisfy them with a small store bought sand table, which now is home to our colony of worms out in the garden. Those guys were mere diggers back then, shoveling sand into buckets then dumping it out, constantly being warned to "keep the sand in the sand table." 

Our cast iron water pump made only occasional appearances back then, a special event, set up near the garden, atop a large muck bucket, and everyone stood in line taking turns to "flow water" down our plastic gutters, before it was all packed up and put away. Now it's a permanent fixture in the corner of the sandpit, where it functions as a useful source for water, rather than a mere novelty. The sand players have become experts in how our system works, calling out "More water!" when our 10 gallon cistern runs dry, and "Flood!" when it overflows. They warn one another to not put sand into the top of the pump because they know from experience that it will make the handle too hard to budge and water play will be shut down for a day as Teacher Tom has to dismantle the whole thing to clean it out. 

Much like the city of Seattle where we live, our sandpit and the area around it, has evolved into a place of many bridges, some semi-permanent, others temporary . . .

 . . . planks of wood crossing muddy places, ravines, connecting us to the workbench and the beach hut, or laid across newly formed streams or tributaries just for a day.

A sandpit in the Pacific Northwest isn't like the sandpits I see in pictures from other parts of the world, where sand is a light, dry, powdery substance. Our sand is always wet, compacted, it crunches a bit when a shovel slices into it. It may be a bit harder to dig, but once we've made a shape, it tends to stay the way we want it, allowing us to work day after day, week after week on the same water channels, for instance, expanding it, studying it, managing it.

We have a rubber hose buried under the sand that we use to fill the cistern and several weeks ago I left it running as I did other things, forgetting about it, which I've done before. Without kids out there to shout, "Flood! Flood!" I overflowed the sand pit, a stream of water running down to threaten our workbench area, making work conditions hazardous.

We started by making a dam, but as we figured out how to control the water by mounding up sand and digging channels, the idea emerged from our hive mind, as it often does when engineers get busy, to expand the project by diverting the water all the way to the other end of the outdoor classroom.

What you're looking at here, is just a layer of wood chips, augmented by a little sand that has not "stayed in the sandpit," atop asphalt. You'd never know, would you?

The channel has remained there for weeks now, cleared out each day by members of the original crew. Water doesn't always flow there because without my accidental flooding it takes a lot of energetic pumping to create the water volume necessary to fill it, but it's still there just in case, protecting the workbench area.

In the meantime, we've dug a new, deeper water diversion within the sand box, a place that takes up most of the excess water anyway.

The waters still threaten to overflow the sandpit on most days, but we've learned to live with it, the way humans always try to learn to live with "natural" phenomenon, studying it, testing it, poking it with sticks, so that the next time it happens we'll better know what to do.

It's hard to believe that just a little over a year ago, this place was just a slab of asphalt.

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firefaery said...

I love your outdoor play area! What makes it so special, I think, is that I see so many things there that now are considered "dangerous" and would never be seen in daycares around here. The planks of wood, the child accessible water source.. the sheer volume of mud are no longer found in typical daycares and that's such a sad thing! It resembles the type of outdoor play I would do when I was a child, before people got it in their heads that children need to remain clean, dry and essentially encased in bubble wrap. Such a wonderful educational end enjoyable place for your kids!

Juliet Robertson said...

I think your outdoor space is one of the most interesting areas I've seen, and in all honesty one of my favourite. It always comes across as ever-changing with the children's play and just looks like a lot of fun.

Thanks for posting so many photos and blogging so much about your outdoor space. I always recommend your blog as the first place for pre-school practitioners to visit especially those looking for ideas and inspiration about messy and/or "risky" play. (I don't think it's risky as it's a well-managed play area where children learn experientially through play about what they can do - that's part becoming older, responsible and independent in my book).

GianneCurry said...

Tried your snap painting and loved it! We made beautiful music too! Ha!

Gianne from cowsgomooandducksgoquack.blogspot.com

TwosTimesTwelve said...

I love this post it inspires me on how simple things can be. We are working on having a natural play environment created but we are looking at over 100,000 dollars to redo the play space and though we have already received over 80,000 in grants but this does remind me how I don't need to wait for this to turn my space into a great space for the children and though I have been working on it this inspires me to get out that and start digging tomorrow!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This is so great!
These children must just love coming to play every day in this yard, I know mine would be thrilled with the play opportunities, and chances to do real things.You must feel great about the changes in your play yard.

It's almost possible to smell the wonderful wet mud and sand from your photos!

miss merril said...

If my brood of five year olds could teleport from NYC to your school they would in an instant. This just brought such a smile to my face. As the weather has warmed we have been slowly adding minutes to the time we spend outside and hoping the principal won't mind. The children squish into our small "garden" space eagerly digging up worms and roly polys. There is not much space in the city to do just that - to dig, get messy, and ooo and ahhh at worms. So thanks for the reminder. Tomorrow I may just try to push my luck and go for an hour outside.

Gina said...

The children in your outdoor area can really manipulate the grounds the way they see fit!
At my preschool, I am constantly struggling to let my kids get messy without the "faces."
You know the faces I am talking about--the "I'm not letting MY kids bring all that wet sand in my class!" face.
When I bring the hose to the sandbox, I hear, "My class...OUT OF THE SANDBOX!" from the other teachers.
When the kids make mud, they get yelled at for using the drinking fountain...yet there is no other available source of water!
I will continue to fight for messy play, and your blogs remind me of why I am doing it.

Thanks, Teacher Tom!

Deborah said...

It has been such a neat thing to watch you build your playground. I love how you have always focused on exploration over making things pretty:) I look forward to what else you have up your sleeve:)

Shannon said...

I've really enjoyed following the transformation of your outdoor area. It's definitely an inspiration.

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