A few years back one of our families made an anonymous $2000 donation to the school with the stipulation that Teacher Tom gets to determine how it is spent. Times are tough, so I put some of the money toward beefing up our scholarship funds, but the bulk of the cash was spent on a set and a half of giant soft blocks.
What could be better for an active, multi-age preschool classroom? The kids can build big, dramatic structures quickly. They get the powerful feeling of wrangling these giant blocks, some of which are larger than the kids themselves. And they're filled with foam, so when one does fall or bump a head, the owie is minimal.
The picture above from the Early Childhood Manufacturers Direct website makes the blocks look so sweet and innocent, but the first few times we had them out the kids nearly killed each other. I had anticipated the joy of knocking down structures created from them, but I hadn't counted on the number of kids who would hurl their entire bodies at the ramparts, taking down the building, but also crushing anyone inside. In the reverie of imagining how much fun they would have, it hadn't occurred to me that flinging them across the room would be such a lure. And I really had not expected that the mere presence of these things would bring out the wild side in even the quietest kids. I don't think we've ever had so many tears in our classroom as we did the first week we played with them.
Of course, it's never been as bad since because we were forced to spend that week actually teaching and learning. And one of the beauties of a multi-age, multi-year classroom is that the institutional memory of how to properly and safely play with these blocks is carried over, at least in part, from year to year by the kids who've been there before, making our job that much easier than that first time. But it took us a number of bumps and bruises to get there.
Bumps and bruises are one of our most powerful learning tools. They are the A-B-C's and 1-2-3's of the law of natural consequences. Of course, we try to help children avoid injury, but I'm convinced that every owie we help them avoid is really just an owie we've pushed off into the future. As founder of The Tinkering School and author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) Gever Tully says in his fantastic TED presentation, "When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not made of round plastic they hurt themselves with it."
Here's the video in case you haven't already seen it:
As the Woodland Park community has transformed our relationship to our outdoor spaces, having now built not just one, but two new outdoor classrooms over the past couple years, a lot of "new" materials with "pokey bits" have been shown up around us, along with the teaching and learning that goes with it. For instance, there are a lot more sticks and rocks available to the kids. When we moved into our new digs, in fact, Orlando told his mom Valerie he liked it better specifically "because there are longer and sharper sticks." We all know that children enjoy sticks and rocks, and we all know that sticks and rocks present hazards if used as missiles or swords. It's truly astounding how many of our two-year-olds pick up sticks, hold them at exactly eye level, then walked around swinging them. We spend a lot of time showing them how to carry sticks "down low," and how to use them for things other than swinging around. In two years, we've had no significant stick or rock induced injuries of which I'm aware, but they're no doubt in our future. That said, the world is littered with sticks and rocks and I can think of no better place than preschool for teaching children how to avoid injuring themselves and others.
We keep a "scrap barrel" of wood near the workbench which often includes some boards as long as 6-feet. If you've ever seen a 3-year-old carrying something like this, I'm sure you know that the simple process of moving it from one place to another puts everyone in the vicinity in jeopardy. We therefore teach them that the proper way to move a long board is to take it by one end and drag it to its destination. Or find someone else to carry the other end. Simple.
In our new outdoor space, we have a rather steep concrete slope along one side. Naturally, I knew the day would come when someone would get the idea to try rolling things down it. Sure enough, we were only a couple weeks into our summer session when I spied a group of boys wrestling an old car tire up the slope. I put my hand on the tire temporarily, and guided them through a safety assessment. They decided it would be a good idea to have an adult (meaning me) stand at the bottom to keep the path clear. Thomas could also foresee the potential of the tire tipping over onto him, understood that might hurt, and so determined that the best way to prevent that eventuality was to get more friends to help. They also decided that it would be safer to predetermine a "target" for the tire, choosing one of the manufacturing patterns that now live outdoors as a likely candidate. (I'm not sure if this made it more safe, but it did make it more fun.) They then proceeded to release the tire down the slope several times, always missing the target, but nevertheless cheering the tires progress across the bumpy ground. As they retrieved the tire and pushed up uphill each time they discussed what they needed to do this time to make it "cooler."
We avoided the bumps and bruises this time, but they're coming, and then we'll learn something.