Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Story Of Education

We've been trying a grand experiment this year involving long stick-like objects and 2-year-olds. I've mentioned many times before how it appears that the evolutionarily and developmentally proper thing to do with any object over about 8-inches long, especially if it's also a bit pointy at one end, is to pick it up, hold it at eye level and walk around swinging it. This appears to be particularly true when said object is discovered in a crowded space.

Our old outdoor classroom was the sort of place into which we needed to import things like sticks and rocks if we were going to play with them. When we moved into the new outdoor classroom this summer, Orlando, when asked by his mother what he thought of the new place, replied approvingly, "It has longer and sharper sticks."

We were horsing around with our collection of magnetic things last week and one of the activities we set up was the classic fishing hole. I cut out some fish shapes from tag board (okay, honestly, I just reused tag board fish that a teacher prior to me cut out over a decade ago and saved, one middle class bag lady inheriting from another), to which we attached paper clips. I then, via that same intergenerational bag lady hand-me-down underground, produced fishing poles made from lengths of dowel and string with magnet wands tied to the end. I turned one of our wooden boxes on end and dropped the fish inside.

In other words, not only were we handing long stick-like things to preschoolers indoors, but they were sticks from which heavy objects swung. These are kids who by now have a minimum of 4 month's experience with handling sticks around others in the outdoor classroom, including the real drum sticks we use with our scavenged drum set, so I was expecting that a combination of wisdom and adult vigilance would make this a safe, fun project.

I realize that we could have managed this project more strictly, doling out the fishing poles one at a time, creating a "safety zone" of some sort. Being a cooperative, we have the adult "man-power" to have made that work, and I was prepared to convert to that kind of system should the play became hazardous, but I never want to start from a place of expecting less from the kids. I always try to start from the assumption that the children are fully capable and they usually live up to it, even if it does involve sticks.

The stance of "vigilance" versus "control" is an important one in our classroom. The instruction I gave the parent-teachers responsible for the fishing hole play was simply, "I want you to keep an eye on things. I don't want anyone getting poked in the eye."

The fishing part was easy. The challenge, as is true of many things in life, is going about your business alongside other people going about theirs. For one thing, not only were our magnet wands attracted to the paperclips on the fish, but they were also attracted to the other magnet wands hanging down into the the old fishing hole, meaning that you were just as likely to catch one another as you were a fish. This was a frustration for some children and a delight for others. It took a cooperative effort to separate the fishing poles, especially when the lines got tangled as part of the bargain. 

I was glad we left it up to the kids to more-or-less self manage. A nice ebb and flow developed, those who wanted to concentrate on catching fish, those who wanted to experiment with how magnetism works, discovering that those paperclips are the important target, waiting for opportunities when other children moved away, while those interested in the pure experiment of cooperative play had plenty of opportunity to tussle and tug, work together, laugh together, and make peace together. No one got poked in the eye as far as I know, nor whacked in the head.

When it was their turn, the older kids in our 3-5's class got over the whole fishing game fairly quickly, being already much more familiar, and thus less fascinated, with the magic of magnets. Several of them decided, in fact, that the tag board fish were much more interesting as elements in their dramatic play, first catching them, then absconding with many of them to use as food in their "house" at the top of the loft. As the level of interest didn't call for it, our parent-teacher put her efforts into other things, working with kids building with Magna Tiles and whatnot.

It was while everyone's backs were turned that the fishing pole sticks found their way through the classroom and to the top of the loft as well. I'll admit to being a little alarmed when I spotted them up there being dangled over sides, threatening the unsuspecting heads of their friends down below, being swung around in close quarters, and generally being used in ways that caused my inner 60's mom to say, "It won't be so funny when somebody's eye gets put out." As I arrived on the scene, probably jumping in too quickly with admonishments and warnings, the kids were thankfully far too engrossed in their play to heed me.

The focus was on the gap between the loft and the wall. Several of the tag board fish had "accidentally" fallen into the gap and the kids were busy trying to use their sticks with magnets to fish them out. They'd apparently learned what they needed to learn about these tools at my artificial fishing hole and were now attempting to use these skills to make a difference in the real world: the story of education.

I still don't know why stick-like things must be swung around at eye level in crowded places, but I do know that a childhood without them is impoverished. Sticks (along with rocks) are the stuff from which all other tools have evolved. As I've written before: "As humans we have being alone, we have talking face-to-face; for everything else we use tools." And so, yet again, there goes your proof.

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Aunt Annie said...

What a laugh-out-loud wonderful post. I particularly like your inner 60's mum.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

I agree with Aunt Annie, I am laughing with you over the conundrum of the pointed stick. Wonderfully funny post, yet so very true!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Thanks for this great post, it is also a reminder of the role of tools, and I love the fine line between vigilance and control. This is something educators and parents are always trying to keep in perspective.
I'm afraid I have alot of 60's Mom in my makeup, and need to constantly step back and trust in the child's ability to keep safe.
I like that the kids moved to the loft for a different way to fish.

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