Friday, March 02, 2012

An Empowering Experience

It's become something of a tradition to play in the balloon cage to celebrate Teacher Tom's birthday. Since the big day itself fell during out mid-winter break and I hadn't been able to pull myself together to set it up in anticipation, we're enjoying a belated balloon cage this week.

The balloon cage is an idea from my childhood. I'd long fantasized about a well-padded room filled with balloons, so when I got a classroom of my own it was something I had to try. The basic idea is to hang caution fencing from the ceiling to the floor to enclose a corner of the room, lay down gym mats, then fill it up with 100 or so balloons. It's a pain to install and storing all that fencing is a real challenge, but needless to say, it's worth it.

The first time we hung the balloon cage, one of the first parents to arrive leapt into the cage and taught her son how to pop the balloons by sitting on them. This innovation, as great ideas do, spread rapidly among the children and we spent that day living amidst a pop-pop-poppity-pop staccato. Unfortunately, not everyone is sanguine about popping balloons and poor Paul spent almost an hour hiding under the loft. I realized then that this was going to be one of those times when I needed to impose some rules.

Ordinarily, in our school, it's the kids who do the rule-making for their own community, but this show is only in town for a couple days, not long enough for them to experience the arc from chaos to order. By the time we get around to making meaningful rules, the whole thing will be packed away for next year. So, our balloon cage operates as a kind of private business plopped down in the middle of our little democracy, with me as the proprietor, and the price of admission being to follow these special balloon cage rules:

  1. No shoes (because we don't want people to get hurt when they get stepped on),
  2. No hanging from the cage (because if it falls down we'll have to close the balloon cage),
  3. No popping balloons on purpose (because some people get scared when they pop),
  4. If a balloon does get popped by accident, everyone stops, finds the balloon pieces, and throws them in the trash (because we don't want the "little kids" accidentally choking on them),
  5. Balloons need to stay in the cage (so that people who don't want to play with balloons don't have to).

The most challenging rule to follow is always the one about not hanging on the orange fencing, but it's necessary to maintain the integrity of the cage. It'll take some weight, but the whole thing will come down if kids are hanging from it. No one breaks this rule intentionally and all are quick to release their grip when reminded of the rule: they get it.

The only rule that some children seem tempted to break is the one about no popping the balloons on purpose. There are always one or two kids who relish this possibility and figure out that if they fall to the ground in just the right way, or jump just so, they can succeed in popping a balloon. I don't see these as premeditated acts, but rather spontaneous reactions to a balloon being just in the perfect position for popping and just not being able to stop oneself. As a testament to their self control, however, in the name of honoring our community, I'd say that no matter how wild the balloon cage play got over the past two days, we've only popped maybe a half dozen balloons, and only 2 of them occurred under suspicious circumstances.

For those balloon popping kids, we offer a special incentive. Next week, when the balloon cage is down and we still have dozens of inflated balloons with no place to keep them, we will take them into another room and enjoy a balloon popping frenzy, while the others are outside. We will then collect the balloon parts and use them for a community artwork: nothing wasted.

Most of the kids entered the room wide-eyed at the sight of the balloon cage, hesitating slightly to take stock, then diving in, but a few stepped right on by, cautiously, eyes on the cage, but not ready to go anywhere near it. It can be intimidating to find your familiar classroom transformed like this, made even worse if you've had some previous bad experiences with balloons. Fortunately, we still had a roomful of other things for them to do, and once they realized that balloon popping is a rare thing, and that even when one does pop, it's not so startling when your attentions are engaged elsewhere, the trepidation seemed to fade. In fact, by the end of our second day, I think I'd seen every child in our 3-5's class give it a go. 

Being afraid of something, then learning to not be afraid of it, is an empowering experience.

And yes, I blow up all the balloons myself. I can do 4 per minute, that's 5 puffs per balloon. Not bad lungs for a 50-year-old man.

(If you're curious about why the balloon cage and what we're learning, here's a little more of my thinking on that.)

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

This looks fantastic - I can see why the adults want to hop in there with the kids!

Amanda Mc said...

This is amazing. I want a balloon cage for my birthday!

Vicki said...

Have you tried balloon surfing? You turn a table upside down on top of a heap of balloons. When you stand on the table it moves kinda like a surfboard. It will also hold quite a bit of weight. My Pre-Primary kids and I experimented with this and we got an amazing number of kids onto the table before the balloons began to pop. Lots of fun and learning about weight distribution :)

Joy said...

Ack, kind of my worst nightmare! LOL! A childhood birthday party where there were NO rules about popping or exemptions for scared or overwhelmed littles left me with a lifelong, irrational fear of balloons popping!

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