Saturday, March 17, 2012

Playing With Children

I've written before (and here) about being inspired by Tom (Bedard) Sensori's Sand and Water Tables blog.

One of the things I've learned from Tom is to think about creating different levels upon which to play, to provide windows and other openings, to think about trajectory and angles, to make places of shadow and light. When we're playing with dry materials in our magnificent sensory table, I've been using our plywood play planks, to create divides and windows and sections and slopes. Last week I started our ground cork and wine bottle cork sensory table with a couple play plank constructions and several 1-foot lengths of 1.5 inch pvc pipe. I chose that specific length and diameter of pipe because that's what we had.

The first roll of duct tape I came across was white, so that's what I used to hold things together.

We also included a few shovels and scoops. You know, tools.

But this really was more of a use-your-hands set up, if only because it was quite challenging to employ these particular tools for moving corks with enough precision to get them into those narrow pipes. (I do regret not having broken out the tongs at some point; we usually us tongs with the corks.)

I didn't tape down all the pipes, I stashed several more under the table, and I left the white duct tape within reach of the parent-teacher in charge of the station, letting each of them know during the 5 successive days we played with the set-up that I expected things to evolve.

One thing I share with Tom is the idea that we don't always just toss materials out, at least not on the first day of playing with something new. As I've written before regarding a water play set-up:

(The kids) arrive to find a few of the connections already made, suggestion 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 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.

These girls took on the challenge of using shovels to cover the entire flat surface around this opening with a layer of ground cork, carefully patting it with the backs of their tools. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving the goal they'd set for themselves was that other children, unaware of the project, would push the cork into the opening. This is where the parent-teacher is vital, coaching all of the children about how to honor one another, to reach agreement (which, to my mind ought to be considered a sacrament) about how we're going to share this community space.

(The adults) are there to ask questions and remind (the children) 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.

As the week wore on, our set-up evolved in complexity via a collaboration of children and adults. What makes these types of "toys" better than the kinds that have been manufactured for children is that everything doesn't always "work." For instance, some of the pipes were installed at an angle insufficient for allowing the corks to just slide through. Children would put a cork into one end expecting it to come out the other. When it didn't they inevitably said, "Stuck," often turning to the adult to help them, as if this toy was somehow broken. That's how we condition children when we only provide them with those things that have been product-tested to death. Instead of helping to "fix" this "problem," the adult's job is to simply agree or disagree, as the case may be, with their assessment of the situation: "Yep, that looks stuck." Most of them figured out, burgeoning DIY-ers, that they could un-stick this particular situation by inserting more corks or using the handle end of a shovel to push it on through.

By the middle of the week be began including these sturdy cardboard "gutters." They are actually the protective packing corners that came with the new cubbies we purchased for the old place before moving to the Center of the Universe. We had to sell the cubbies when we moved, so these corners and the boxes they came in are now officially the only thing we have left of this large community expense and effort from a couple years ago. Again, like with the tubes, they are beautiful in their imperfections as toys. Shaped like a "V" with a pointy bottom, they don't rest flat on any surface, always wanting to tip one way or another. To use them as a way to transport cork you have to either keep a hand on them or wedge them under something else to hold them in place.

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.

This is when the corks become people, when the whole thing becomes a chocolate factory (a call back to a field trip we took to our neighborhood chocolate factory two months ago), when the experiments with over, under, through, down, up, around, in, on, shadow, light, cause, and effect have absorbed us so completely that there is nothing else for a time.

We jostle and bicker, cooperate and share, calculate, predict, repeat, and give up. We play with children and adults, figuring out what this thing can do and what we can do with it. And then when we're done on Friday afternoon, we work together to put it all away, making room for the adventures we'll share next time.

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Seema Karecha said...

Too good :)

Tom Bedard said...

Tom, thanks for the shout-out again. I am always impressed at how you bring children into the everyday process of shaping their activities and their environment, from set up to take down.

Marge said...

I like it! Your work is the best for a child!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This is just so rich with creativity, and fun!

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