Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Shape Of The Block In My Hand

Last week, on a field trip to the Seattle Children's Theater, we stopped with the kids to have a snack. They began to chase each other around using their mozzarella cheese sticks as "weapons." You'll recall that this is the class, the first I've ever had to do so in over a decade of doing this, that democratically, nay universally, agreed that they would not ban pretend weapons in class.

A few days ago I was talking to a new grandfather who has found his wife and himself in the position of primary caretakers of their 18-month old granddaughter. He was asking me about her "education." I saw him sigh from relief as I explained the basic theories of play-based learning. I finished by saying, "You know, kids should be doing the things you and I did when we were boys: playing with sticks and rocks and mud and getting outside at every opportunity."

He said, "You know, one of my strongest memories of childhood is building with those wooden blocks." I could tell he was momentarily visiting the past as he pantomimed placing one block atop another. It was such a precise gesture that I could tell he was holding a wedge-shaped block. I'm quite certain that he could actually feel that block in his hand: the past made present. There was a moment of reverie before he added, "I also remember playing chase and, of course, shoot-em-up games." With that, he formed his fingers into a pistol and took a practice shot into the air, just as he had 60 some odd years ago.

I have a theory, one that is unsupported by any evidence of which I'm aware, that the things we remember the most vividly are the times we were learning the most important things. That's why we have far more detailed memories of play than of sitting in classroom lectures.

I have very strong memories of "shoot-em-up" games as a boy. I can still feel the thrill of hiding in ambush or running wildly in retreat. My heart still beats when I think of it.

Yesterday, I'd brought out some swimming pool noodles and pipe insulation with the idea of at least providing the kids with something with less eye-poking potential than the sticks they've been using in their games. They were, to say the least, a huge hit. Soon the kids, not all, but more than half, were charging around hitting one another with their foam "whips," rollicking over the terrain of our outdoor classroom. As usual, I was staying close, watching their faces and body language, and listening for sounds of distress, displeasure, or conflict. I've written in previous posts about my discomfort with this sort of play, even while acknowledging that there is absolutely no evidence that it leads to future actual violence, and that, in fact, there are many pedagogical and educational benefits of this universal manner of play. It's why I hover so much when it's happening: I need more convincing. I think I'm just not yet ready to take the researchers' words for it. In a way, I guess, I'm doing my own personal research.

At one point, while reminding the kids of some of their agreements regarding this kind of play, I took a seat in our new boat which was the center of the "whip" game. 

Marit said to me, "We're the Ga Ga team," indicating herself and the others on the boat. "I'm the Ga Ga princess." She informed me of this while exchanging "blows" with members of the unnamed foes. Rex said, "And I'm the guard." 

I replied, "I want to be a Ga Ga."

Marit stopped to look at me, then her eyes grew rounder as a huge smile spread across her face. She liked this idea. "You can be the king!"

"I'm the Ga Ga king!" then, "What do I do?"

"We're defending the boat."

I turned to the kids outside the boat and announced, "I'm the Ga Ga king!" Prior to this, they'd been hitting me with their "whips" inadvertently. Now they were doing it on purpose. I couldn't bring myself to actually engage in the weapons play, but I did want to stay right in the center of things performing this spontaneous field work. Instead I picked up a toy fairy figurine and said, "The king has a magic fairy who can use her wand to turn your whips into feathers." 

There was a flurry of whipping, then our "enemies" ran off in one of their regular, wild circuits of our outdoor space, leaving us Ga Gas on our boat unmolested. I said, "We've defeated the bad guys."

Marit stared at me as if I were an idiot, "We're the bad guys."

"We're the bad guys?"

"Yeah, they're the good guys and we're the bad guys."

My normal response to good guy/bad guy talk is to say that I would rather be a good guy, but this time I said, "I'm bad!" I said it several times. Marit and Rex and the rest of the Ga Gas thought it was hilarious. When the good guys returned from their jaunt, I said, "I'm bad! I'm bad!" announcing that, this time, Teacher Tom was in.

As I sat in the midst of this game, in a flurry of foam whips, I watched the children's red faces, smiling, exhilarated, their eyes sparkling. There were periodic lulls in the midst of it all, something I'd not really noticed from the outside looking in, during which rules and ideas were discussed, spaces for us to tell one another what we were now imagining ourselves to be.

"I'm a ninja and this is my poison sword!"

"My whip has magic in it and turns you into a toilet!"

"We have a invisible pet monster that eats your whips!"

And all the while I said, "I'm bad! I'm bad!"

This game is much, much better from the inside, even while it appears unsavory from without. It wasn't an experience for me so much as a memory made present. I could feel the shape of that block in my hand.

I plan on returning there soon.

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