Monday, March 03, 2014

That's Not The Way It Went

One of our most popular toys is a vintage Fisher-Price "Dump Truckers" set. It belonged to my brother and me as boys and when my parents were clearing our their attic a few years back, I claimed it, and my memories, for the school. There are three dump trucks, three payloads (wooden balls), and three garages in which the trucks can load and dump. There are nearly always more than three kids who want to play with it.

When this toy first returned to my life, I resorted to duct taping the thing down to the table to prevent one child from absconding with it. I worried the kids about not losing the wooden balls "because it's an old toy and we can't get any more." I cautioned the parent-teacher in charge of that particular station that they would likely need to help the children manage cooperative play, like turn taking.

It's been a few years now and I don't do any of that any more. Each time I bring this toy down from its shelf, I "remember" that it's a challenging thing with which to play, even with good friends, although I then remind myself that this memory is almost solely constructed from a couple incidents and the subsequent story I told myself about how children, mostly boys, played with it rather than a reality.

I brought it down last week along with another popular toy, a space station by manufacturers unknown that features two space shuttles, a "rover," and a sort of clumsy grappling crane. It's about the right scale for the classic Fisher-Price Little People so they go together just fine. My only special instruction, which was given to the kids rather than the adult, was a request to keep track of the balls because "this toy is special to me." Then we more or less just stepped back.

There were raised voices at times and even occasional pushing and grabbing, but we gave them time to work things out for themselves. In between conversations about construction sites and space aliens, I also heard things like:

"Hey, I was using that!"

"You're pushing me!"

"I want the blue one."

All straight forward declarations of fact delivered with sometimes strong, but always appropriate, emotion. 

Then there were negotiations:

"When can I get a turn?"

"But I need to stand there."

"The blue one is my favorite, you can have the red."

And there were solutions:

"You can have a turn when I'm finished."

"Let's turn is like this, then you can stand on on that side and I can stand here."

"We have to take turns with it. First me, then you, then me, then you . . ."

For five days, whenever we were indoors, there was a cluster of heads bent over these two table toys, boys shoulder-to-shoulder, staking their claims, listening to friends, then figuring it out. That's not the way it went back in the days when the toy was duct taped to the table and adults hovered over them, kibitzing, and generally over-reacting when emotions started to ramp up. I'm sure there were moments over the course of five days during which boys between 2-6 played here, with their foreheads together, when an adult stepped in, but I didn't see happen, not once.

And on Friday afternoon all of those wooden balls were back where they belonged.

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Anonymous said...

I had a similar revelation!! We alway allow 4 children at the substance tables this particular day 6 went there was elbowing and complaining and it looked like it might get ugly but it didn't a whole bunch of negotiation started spontaneously occurring and they worked things out for themselves!! A beautiful sight that has made me rethink some of my management systems andinterventions!!!

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the kind of preschool I wish my son had gone to. Instead at his four year old preschool, the teacher had a "id tag" system where children took off their name tags and traded them for a "center" (like the kitchen, or the train tracks). Only two children per center. It made for sad play time. (She was a new teacher when my started and the "system" wasn't implemented until two months into the school year")

Cass said...

Occasionally when I read John Holt I want to yell at him "step back and look at the bigger picture... they are doing what you knew they would".

This post makes me want to do the same to Teacher Tom!!

I am reading the post and this is what it seems to me.
Students for years have been learning positive ways of solving problems. You, and the parents, have been modelling it. You, and the parents, have been getting better at it, and modelling that too. The older students have modelled it to the younger students, and then the next generation of students are even better at it, and they model that too.

So you tell this story as if any 6 kids would behave the same way... I honestly don't think that is true. I think you have something special and you are failing to see it.

The kids playing with the non-duct-taped toy at the non-hovered-around table are the product of, in preschool years, generations of shaping of attitudes.


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