Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Danger Of "Here They Go Again" Thinking

We do this periodically, run a loop of rope over a couple of pulleys between the top and bottom of our concrete slide, then hang a small bucket from it. It's usually good for a week or so, as the kids experiment with transporting small items up an down the slope, both alone and in the context of others, then they abandon it, having learned everything it has to offer, so we remove it, making it fresh again by installing it some months later.

This time, as we often do, I augmented this more horizontal installation of pulleys by adding a vertical pulley to a tree near the upper part of our two-level sandpit: it doesn't really go anywhere, but you can lift things up into the branches and lower it back down. Adults have to keep a real eye on that one because someone always has the idea of putting rocks in the basket, then letting it drop, but since it's only for a week, we manage it.

One thing I did differently than in years past was to not cut the ropes to size. In both installations, I left long extensions of rope, way more than necessary. Honestly, I did it in the name of conservatism: we seem to always wind up with lots of lengths of rope that are just a little too short for the next project, so my idea was to conserve "length," even if it meant leaving long "tails" on both pulley set ups.

Almost immediately the kids figured out how to use the tail on the concrete slide system to pull the bucket to the top of the hill, but mostly they tied it to other things, rendering the whole apparatus immobile. Several times over the past couple of days, I've had to untie the tail when kids complained the pulley is "stuck." It shouldn't have surprised me, I suppose, given that every rope we own is, at any given moment, tied to something, but I've found myself right on the edge of scolding as I explain to our mad knotters that "when you do that, it makes the pulley stop working."

I left a super long tail on the vertical pulley. It didn't take long for someone to extend it across the lower level of our sandpit to the top of the concrete slide, where they discovered they could play tricks on unsuspecting classmates. They would put an attractive toy in the basket, then let it hang just at eye level. When someone tried to get their hands on the toy, they quickly pulled it up out of reach from their remote location, then laugh and laugh. This was all well and good, but naturally, it wasn't long before this tail too was knotted around branches and whatnot, again rendering the thing immobile. And again I  helped them disengage the rope so the simple machine could be operable again, pointing out all the other ropes they could use if they wanted to tie knots.

The photos really don't do it justice, but this one gives you the best idea. The rope in the foreground is connected on the near end to the vertical pulley system. The "tail" then reaches across to the top of the concrete slide, where it is attached to the "horizontal" system, allowing the two to work in tandem: an invention from the play of 5-year-olds.

I was engaged elsewhere for a few minutes and sure enough, upon my return, I saw that the long tail of the vertical system was tied to something at the top of the concrete slide. As I approached, I didn't take the time to look things over, to really figure out what was going on. Instead, I made an assumption that they had "done it again," striding onto the scene with something like, "Hey, you guys, we just talked about this. When you tie the ropes, the pulleys stop working."

"It is working, Teacher Tom."

"It is?"

"Watch." And with this, one of boys scampered to the top of the concrete slide where he began to use the pulley system to lower the bucket toward the bottom. "Now watch the basket," he said, pointing to the vertical system across the sand pit. And sure enough, as he lowered one, the other lowered too. "They're connected!" He had tied the long tail of the vertical system to the loop of rope running to the top of the concrete slide, creating a double system, the like of which I've never seen.

I'm sure my photos and description can't do it justice, but believe me, it was an inventive feat of engineering made possible by those tails and the fact that the kids persevered in tying knots with them even as I attempted to discourage them. Feeling sufficiently chagrined, I reflected on my own role in this activity as I watched them operate their invention as part of the elaborate dramatic play in which the kids were now engaged, already forgetting about me. I'd been guilty of "here they go again" thinking, and while I'd not commanded the children to stop tying knots with the tails, I'd definitely attempted to use informative statements to steer them toward the conclusion that tying knots with the tails was a bad idea. Fortunately, those informative statements like, "When you tie the rope here, the whole pulley stops working," and "When you do that, no one else can use the pulley," had left space for knots still to be tied if they didn't gum up the works, which is exactly what had happened despite my efforts to scuttle the entire thing.

I've never been more convinced of the power of informative statements.

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