Monday, August 18, 2014

Build It Up And Knock It Down

I met the late, great Tom Hunter back in 2002 when we were both invited to promote our respective books at the now shuttered All For Kids Books in Seattle. Mine was a mere tour guide of the city for parents written at the beginning of my journey into the world of early childhood. Tom's, however, was a book called Build It Up and Knock It Down, based upon his classic song of the same name. He sang that song for us that day.

Build it up and knock it down and build it up again.
Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again . . .

The song goes on like that, exploring the everyday rhythms of a child's world -- saying "hello" and "goodbye," standing up and sitting down, nodding yes and nodding no. It's sold as a book for children to learn about opposites, but for me, starting from the first time I heard it, it's song about the cyclical nature of the universe.

I sing it nearly every day in our Pre-3's class, typically whenever a child constructs something with blocks, then knocks it down, as all two-year-olds do, starting as a scientist, studying, then later more joyfully, accompanied by a predictable Eureka! of laughter. I sing it when a child is filling something up and dumping it out, climbing up and climbing down, crawling into a box and then back out, matching the words to this cyclical play, an acknowledgement of the universal truths being explored. A bit of background music if you will.

A group of educators were yesterday discussing online the nature of "destructive" play, or if we can even categorize destructiveness under the heading of play. I'd say absolutely. Knocking down those buildings is play. Painting a picture, then smearing it all together with your hands is play. Creating an elaborate spaceship from loose parts then crashing it into a wall is play. It's the sort of "what if?" play in which scientists are always engaged.

And yes, it is even play when it comes to knocking over someone else's building, even if one of the consequences of this experiment is making a friend cry. This is where we've crossed the line into our wider community. Maybe daddy lets you topple his towers, indeed he may build them for that purpose, but when it comes to other kids, your pleasure is, in this case, someone else's pain. This is where adults often have to get involved, although not right away, because we want to leave the space for the "victim" to say, "Hey! That was my building!" We want to leave the space for the children to negotiate their own solution, but we live in a time when most two-year-olds haven't had the opportunity to develop the experiences or the skills to know they can say, "Hey! That was my building!" so we often need to be there to give voice to their tears: "Hey, that was her building."

Or perhaps you would rather say, "She worked hard on that building. That was her building. She is crying because you knocked it down." As long as you're making informational statements about the situation, you're on solid ground.

It's remarkable how often that statements of fact, whether they come from the child herself or the adult by proxy, elicit tears of apology. But even if it's only met with a blank stare, the facts are out there with which to be dealt, a dialog is opened, and even if it's not a lesson anyone is ready to learn, we've acknowledged that a line has been crossed. That's where we start on our journey into exploring the freedom of the individual in the context of community.

In our Pre-3 class we usually wind up with an ethic based upon the idea of "knocking down buildings" vs. "not knocking down buildings," a gateway concept into the world of living in a world of other people.

Many years ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon that I've always regretted not clipping. A boy was building a sand castle and another boy stood nearby. The caption read: "You can help me build it, but you can't help me knock it down." Just as Tom Hunter did with his songs, it expressed, quite simply, one of the grand, universal truths.

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