Monday, November 24, 2014

A Community Project

Thirteen years ago, a class of four and five year old decided we needed a birthday throne. We used a small chair and built a frame of wood, wire mesh and duct tape, then we spent a couple weeks adding layer after layer of paper mache. We agreed to paint it yellow, then agreed to add glitter, then agreed that Teacher Tom would take it outside apply a couple coats of polyurethane. For the next decade, every child who came through our doors took a turn sitting in it while we celebrated their "special day."

A couple ago, we noticed the throne was starting to deteriorate. Each time I set it on our checker board rug, it would leave behind a little pile of white dust. The edges were starting to fray. Cracks were appearing in the seat. It's what eventually happens to paper mache items, at least those made from an uncooked paste of white flour and water. We decided to try to save the throne by adding a couple of new layers over the top of what was left. This time we agreed to paint it with vertical rainbow stripes, with side-by-side gold and silver stripes running up the center.

It looked good, but did nothing to stop the slow deterioration from the inside, and so, after doing service at a few birthday celebrations to start the year, this year's group of four and five year olds decided to not just repair the old throne, but to build a whole new one. So last week we removed the old skin, taking it right down to the original frame and began the process of adding layer after layer of paper mache. It was hard not feeling like it was the end of an era at Woodland Park, but the kids who made it are high schoolers now: it's time for change.

We typically do at least one major paper mache project each year and while they are child-initiated projects, they would most often never get finished without adult participation, so I tend to think of them as "community projects." I've had a couple classes of kids who really got into the process, but a typical class of 4-5 year olds, I've found, is usually good for one layer of paper mache, when we really need a minimum of four or five. In the case of a throne, we may find we need even more.

They way community projects work is that once the kids have initiated them, then burned through their first flurry of work, I ask the adults to just keep the momentum going, honoring the children's intentions as much as possible, in this case, continuing to apply paper mache in the midst of where the kids are playing whether the kids participate or not. In this case, we worked on it every day for a week. Kids stop by to check out the progress, often chatting with the adults, sometimes about the future of the project, occasionally participating for a few minutes at a time. 

There's something to be said for children playing around adults at work, be it paper mache, home repairs, cooking, or gardening. Indeed, much of what happens in our school's garden can be classified as a community project. The children water, plant and harvest, but many of the things needed to sustain a garden on a day-to-day basis falls to the larger community, real work that takes place amongst the children. Clean up time works that way too: while the children take on many of the tasks of tidying up, there are some aspects that require an adult hand, such as sanitizing and scrubbing. It's useful for children to see adults engaged in their own work, concentrating, taking pride, sticking to it, role modeling, rather than always just being there to support the children in their work. I think it gives kids something to which to aspire.

The new throne has been drying all weekend. We're hoping it will feel sturdy enough for us today that we can get busy with decorating. There will be a class discussion about it that will likely involve testing it and an involved discussion about how it will be decorated. The idea of covering it in jewels has already been suggested. In any event, it will be the beginning of a new era.

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