Friday, December 11, 2015

The Yellowland Experiment

The way we do school at Woodland Park is for all of us to be learners, children and adults, which means I expect everyone to be playing. That's why we so often refer to ourselves as a learning community.

One of the key aspects of play is the experiment, asking the question "Can I do it?" or "What if?" or "How does that work?" then going about answering it through our play. This week, I've been running an experiment I've been thinking of as the "Yellowland Experiment," with the underlying question being simply, "What will happen?"

At the beginning of each of the morning or afternoon sessions, I've started my day by commandeering the yellow Duplo platform, calling it "Yellowland," then proceed to build upon it using only yellow blocks. When children come to sit with me, many asking, "What are you doing?" I've said, "I'm building Yellowland." A few have shrugged and moved on to other things, but most have stopped to at least watch me. Many have dropped to their knees to help.

"I have a yellow one!"

"That can go in Yellowland."

By this time of year, we've all pretty much figured out to respect one another's creations, to not knock it down or take away or add to without a discussion. I've been saying, "You can help me build it, but you can't help me knock it down," which has become something of a mantra in the block area this year.

"I have a yellow one!"

"Hmm, that's mostly yellow," I replied when appropriate, "But I see a little red strawberry on the side. I don't want red in Yellowland." 

"I have a yellow one!"

"Hmm, that's mostly yellow, but I see some blue letters on it. I don't want blue in Yellowland."

Other children have taken inspiration from me, asserting that they were going to create "Blueland" or "Greenland" or "Rainbowland."

I've been spending five or ten minutes setting up the experiment like this, then walking away, leaving Yellowland to the children. Another block area ethic we've developed is that if you walk away, others can knock it down or take away or add to without a discussion, unless you make special arrangements. I made none.

For eight play sessions, I've then been circling back periodically to check on Yellowland. In some cases, children have continued to add to it, taking ownership of it, and adhering closely to my original conditions.

"No! That can't go in Yellowland. It has an eyeball on it!"

"Hey, no red in Yellowland!"

"I found a whole bunch of yellow pieces in this box!"

One day, a group of kids had set up an entire scenario in which non-yellow blocks were arranged around Yellowland as if they wanted in, but were being kept out by the ad hoc segregation laws I had created. In another scenario some children had taken on the role of delivering yellow pieces in toy trucks and Duplo trains while others then added them to the creation like cranes.

These children had taken ownership of the project, having adopted my vision as their own, even expanding it without violating the fundamental principles of Yellowland.

Most of the time, however, when I checked it, I found that Yellowland has been pushed aside, perhaps a bit disheveled, but otherwise intact, not knocked down, taken from or added to. The kids had apparently decided to respect the creation even in my absence. How had that happened? Only a handful of them had been there as I'd first created Yellowland. Once or twice I overheard a child serving as a self-appointed protector -- "Hey, that's Yellowland!" -- but mostly it simply seemed that respect for Yellowland had been passed along from one child to the next until they all decided to just leave it alone. 

Yesterday afternoon, near the end of the indoor portion of our day, I checked on Yellowland and was surprised to find that red and green and blue blocks had been added to it. One boy saw me looking at it and said, "We ruined Yellowland." I could tell he was deeply interested in my response. I understood in that moment that "we" meant "I," and that this was an experiment of his own. How would Teacher Tom respond?

I said, "It's not Yellowland anymore."

"No, it's better!"

I agreed.

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Anonymous said...

This is so interesting to me. The children have pretty much internalized the respect for projects and the creating of their teachers and peers. I would imagine there must have been an internal struggle about the metaphor of Yellowland, namely exclusion. In preschool classrooms, we all value inclusion and welcoming new people, thoughts, ideas and traditions. Yellowland seems like a social experiment of sorts. And the outcome was beautiful.

Anonymous said...

This could be a chapter in your book. So many new things to ponder in this post. Love it.

Pat said...

I like be your response at the end. The child did not ruin yellow land, he/she added moredifference to it; changed it some. This could be a takeoff point for talking about sameness and difference. Yellow land was beautiful with its different shapes, but was it added to by the red and green or blue? Did it perhaps make it a bit more interesting? Children could be asked how they feel adding to a monochrome construction. Even though the world of yellow was beautiful, is the new world with additions of difference a bit more interesting? Or not? Would our classroom or world be as interesting without sameness and difference?

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