Thursday, November 19, 2009

Small Children In Small Spaces

Our classroom feels like a small crowded space in the best of times and I often go out of my way to make it feel even smaller and more crowded.

Since our highest mission at Woodland Park is to learn how to live together, I like to manufacture situations in which the children are forced to be in close proximity so that they have no choice but to interact. When I set up the art easels, for instance, I position them close enough together that the children bump and jostle one another. That closeness encourages the need for conversation, negotiation and collaboration, and in a cooperative classroom there is always an adult nearby to help coach them through the more challenging parts of dealing with the other humans.

When I started teaching I would try to carve out a corner of the room that could serve as a quiet refuge, usually under our loft, but as time has gone on I’ve dumped that idea altogether. Our 3-5’s school day is only 2½ hours, while our 2-year-olds are only in class 4 hours a week. This is the time to be together. They have the whole rest of the week to read books in a quiet corner.

And the older the kids are, the more developmentally capable they are to enter into the complexities of human relationships, the closer together I try to get them.

A perfect example is the camping set-up we’ve been playing with this week. On Tuesday when the 2-year-olds were in session we had 3 tents set up, but yesterday when the 3-5’s took over the room, I removed a tent, leaving us with only 2 small tents and 21 children. One of the tents in particular became the venue for a particularly intense, jam-packed game that revolved around a group of our older girls, a stack of campfire logs, some plastic food, and a pile of stuffed animals.

It was the kind of noisy affair that attracts others. There were times when that small 2-person tent housed 6-7 active preschoolers with another half-dozen milling around just outside. The static electricity build-up caused their hair to stand on end. Tensions alternated with sweaty joy throughout the morning, but the only tears were when Lachlan was accidentally knocked down by his older sister Katherine, one of the hazards of small children in small spaces.

Another natural consequence of preschoolers in small spaces is that at some point one of the 4-year-olds will inevitably come up with the idea to say, “You can’t come in.” And sure enough, as I knelt beside the tent it happened.

Max, as has been his tendency for the past few weeks, was pretending to be a monster. Most of his monster fierceness, however, tends to reside in his imagination and gets expressed through his impressive vocabulary, so he’s a monster who doesn’t really frighten his friends. As he started to unzip the tent flap to enter, Katherine barred his way, saying, “You can’t come in.”

Alive with the idea that I was in the midst of a teachable moment, I pointed to our list of rules and said, “But Katherine, you and your friends made a rule that says, You can’t say you can’t play.”

Katherine, quite uncharacteristically, gave me something of a stink eye, then returned her focus to Max. “Are you a nice monster or a mean monster?”

Max answered, “A nice monster.”

As Katherine unzipped the flap, Max turned to me and explained, “When I’m a mean monster I destroy the house so I can’t go in.” He then crawled into the tent and Katherine zipped the door shut behind him.

I left the campsite and went to the puzzle table where the kids needed me.

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Floor Pie said...

I have to admit, I'd be skeptical about this if I weren't in the class myself. It feels so counterintuitive, but I can see it actually working.

For example, I was amazed on Tuesday at how orderly and cooperative the 2-year-olds were when you introduced rhythm sticks for the first time... all 21 of them on that little blue rug, happily waiting their turns. I've never seen anything like it.

kristin said...

awesome. yes.

we have about three "cozy corners" that seem only big enough for two, but there are usually 4 in them.

Saya said...

... Ouch. hahaha