Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our New Playground

A couple weeks ago I posted some photos of our serviceable, but uninspired Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool playground. Here they are again to remind you:

I wrote then about our plans for revitalizing this underutilized resource. We got very lucky that Thomas and Charlotte's mom Amanda agreed to take the lead in making it happen. No one has ever worked harder, both mentally and physically, for their school than she has these last several weeks. I am on my knees to her as I write this.

All told about half of our 44 families turned out yesterday, a Saturday, to work on the school, while one group focused on giving the classroom a top to bottom scrub, a dozen or so hearty souls took on our outdoor space. They all worked hard according to my favorite work party ethic: "He who holds the tool gets to make the creative decision."

Miriam's dad David carries one of the former fence posts we used to terrance the garden

I hope Charlie L. appreciates how hard his parents Shelly and Chris worked on our new sand pit.

Here's Aedan's dad Louis getting down the crumbs of our huge sand pile

So here it is. These first 3 photos are from the same vantage points as the "before" pictures:

We've located our construction/tinkering station in the corner. We can open the umbrella on rainy days to give us a dryer workbench. Ultimately, we will build storage to replace the blue, plastic tubs. We plan to transplant some fast-growing bamboo in the larger pots, which can be harvested as a construction material. The unicycle merry-go-round is the only "traditional" piece of playground equipment we've kept because kids play on it almost every single day.

That's our new sand pit in the corner. We've simply repurposed the bark chips that used to reside in that corner as a cover for our cracked and uneven asphalt. Our boat has a new home, having been shifted several feet by Orlando's mom Valerie and Violet's dad Eric to make for a larger Little World/art station.

We've paved our garden paths with a mixture of over-roasted, raw, and partially roasted coffee beans generously donated to us by Upcycle Northwest, a business that works with large coffee roasters to reclaim, recycle and reuse good materials that might otherwise be sent to the landfill. They've also donated many other exciting items to the school.

I wish I was a better photographer. This is a beautiful blend of dark brown, carmel and green beans that act very much like pea gravel, but with a much more heavenly aroma. When we poured out the first few bags of it, Ella's mom Jaimee spent several minutes just sitting in it, breathing deeply. I'm going to be standing there with my camera on Monday, just waiting to capture the children's reactions to both these beans and our new sand pit:

We removed the wood chips around the base of our maple and our magnolia and replaced it with our large pile of sand. Since we haven't disturbed the roots at all, we feel pretty good about the trees' prospects, but we all know it's a bit of a gamble. The sand pit is about 9' X 12' and anywhere from 12"-18" deep. We need to come up with a permanent sandbox cover solution, but for the time being we're just using some large sheets of garden fabric that Elliott's mom Elizabeth made in an attempt to dissuade the local cats. Right now I'm leaning toward the idea of stitching together a bunch of the burlap bags Upcycle gave us to create a decent barrier while still allowing rain to get to the tree roots.

I like that the sand pit is immediately adjacent to our construction/tinkering area. I can see a lot of impromptu construction happening in the sand pit since it will be relatively easy to create large structures with this stash of old fence wood that Sarah's mom Lisa scored for us:

By employing the construction technique of sticking planks and garden fencing into the sand or leaning them against the walls and trees, I'm hoping that we get some exciting structures. Lily's dad Greg turned our two pallets into "floors."

The idea is that they become the bases for larger constructions. For instance, we're going to spend the next couple weeks framing in a "house" on one of them, unless, of course, the kids are having too much fun playing on them as they are. 

We purchased and otherwise acquired a decent starter set of hammers, saws, drills, measuring tapes, levels, and other basic tools. 

If you follow this path of logs created by Anjali's mom Reshma along the wall and around the boat . . .

. . . you come to our expanded Little World:

Jaimee got inspired to create this archway from a pair of old curtain rods, a scrap of wire fencing, and lots of twigs, twine and sprigs from our rosemary bush. I would love to transplant a large fern into this shady area. Sadie's mom Medora and Reshma created that incredible bark pathway.

We finally decided the garden . . .

. . . will have a potting table where we used to rot our pumpkins, fashioned from our former outdoor sand table. We'll plant in the beds along the wall, where we get good sun and down the center. We're going to use three or four of our burlap bags as fabric whiskey barrel type planters to position in the center of the garden, dividing our gardening area a bit from our new water area . . .

This cast-iron pump and water run is a brilliant jerry rigged apparatus employing our former slide, a muck bucket, bungie cords, and 10' plastic house gutters. Amanda and Kimberly really deserve the credit for this inspired contraption. We're hoping to figure out a way to divert the roof gutter so that it will fill the bucket, but in the mean time we'll just fill it by hand from our current rain barrel. That's our blue barrel in the upper left of the picture below:

One of the more brilliant moves of the day was that of Benjamin's dad Andrew (who had a hand in just about every aspect of the project) to build a down and dirty wood chip "keeper" from pieces of tree rounds and old fencing planks. It will help keep our smaller asphalt area at least a little tidier:

We needed a little paved area for the unicycle merry-go-round and while he was at it, he gave us a clear walkway from the main gate to the school doorway. Yes, the children will likely stumble over it for awhile, but I think they'll eventually get used to it, like they would a stair.

I'm not going to try to name all the families who donated materials and cash to making this happen, but I feel like we've approached 100 percent participation. The results are so much better than I ever imagined. There were brilliant, on-the-fly creative ideas and problems solved. I'm so proud to have been part of making this happen. We're not finished yet, of course, there are still lots of things to do, but what we've done so far has been Herculean.

It's a present we've worked hard to make, and next week the children get to unwrap it, play with it, a start making it their own.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

But Are We The Beatles or The Beach Boys?

Legend has it that The Beatles' great album Rubber Soul inspired The Beach Boys' greater album Pet Sounds which in turn inspired The Beatles' even greater album St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The same dynamic seems to be emerging between the preschool at the Kinma School near Sydney, Australia and our own Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools in Seattle, USA, without the glamor, of course, of there being international pop stars involved. Although, both schools do lay claim to our own distinctive followings of adoring, screaming fans in the form of our students.

Jenny, Kinma's preschool teacher, once commented that this blog was one of her inspirations to start her own blog. Her ongoing investigation of outdoor play, playgrounds, and fairy gardens, in turn, got Woodland Park going on its Little World Experiment as well as its own playground improvement project. Our Little World experiments have in their place inspired Jenny to begin her own little world explorations. And now Jenny's post about a real dump truck delivering sand to Kinma's sand pit, is reflected like a mirror image at Woodland Park as we received our own, first, sand delivery yesterday:

You'll note that our sand is being delivered onto a sidewalk instead of a sand pit. This is because we don't yet have a sand pit. That is a project for this morning as a team of dedicated parents are scheduled to descend upon the school, in the drizzly rain, to build one, as well as to install our new coffee bean garden paths, organize our new outdoor construction/tinkering station, prepare our garden for actually growing plants (since our digging/mud activities can henceforward take place in the sand pit), to monkey around with our water station to see if we can relocate and improve it, and to generally revitalize our outdoor play area.

I'm so excited for today that I was out of bed this morning at 4 a.m. like a teenage girl with tickets to the big show. I wonder if Paul will look at me?

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Best Birthday Surprise Ever

This is our birthday throne. When we celebrate birthdays or half-birthdays (for the summer babies) I hold this throne in the air, turn it so they can see underneath . . .

. . . and say, "This throne is made of . . . "

And the children shout out:


"Paper mache!"

"A chair!"

"Wire mesh!"

"Wooden sticks!"



"Spider webs!"

Every now and then one of them remembers (or can pronounce), "Polyurethane!"

I then say, "And it was made by . . ."

And the children shout out:


"Big kids!"

"Now they're in 6th grade!"

I say, "That's right. Kids like you. And they made it for you a long time ago." I then turn the chair around so the children can see the back and point out their names. The great chair making children from the past signed the throne in red and I copied those signatures in black just to make sure I would always be able to read them:

I then set it on the floor at the front of the room and invite our special person to sit in it. I ask the children turning 3 (or 2.5) a few questions about how old they are and if they had any cake, then we sing "Happy Birthday," followed by the chance to blow out the candles on a cake I make with my fingers.

The children turning 4 or 5 bring in an "I Am Special Board" (poster board) with photos of themselves, their special people, and other things that are important to them, and we take 5-10 minutes to talk about each of them. They then get to pick which of our 5 birthday songs they want us to sing. Increasingly, the choice is "all of them." These include the traditional birthday song, the version about smelling like a monkey, the one with "Cha-cha-cha" added at the end of each line, a variation with "Goo-goo-ga" at the end of each line, and the "fast one," which goes:
This is your birthday song.
It isn't very long.
Yesterday, the children in our 3-5 class turned the tables on me with the help of their parents. During the time that they normally would be engaged in their small group activities, while I'm outside getting the playground ready, they got out the throne and an "I Am Special Board" that they had prepared for me, and gathered on our blue circle time rug. Ella's mom Jaimee then tricked me into coming back into the room by saying, "Teacher Tom, you have to come see this great small group activity!"

As I made my way into the room, I asked, "Which table?"

Jaimee said, "You'll see."

And when I walked through the door, they squealed and laughed and said, "Surprise!" I got to sit in the throne and talk about my pictures. I was only going to choose one version of the birthday song, but they made me choose all of them. While I was at the center of a giant group hug, several of the children took the moment to tell me they loved me.

I said I loved them too.

It was the best birthday surprise ever!

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Learning From Bumps And Bruises

Last year one of our families made an anonymous $2000 donation to the school with the stipulation that Teacher Tom gets to determine how it is spent. Times are tough, so I put some of the money toward beefing up our scholarship funds, but the bulk of the cash was spent on a set and a half of giant soft blocks.

What could be better for an active, multi-age preschool classroom than these? The kids can build big, dramatic structures quickly. They get the powerful feeling of wrangling these giant blocks, some of which are larger than the kids themselves. And they're filled with foam, so when one does fall on a little head, the owie is minimal.

This picture from the Early Childhood Manufacturers Direct website makes the blocks look so sweet and innocent, but the first few times we had them out the kids nearly killed each other. I had anticipated the joy of knocking down structures created from them, but I hadn't counted on the number of kids who would hurl their entire bodies at the ramparts, taking down the building, but also crushing anyone inside. In the reverie of imagining how much fun they would have, it hadn't occurred to me that flinging them across the room would be such a lure. And I really had not expected that the mere presence of these things would bring out the wild side in even the quietest kids. I don't think we've ever had so many tears in our classroom as we did the first week we played with them.

Of course, it's never been as bad since because we were forced to spend that week actually teaching and learning. And one of the beauties of a multi-age, multi-year classroom is that the institutional memory of how to properly and safely play with these blocks is carried over, at least in part, from year to year by the kids who've been there before, making our job that much easier than that first time. But it took us a number of bumps and bruises to get there.

Bumps and bruises are one of our most powerful learning tools. They are the A-B-C's and 1-2-3's of the law of natural consequences. Of course, we try to help children avoid injury, but I'm convinced that every owie we help them avoid is really just an owie we've pushed off into the future. As founder of The Tinkering School and author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) Gever Tully says in his fantastic TED presentation, "When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not made of round plastic they hurt themselves with it."

As we're gearing up for our playground revamp project a lot of new materials with "pokey bits" have been showing up in our courtyard and there has already been a great deal of teaching and learning going on. For instance, there are suddenly a lot more sticks and rocks available to the kids. We all know that the children love sticks and rocks, and we all know that sticks and rocks present hazards if used as missiles or swords. It was truly amazing on Tuesday how many of our two-year-olds picked up sticks, held them at exactly eye level, then walked around swinging them. We spent a lot of time showing them how to carry sticks "down low," and how to use them for things other than swinging around at eye-level. There have been no stick or rock induced injuries so far, but they're no doubt in our future. That said, the world is littered with sticks and rocks and I can think of no better place than preschool for teaching children how to avoid injuring themselves and others.

On Monday, the older kids were excited to discover a stack of 4-6 foot long boards that had previously been part of a fence and immediately went to work building something. If you've ever seen a 3-year-old carrying something like this, I'm sure you know that the simple process of moving it from one place to another puts everyone in the vicinity in jeopardy. We taught them that the proper way to move a long board is to take it by one end and drag it to its destination. Simple. I'll bet we have it down by the end of next week.

Yesterday, Jack and Finn V. decided it would be interesting to see what would happen if they rolled an old car tire (which is new to our playground) down the slide. As Jack wrestled with trying to roll it up the slide (Finn took the job of sitting at the top offering encouragement) I could foresee all kinds of potential injuries resulting from the project. I put my hand on the tire temporarily, and guided them through a safety assessment. They decided it would be a good idea to have an adult (meaning me) stand at the bottom of the slide to keep the path clear. Jack could also see the potential of the tire tipping over onto him, and understood that it might hurt if it fell from that height, so we determined that the best way to prevent that eventuality was to get more friends to help. With Josephine and Katherine's assistance, and Teacher Tom's body in position, they finally managed to get the tire to the top of the slide, then let it go. They cheered its progress across the courtyard.

We avoided the bumps and bruises this time, but they're coming, and then we'll learn something.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Draft: The Pre-K Play

Our Pre-K class has been working on writing the script for it’s year-end "graduation" play since the beginning of January. It's been a piecemeal effort so far, with some of the 11 kids being far more involved than others. We’ve tested our script out on stage twice already, then yesterday had a group discussion/brainstorming session that involved going through the first half of the script together. 

This is the 7th Pre-K play I’ve been involved with and if experience serves we are nowhere near a final script. In fact, in yesterday’s session 5 of the kids changed their minds about what character they wanted to play, major sections were eliminated and major sections were added. We will be doing rewrites through mid-April, most of which will happen during our weekly rehearsals, when we’ll need to have a finalized script to work from to rehearse the production.

Here is the current, annotated script:

A merry-go-round with horses on it.

Then we need some buildings, garages, houses, and some vehicles like a car.

I will be serving as the play’s narrator and despite the fact that this is a description of our backdrops, I plan to read it aloud for the audience because this is how the children have written it. I try my best to honor their exact words.

An Apple Tree waddles in.

Anjali has been a Duck in the play until last week when she decided she would rather be an Apple Tree. This Apple Tree still waddles.

A real Unicorn Pegasus.

This is the introduction of Annabelle’s character. Her older sister Charlotte also played a unicorn Pegasus in her Pre-K production two years ago.

And then the Lilac Fairy.

Ella has been Sleeping Beauty up until yesterday when she decided to make the switch.

A Kitty Cat that is black.

This is Josephine’s introduction.

Then 3 Mean Black Kittens drive up.

This is where it’s going to get confusing unless the kids decide to make some changes, which I suspect they will. Jack has always wanted to be a Mean Black Kitty, but yesterday both Thomas and Marcus decided that they both wanted to be Mean Black Kitties as well. I’m guessing that as we rehearse, the confusion will either delight the boys and we’ll have to work out some conventions to help the audience, or they’ll see the problem and elect to be different characters.

The Lilac Fairy goes on the Train.

Finn P. is our Train. We’ve not yet figured out how Ella is going to go “on” Finn.

Then there was 3 Mean Kitties scares away Maleficent.

No one wants to be Maleficent and there was some debate yesterday about whether we even want her in the play. We also talked about making a Maleficent puppet which Sarah would operate. She has not wanted to actually be in the play so far, instead accepting my idea that she serve as the Assistant Director, a role that she has so far embraced.

The Big Fairy and the Lilac Fairy come and put fairy dust on the audience to wake them up.

The Big Fairy is Katherine, who I expect will be expanding her role significantly during the rehearsal process.

Then all of the characters get in a battle except the Unicorn Pegasus, Apple Tree, the Black Kitty, one of the Mean Kitties (Thomas), and the 2 Fairies.

I’m guessing we’ll need to re-write this to instead indicate who is in the battle. The children tend to rely on my narration to know what to do on stage and this backwards instruction will be confusing.

And then the black Kitty Cat comes and sprinkles fairy dust onto the White Pegasus.

Then the Unicorn Pegasus flies away.

Then the Train, the 3 Mean Kitties, and the Big Fairy goes around the audience.

Running around the audience is always a feature of Woodland Park’s plays. It’s fun and dramatic.

Then the really, really big rainbow nutcracker comes.

This has been a matter of much discussion and debate. A few weeks ago, some of the children were worried that the nutcracker would be too big and frighten the audience, which will include some babies. We settled on the idea of just painting a big one, which didn’t seem so scary. Unfortunately, when we tried painting one as a group, no one was satisfied with the result. Yesterday, we voted that our “nutcracker” looked more like a swimming pool. Instead we will be making our big nutcracker with paper mache.

Then so the nutcracker grows to its own size. Then the Girl comes and plays with her toy nutcracker.

Luna is the Girl.

Then the nutcracker and the Mean Kitties get in a big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big battle. And then a small robot puts a large bathtub on a battle.

Yesterday, we decided that we will make our bath tub out of a big box and that Sarah, the Assistant Dirctor, will be in charge of putting the bathtub on the battle. Thomas thinks this whole concept is hilarious.

There is a fire and a fire truck puts out the fire.

Again, we had kids worried that a real fire would be too scary, so we had the idea of making the fire from red and orange tissue paper. I tossed out the idea of having a fan blow it from underneath to make it move. Sarah wants to be the one who turns the fan on and off.

The Train goes in the pool and the Kitty Cat goes swimming too.

Good thing we accidentally painted a swimming pool!

Then the ice age comes and the Unicorn Pegasus timbers down a whole bunch of ice and a Mean Kitty (Thomas) waddles away as fast as he can.

Thomas used to be a Penguin until yesterday, hence the waddling. 

This is as far as we got yesterday in our group editing/discussion process. We're going to need a brainstorming session next week to "tighten up" the second half:

The Train should only move. The Train goes very fast and breaks down the tracks. He has a accident!

One Mean Black Kitty (Marcus) fell into a Mean Black Kitty (Jack) and he punched the big black cat. Then he punched the blue tree. Then he punched a rocket.

Then a Mean Black Kitty (Thomas) dives into the big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming pool, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool.

The Unicorn Pegasus ice skates.

The Mean Black Kitty (Thomas) slips and slides.

The Lilac Fairy she goes into a beautiful castle with pretty walls painted pink.

And a Mean Kitty (Jack) dives into a pool. Then Maleficent puts the Mean Kitty Cat to sleep.

And then once the Mean Black Kitty (Thomas) went there, Maleficent puts the Mean Kitty to sleep.

Then we’ll make a forklift and the forklift will pick the Mean Black Kitty (Thomas) up and toss it into the air and everyone onto the ceiling.

And then Maleficent changes from bad to good and wakes the Unicorn Pegaus up.

Maleficent wakes the Mean Kitty (Thomas) up.

Then the Big Fairy flies on top of the Train. Then she lands right next to the Train. And she rides the Train.

It’s nighttime and there is stars and a moon.

The Unicorn Pegasus stays up in the night.

While the Big Fairy’s on the Train, she’s watching TV on the Train.

There’s gonna be Maleficent. She’ll just close her eyes and bonks her head.


This is what we have so far. Some of the kids have clearly written themselves much larger parts than others and I suspect that this will become evident to the children with smaller parts as they find themselves standing around a lot during rehearsals. I’m also guessing there will be a lot more running around the audience because there always is.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rubber Bands

Several years ago I must of hit our local dollar store at just the right moment because they had giant bags of rubber bands unlike any I've ever seen before. This was a collection of every shape and size, including various versions of those tough rubber bands that grocers use to hold together stalks of broccoli and other produce. For $4 dollars I was able to buy enough to fill our sensory table. Of course, I've continually augmented the collection over the years as I've found interesting thicknesses, colors or sizes:

We're playing with the rubber bands this week. I combine them with tongs and large yoghurt containers, cigar boxes, shoe box lids, and (if you look closely at the picture, you can see it) an object that I think used to be some kind of rack for holding plates. And, of course, we use our homemade geoboards:

We make rubber band "string" instruments (by stretching the bands around the containers and boxes), rubber band chains, and rubber band balls:

Yesterday, we made a rubber band trampoline by wrapping a cigar box with lots of bands, then bouncing our balls off of it.

With the younger kids we spend a lot of time hunting for the "biggest" and "smallest," and for matching attributes like thickness, length or color.

And, of course, there is the fine art of shooting rubber bands. A rubber band can sting, so I usually steer the "shooting" activities to these large fabric coated bands that several of the parents have told me they used to (probably insensitively) call Chinese jump ropes:

Whatever we should call them, they can be stretched large enough that I can frame my entire body. The nice thing is that the fabric coating takes the sting out should anyone get hit by accident. Typically, the way it works is that an adult holds one end on a finger, while the child stretches it out then lets it go. We've discovered that they can fly nearly the entire length of the classroom, but it takes technique.

Yesterday, for the first time, we added the screaming, flying monkey to the mix:

This guy has latex tube arms and when sent flying, emits a monkey scream of either fear or or joy.

We got a lot of practice with taking turns!

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Pandora In My Backyard

I finally got around to seeing the movie Avatar with my daughter last Friday. I'm not much of a movie-goer. There's something about paying money to sit in a dark room watching a screen that doesn't get me motivated, and sadly, when my family convinces me to join them I more often than not doze through much of it.

That said, I only nodded off once during Avatar largely because, as everyone says (even the people who don't like the movie) it is spectacular eye candy. Specifically, I was entranced by the world of Pandora and the incredibly beautiful scenes of its rain forest. I appreciated the environmental message, sympathized with the good guys and was outraged at the bad guys, but the part that has stuck with me are those scenes of Jake and Neytiri playing in the forest, surrounded by all that lush, "natural" gorgeousness.

It was not lost on me that the Earthlings had brought "school" to the Na'vi as one of the tools they were hoping to barter for natural resources, but it was rejected, I hope because these more perfect, fictional indigenous people already had their education handled. All the scenes in which Jake Sully was being "trained" to become one of the Ne'vi were filled with laughter, exploration, and risk taking. You know, play. But that was just a little, intellectual eddy I briefly drifted into as scene after scene of animated forest beauty passed in front of me in 3-D.

 Image of the Pandora rain forest

On Saturday, I took my two dogs for a walk in a patch of what's left of the Pacific Northwest rain forest. I live near Seward Park which is on a peninsula that curls into Lake Washington. Most people stick to the paved walking/biking path that runs along the water, but the dogs and I chose the less popular trails that crisscross the rest of the 270-acre park.

The images of Avatar were still fresh in my mind as we walked through this tamed forest and it suddenly hit me: Pandora's got nothing on this place.

These are a few of the pictures I snapped with my phone's camera.

I'm not much of a photographer and my phone's not much of a camera, but you get the idea. I walk here with my dogs several times a week. It's in my own back yard, but I was seeing it anew through the fresh eyes of having sat in that dark room watching a screen.

I've read that many people have reported feeling depressed after seeing Avatar, saying that they wish they could live on Pandora. I've got good news: we already do. Now, if we will only keep it.

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