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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Unknown said...

At our local bounce place there are a set of these. I imagined it would be a fun time for the children but I never imagined I would see so many of these soft blocks hurled across the room! Kaish and Shoshi think they are fabulously fun to throw at one another... Very funny : )

Noah said...

The idea of the KIDS doing safety assessments themselves is really appealing and eye-opening, I think. If kids take responsibility for they own safety, that's going to mean a lot as they get older, and I can imagine it leading to taking more responsibility in general.
Just awesome.
Risk needs to be there, right?
The video is so great - I'm going to try to put it up on people garden.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes. We've been looking for stuff to take apart (which generally means something that it is ok to destroy). So far we've played with the innards of a toaster, fan, and a cheap digital frame. Super fun for both parent and child!!! Now I'm getting the question, "Dad, what's in ....?" or "Dad, what's .... made of?" Brilliant.

Deborah Stewart said...

You are a brave soul to let that tire go down the slide:) I agree though, we need to allow for some risk under our watch so that children are better able to navigate their world when left to their own choices. It is kind of scary but it is also what is in the best interest of the child.

Unknown said...

Many teachers would have just stored the blocks and just not taken them out very often. I love that you always see the "real value" and stick with it until they do learn how to use them.

You are so right about over protecting the kids. I see so many who don't have many of the life skills children had years ago, just because they have been sheltered from harm or mess (like scissors, markers, using a butter knife..). You go, Tom!

Centers and Circle Time said...

One year my class had a hard time cleaning up the toys they had taken out. It would take me forever to get the class clean for lunch. I eventually moved everything out leaving only a small amount in each center. Each time we were successful putting our toys away I could bring something into the classroom. By the end of the year our classroom was full and the kids had a clear understanding (pictures, words, and teaching) where there items should go. I certainly agree Tom we're never going to catch all the bumps and bruises even with the safest methods, but we can do what we do best...Teach:)

jenny said...

We are constantly asking ourselves and each other at preschool "should I be worried about this?". I try to assess firstly if there is immediate danger of injury, then if the play is constructive or destructive and ask or try to figure out what the kids are trying to achieve. I'm a firm believer that if kids are the best judges of whether or not they are doing something outside of their capabilities, but only if they have been given lots of opportunities to experiment themselves. There will be bumps and bruises but they gain so much more in the end.

Scott said...

Great video. And great post. We must allow kids to try "dangerous" stuff so they will know how to handle it. While we still be be safe and wise, some bumps and bruises help kids know what to do...or not time. I wish I could have seen that tire down the slide!