Sunday, March 07, 2010

Notes On Our Community Experiment

It was during the December holiday break that I came to the realization that we needed to change how we approach outdoor play at Woodland Park and it was clear to me that the first step was going to have to be some kind of transformation of our outdoor space. It's a testament to our community that by March 1, we had gone from this . . .

. . . to this . . .

. . . from this . . .

. . . to this . . .

. . . and from this . . .

. . . to this . . .

Our physical transformation, however, is just the most visible part of the changes we are making. Our daily schedule has also been transformed, more than doubling the amount of time we're spending outdoors, with a long term hope (at least on my part) to eventually get to spending most, if not all, of our time, year-round, as an indoor-outdoor school, regardless of the weather.  

I put the admittedly unrealistic deadline of March 1 on my proposal to the parent community, because I felt it was imperative to start our experiment in the spring when the weather around here tends to improve, flowers are blooming, and those of us who are sick of the cold, dark, wet winter are itching to get outside. My research (in which I was greatly aided by the efforts of an loosely-knit international alliance of outdoor play expert bloggers such as Jenny at Let The Children Play, Juliet at I'm A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE here!, and Arcady at Playscapes) indicated that one of the key elements to getting kids playing outside, in all weather, is the attitude of the adults in their lives. If the grown-ups aren't complaining about the cold, rain or heat, the children won't know any better, or so the theory goes. This is the time of year when even Seattle's hard core couch potatoes trade their slippers for rain boots, so I was hoping that this timing, while a bit rushed, would give us the best chance for a successful experiment.

And that is truly what this transformation is, a community experiment. This may be a personality flaw, but I'm not one for detailed planning. I tend to be much more comfortable starting with a one-page sketch, good intentions, and making adjustments on the fly, based on experience. I know that everyone in our parent community isn't like me, so I'm incredibly grateful that they're allowing our experiment to go forward in this manner, the idea being to charge ahead, solicit feedback, and make adjustments as we go.

Here are some of my notes after one week:

Water play
Our first big alterations to our plans came on Monday, our first day, when it became instantly evident that our water play area had to be moved. Our slightly scaled down operation fits much better as a companion to the sand pit than it did in the garden, although on Friday we learned that we're going to need to discourage the experiment of pouring sand into the cast iron water pump -- it jams the thing up and I had to take it apart to clean it out.

I didn't want to make our schedule change too jarring for the children, so the plan was to keep the same order of activities (indoor choice time, clean up, circle time, outdoor play, closing circle) while shortening the indoor time and tacking that onto our outdoor play time. We started our experiment last week indoors with choice time as usual, but the time we spent there was cut in half. One of our "choices" during this time is to eat snack. On a typical day, about three-quarters of the kids have at least a nibble, but on Monday I'll bet only half of them, at most, made it to the snack table before it closed. I heard more than one kid complaining he was hungry later in the day.

On Wednesday and Thursday we experimented with keeping the snack station open throughout most of our outdoor play time. This helped with the hunger, although since the "snack parent" (we're a cooperative and so have several parents working in the classroom as assistant teachers each day) is also responsible for a number of daily cleaning tasks, we're going to have to continue monkeying around with the schedule to give this person more time to get it done.

Indoor-outdoor flow
This is what I mean by making adjustments on the fly. Last week the balloon cage was up inside and it would have been a real pity to not give the kids ample time to play there. Fortunately, the weather was fine, so we just popped the classroom doors open on Wednesday and Thursday, and for the first time in Woodland Park history experimented with allowing the children the opportunity to freely flow from inside to outside.

It felt very natural and I think this worked very well, except . . .

The new sand pit has been the main focal point of our outdoor play this week, especially with the water play being relocated there. I've tried luring the kids to other parts of the new playground with limited success so far, but that will come as the newness wears off. The big challenge has been one I really should have anticipated -- sand! It's everywhere right now, especially since the kids were in and out so much. 

I've had a number of discussions with parents about how to deal with this, the most promising of which is to convert part of our hallway into an indoor-outdoor transition zone where everyone is expected to remove their shoes before coming inside, the idea being that at least most of the sand will get knocked off out there. I'm pretty sure that we'll never keep all the sand outdoors, but I bet we can come up with a satisfactory way to at least mitigate it.

We've spent this week planting nasturtium seeds, and transplanting pansies and primroses in our garden:

It's been almost peaceful out there since we removed the water play, although there has pretty much always been 2-4 kids out there tending away. Children are still enjoying the coffee bean pea gravel, wallowing in it, scooping it, transporting fists full into Little World, and even "planting" it. The adults are really loving it too. One parent, who I will not name, confessed an urge to roll around in it naked.

I had intended to treat this area mostly as an outdoor block play area this week, saving the introduction of our real tools for at least a week if not longer, but Orlando's mom Valerie was fired up about it, so we spent Wednesday and Thursday hammering away. I was impressed by how focused and careful the children were with the tools. I had anticipated that there would have to be a lot of safety teaching, but they got right to work with very little instruction, as if they intuitively knew that they had to be more careful with tools than with toys. We now have several pieces of wood successfully nailed down to our construction area "floors":

I can see that they're ready for a little more focus to our construction area. I'm going to try to get the kids interested in building some structures for Little World (or to take home) next week. This will probably require the introduction of our saws and paint.

We also learned that one of the most important parts of clean-up will be making sure we get all those stray nails up off the ground.

Little World and the unicycle merry-go-round
These two "old" areas have been neglected this week. A few kids have ridden the merry-go-round, but I don't think I saw a single 3-5 class kid in Little World on Wednesday or Thursday. Some of the Pre-3 kids played in Little World on Friday, but that's it. I'm sure this will change with time and as we introduce more art projects to the area.

I'll bet the decibel level of our outdoor play is half of what it was before the transformation. Everyone has been remarking on it. It's possible that some of our physical changes have altered the acoustics of our enclosed courtyard, but when I look around at what's going on, I see children concentrating on their outdoor play in a way I've never seen before at our school. A hush has fallen over our outdoor play. It will be interesting to see if it lasts.

Our physical transformation has stimulated the creative juices our entire community. Just about every conversation I had with an adult last week was about ideas, insights, correctives and suggestions. I can't count how many twinkly-eyed parents I've spoken to who have said something to the effect of, "I love it!" then followed that up with a brilliant idea for how we can continue to transform ourselves.

I'm eager to discover where this journey takes us.

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Noah said...

Wow Tom - I am so interested in the transformation! It's really, really fascinating to see what the kids are up to, and how you all are responding to it.
I really appreciate how reflective you are of the process.

Deborah Stewart said...

I love that the volume of noise has decreased. It is a good sign that the children are deeply engaged in outdoor play that is creative and requires their attention rather then just being rough and rowdy. Perhaps when teachers complain that their students are too rough, too loud, too destructive in their outdoor free play that the culprit may be the environment itself. I would be inclined now to first ask if they are offering choices that draw children towards creative and innovative outdoor play.

Jason, as himself said...

Y-y-yessss, b-b-but it all looks so c-c-c-cold and w-w-w-wet-t-t.


jenny said...

Looking good Tom :) I like the idea that you look at it as an experiment, because really how could it be anything other than an organic process if it is to meet the needs of the kids and the parents that you have at the centre at any one time? I think you have to be open and flexible in all you do in early childhood for just that reason. My approach is to do loads of reading and thinking and gathering of inspiration as a starting point, but be prepared to make changes and be flexible as you observe how the kids are using the area.

I had grand plans for my fairy garden as you know, but unlike you little worlds, it seems to be fizzling out. Now I've got to stop and think why, and make changes and additions or ditch it all together for a while. It makes life interesting!

I'm a bit in love with your tinkering area and will be watching with interest to see what happens there. I'm already picturing how we could have one at preschool.

Thanks for keeping us all up to date with what is happening - its SO interesting.

Scott said...

I'm enjoying the journey, too. If nothing else, my curiosity and creativity are getting piqued.

Unknown said...

twinkly eyed parents!
I love that : )

Children laughing and giggling is one of my favorite sounds. I love when they are concentrating and hushed as well. Sweet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
As you know I've been following this transformation with lots of interest! I was talking with my friend who lives in the UK, she has recently been to a forest school to observe - I know how interested you are in this. So she has emailed me a few photographs and I will forward them to you later this evening when I have more time. My classroom assistants are coming for lunch (I'm still on maternity leave.) Speak soon!

Anonymous said...

I have discovered with sand play it is helpful to have a clean-up station near the sandbox. I use an empty distilled water jug that I have cut a hole in the top of to refill the jug with water from the sink. The jug has a spout that you pull to let water run out. I place a catch basin (a tub from the hospital works well - 2 stacked together works even better as you leave one behind while you remove the full one to empty it - use a green soap & you can water plants with the dirty water caught in the basin). I also keep a small dustpan & hand broom to brush off clothing with. Shoes are emptied of sand & carefully shaken into the sandbox. I keep a couple old towels to stand on while cleaning feet & shoes. The kids love the independence of being able to broom each other off before going inside & being able to wash their hands outside after sandplay. The dirty water can even be dumped back into the sandbox as there will be a lot of sand left behind & it keeps moisture in your sandbox. If you allow barefeet &/or sandals it is easy to wash feet & sandals in the basin to remove even more sand before going inside. I have used this for years with my children, my preschool children & my grandchildren.