Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Other Side Of The Coin

I often boast about the fact that most of the children in our 3-5 class have been coming to the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools for 2-3 years (or more if you include their years of dropping off older siblings), and how that deep familiarity with one another, the environment, our routines, rules and expectations, not to mention the teacher, leads to a level of continuity and confidence that's hard to come by in other preschool settings.

We've been seeing the other side of that coin lately when it comes to our outdoor play -- at least that's the theory I'm working on. It's been almost a month now since we dramatically overhauled our playground, taking our functional, but fairly spartan space where we did the best we could, and turning it into a genuine outdoor classroom. Not only did we change the physical space, but we've also implemented a new schedule that puts us outdoors for twice as long as before and a new outdoor curriculum that creates more focus and variety at our various "stations."

I've been frustrated, however, about the lack of real engagement with our new construction/tinkering area. Certainly, there has been some interest in hammering nails and sawing wood, and Katherine did build us a house for Little World . . .

. . . and she and Anjali have worked hard on creating their own rubber band boards . . .

. . . and our "project shelves" are starting to fill up with what I hope are the beginnings of longer term projects . .  .

. . . but there has been very little of the sort of free form construction-type experimentation that I'd expected to come from an area full of blocks, wood scrapes, lumber, pipes, window screens, picture frames and pallets. In fact, most of that stuff has sat undisturbed. I've tried moving items around in an effort to make them more attractive, but nothing was happening unless it was presented by an adult on the pink work bench. My research has lead me to understand that children will "know" what to do with this stuff. I was under the impression that if we make these kinds of "loose parts" available, they will find creative and cooperative ways to incorporate it into their play. I've told the working parents that it's perfectly fine for the kids to drag parts from this area into the sand pit, Little World or the garden if they so chose -- I've even upon occasion made a big show of moving parts from place-to-place myself, hoping to role model the behavior. But there it has all sat, getting wet and dry as the weather dictated, contributing nothing to our play.

As I was tidying up alone last week after our Pre-3 class, I noticed that one of our fabric shelf covers had fallen off. It happens from time to time given that they're just held on by small strips of velcro. It was gratifying to me that even though that shelf was stocked with very attractive toys, our 2's and young 3's had known enough about how our classroom operates to leave them alone. We usually spend the first several months of school telling them that the curtains indicate that the shelf is "closed," and redirecting them to the toys that are "open," and by now they all understand the concept. In fact, the main reason I was surprised that the shelf was still exposed was that usually one of the children takes responsibility for closing it without being told -- there are often fights over who gets to do it!

But that's when it hit me: maybe our comfortable, confident, well-taught kids are carrying this piece of education with them outdoors. Maybe they just don't know that the loose parts are open. 

Yesterday, I stored the glamorous hammers, saws and nails away, and told Josephine's mom Eva (our construction/tinkering parent) and Max's mom Callie (our sand pit parent) that their job was to play with the loose parts, to build stuff, and to generally demonstrate to the children that the "shelves" were not "closed." They started by leaning several boards against the wall in our sand pit and covering it in some of our burlap bags to create a "lean to." Eva even crawled inside and "took a nap." A few children tentatively tried it out and Lachlan got an earful of sand when he decided that he wanted to take a nap.

Eva then got busy using some of our outdoor blocks to build a structure on one of the pallets, narrating her actions for anyone within hearing. Soon she had Luna engaged with her and they built a fairly impressive "house." Several other kids came by to investigate and even got inside to try it out. Luna said she wanted a roof, but was disappointed to find that none of the blocks were long enough. Right there beside us was a stack of old fencing planks that would have done the job, not to mention any number of other bits and pieces that could have served the purpose, but, I'm theorizing, in her mind they were "closed."

I showed her they were "open" by grabbing an old window screen, saying, "This will work." As we tried to position it, I actually heard several children saying, "No it won't." Luna and I got it in place and I said, "Yes it will." That's when I made myself scarce, hoping that the ball was rolling. They wound up working together to create a horse stable.

That wooden rocking horse is heavy. It took several kids
to drag it across the playground and onto the pallet.

They wound up using another window screen, several pieces
of lumber/scrap wood, a bucket of sand, and a strip of fabric
from Little World.

Yay! It took a lot of adult help to overcome those lessons learned during the preceding 2-3 years. It's probably going to take a lot more. We left this structure standing at the end of the day, along with the sand pit lean-to. Hopefully, their existence will spark even more loose part play.

I think we're on the right track. We're going to have to do a little un-teaching. As Callie said to me, "This is how I grew up -- with all kinds of junk around to play with outside. We all have such small and tidy yards now that I don't think any of these kids have ever had this kind of experience."

There's always another side of the coin.

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Michelle said...

Ah yes, sometimes we are to good at our job :) When I took some of our indoor toys outside, it took the kids about 2 weeks to really start playing with them. I forgot to explain my reason for taking things outside and they only had their past knowledge to go with. I am glad your Tinkering area is getting used more... it is a wonderful addition to their day!!

Unknown said...

That is so interesting. I wonder what will happen.

kristin said...

oh, i love this.

your dedication to letting the children lead continues to boost my spirit.

what a fabulous structure.

way to go, all.