Thursday, May 20, 2010

"What if we . . ."

Something exciting has happened this week, I hope, something that I've been awaiting lo these 8 years. I think I might have master builders on my hands.

I've taught lots of kids who like to build, who have building skills, who spend most of their time stacking and balancing blocks, and in the absence of blocks, other things, but I haven't seen true master builders since my daughter Josephine was in preschool. Back then the primary builder's name was Aiden. He and his buddy Cyrus, thick as thieves would dominate the block area, spending their entire indoor free play time using every block to create their boat, fort, city or tower. Aiden was the chief engineer of the projects, concentrating on getting things right, while Cyrus kept up a constant chatter, usually of the dramatic variety, helping occasionally with the building, but mainly using lots of sentences that started with the most important creative phrase in the English language, "What if we . . ."

While Orlando and Max are their own boys, with many qualities beyond their capacity to work together in the block area, I'm seeing something of that same collaborative relationship developing between them.

Last year, as a 2-year-old, I'd noticed that Orlando had a rather singular form of play. Often, especially outside, he loved to gather all moveable objects -- ropes, stick ponies, caution cones, shovels, whatever -- and arrange them in a pile. When the pile had to be dismantled in any way, usually because someone wanted to use one of the objects, he tended to be sanguine about it, adapting to the forced change, usually, by adding yet more items to his pile. I was talking to Orlando's mom Valerie at the end of class one day, quite possibly about this observation. As we finished our conversation on the stairs of the school, Orlando puttered around in the new playground. When we looked up, we found he had systematically leaned every rectangular prism he could budge against a vertical surface. There was a board, block or fence post leaned against every tree, stump, wall or basketball stanchion: all over the outdoor classroom, from the construction site, to the sand pit, to Little World. It was a stunning feat for such a young 3-year-old, an impressive demonstration of concentration and purpose.

I've observed his drive to arrange the objects in his environment countless times over the past 2 years. I suspected that this would ultimately come to fruition in the block area, but I was also imagining what form it might wind up taking at the sensory table or dramatic play areas.

A few months ago, Orlando and Max began to connect in the same kind of thick as thieves way that Aiden and Cyrus once did.

As a 2-year-old, Max had the poise and vocabulary of a much older child with an intellectual curiosity to match. He was a guy who was compelled to share his extensive knowledge about, for instance, dinosaurs, particularly enjoying those moments when he got to correct you on things like pronunciation. He has always known his own mind, once sitting on his knees in a corner, declaring, "I'm just going to sit here. That's all I'm going to do." I thought that sounded like a terrific idea and declared that I was going to just sit there too. And we sat there doing nothing, except talking about just sitting there, for quite some time. By Halloween of this year his interests had taken a sharp turn toward fiction, his conversation full of references to skeletons, ghouls, goblins and monsters. He anticipated his grim reaper costume for weeks, speaking of it with relish. To this day, he most enjoys playing the bad guy, lately posing as the foe of our classroom team of superheroes.

Teachers love having kids like Max in class, ones with the ability to draw other kids together through their authoritative knowledge and dramatic passion. He has been sucking the older kids into his play-vision during the early part of this year and now, as his age-peers have developed their own talents for cooperative play he is often at the center of games involving a half dozen kids of all ages.

When Orlando and Max play alone together, they tend to choose spots that are right on the edge of adult radar: under the loft for instance, or in a nook of Little World. As Orlando collects and arranges objects, Max talks with him, spinning, "What if we . . ." scenarios the two of them playing their talents off of one another like a writer and illustrator or a lyricist and composer.

On Monday they created this amazing structure:

This is as much a narrative of their play together as it is a structure. Others were welcome to join in, most notably Finn P. and Anjali, but the two boys stayed at it for the better part of an hour, reveling in one another's special geniuses, the manifest result being this rather extraordinary thing that I can only call a piece of art. Orlando's hallmark "leaning" building style is evident in this photo, but you would have to listen to Max to "see" the various awful and treacherous places they've created here as well.

I'd begun to wonder what it was about my teaching style that steered kids toward dramatic play at the expense of constructive. I've had dozens of master thespians over the years, and master puzzlers, and master artists, and overall master players as well, but not once have I taught master builders. Could it be that master builders are more rare? Or maybe the skills required for this kind of collaborative play tend to come to kids later than preschool? Or maybe my definition of "master builders" is a poor one?

I could be wrong, of course, this might just be a phase, but I can't help anticipating what it would mean for next year's class to have this team of master builders in its midst. We'll really have, as a community, a strong ability to bring our imaginative concepts into reality on our own. This would have to make our Pre-K play, among other things, something special.

Both boys are returning for one more year at Woodland Park. Whether my guess is right or wrong, I'm really looking forward to seeing how their collaboration evolves.

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Unknown said...

I can't wait to see what happens either. I love what they did yesterday. Genius : )

BarbaraZab said...

Are the blocks some place where they can be left up for days if need be? I found the block play in my room got much more interesting when I moved them to a covered patio outside my room because they didn't need to be put away after free play each day.
My daughter's favorite phrase when she was a preschooler was "Or you know what we could do..."

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

You may be interested to learn more about Froebel's theories on block play...very helpful in many respects in understanding mathematical development, imagination and creativity. Froebel also created "6 gifts" in terms of block play development which might appeal to some of your children.

Alas all the information I have is in paper format. I'll have a look on online though.

Lovely posting. Thanks for sharing.

Best wishes

Juliet Robertson said...

This link doesn't go into detail but I think you would relate to the principles...

Deborah Stewart said...

I am quite interested to hear more about the boys as next year progresses! I loved their buildings and the thoughtfulness of the two boys. You know - my husband is a master builder. He never finished high school but you will not find a more capable, talented, and intelligent builder:)

Anonymous said...

After having my own child I decided to switch careers and become a teacher. I am enter a field I know will be exciting but your enthusiasm pops off the page when you write about your students. You are an encouragement not only to students but also to this soon to be teacher. Thanks for your blog.

S. Krajicek said...


I am in awe of your classroom and can only hope to one day get there in my own -- I teach high school kids. Since becoming a parent, I've decided that high school teachers should spend more time hanging out with early childhood educators to help us really see the kids who come into our lives. You're amazing. Really.

Stephanie Krajicek