Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Will They Build?

I suppose I should start by explaining why it appears we are working with tombstones. My daughter's birthday falls the day before Halloween and we've often celebrated with a big party including all her classmates. A couple years ago I filled the lawn with tombstones for each of our guests, which they were to take home as party favors. Several were left behind.

The point is that they are painted wood which makes them perfect targets for our vibrating hand sander. We've found that sanding is far more interesting when progress can be judged both visually and tactiley. 

This is a seriously cool power tool for even the youngest children.

An adult can help keep this tool under control by holding 
the cord when less experienced users are starting out.

Two-year-old Henry didn't mind putting on the safety glasses, but he didn't want to keep them on. Every time I handed the sander to him, he would remove the glasses. I would then withdraw the sander and help him put on his glasses, saying, "You have to wear these to use the sander." I would then hand him the sander again, only to have him again remove his glasses. We went around like this for quite some time before his desire to use the sander finally overcame his desire to remove the glasses. 

The older kids didn't need such a hands-on approach and even took on some of the other important aspects of sanding, like proper clamping.

Unlike some of the 2-year-olds, the older kids have now accepted safety goggles in the same spirit in which they wear their bicycle helmets and seat belts -- as a matter of course.

Meanwhile, we used my jigsaw to cut wood rounds, that we are then drilling to make into beads. Several of the older children took a crack at it, but Georgia was the only 2-year-old to summon up the courage to try this noisy tool. She successfully cut a half dozen beads, growing more confident with each pass of the saw. I didn't get pictures because, naturally, I had my hand firmly on this tool the whole time, no matter what the child's age.

In spite of the drama of the power tools, however, as we settled in yesterday we did a lot more drilling than sanding or sawing, using our egg beater style drills.

And again, even our youngest students were successful.

Some of us need to stand on milk crates in order
to properly leverage the tool.

She insisted on wearing her safety glasses upside down.

Here a 6-year-old is teaching a 2-year-old.

There is no doubt that the level of competence with tools, both among the children as well as the adults who are teaching them, has soared since we first introduced them on a daily basis back in March. I think we all felt a mild sense of panic back then when we saw young children, for the first time, holding hammers and saws. Now that it's an every day occurrence, now that both the children and adults have gained experience, now that we've gotten over our prejudices about what children are capable of doing, now that some of the basics of safety and technique have become internalized, a measure of calm and concentration has come to characterize our construction/tinkering area. 

When we set out on this course, I tended to think of this area as an outdoor iteration of our indoor block area, but the play here (if you can even call it play) has a much different character than traditional block play, at least as I've usually encountered it at Woodland Park. There are always some block players, of course, who demonstrate an intense sense of purpose, but around the work bench this is the rule more than the exception. And, of course, there is none of the build-it-up-and-knock-it-down circular play here. Very few of the children come charging up to the work bench willy nilly the way they often do indoors, but instead tend to approach with a cautious reading of the situation, nearly all of them taking at least a few moments to observe before diving in. 

We aren't creating a lot of "finished projects" at the work bench, the way we do at the block area or art table. There are few moments to make possessive declarations about nouns like, "This is my castle" or "This is my bird painting." It's much more about verbs: "I hammered that nail" or "I cut the wood." It is, so far, more a place to practice skills. I'll be interested to see how this changes as children gain experience with the capability of our tools, especially those starting out so young and who will graduate with 3 full years of practice under their belts. I know that once I've become confident using a new tool, I find myself looking for projects that require my new skills -- projects like cutting out 50+ tombstones.

When Charlotte and Georgia and Henry and Suriya are 5, what will they build? I really want to know. The mind reels.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Garden, Tree Blocks, And Metal Working Updates

I've written before about how Woodland Park's entire summer program is a great experiment in three parts. We are exploring the idea of running an indoor-outdoor program in our current urban location, testing the limits of class-size in a cooperative preschool, and for the first time expanding our age range from 3-5 to 2-6.

I already have a number of observations and theories on all 3 fronts, but I'll save those for later. At the same time, however, there are a number of smaller experiments within the experiment that deserve updating.

The Garden
When we re-designed our outside space in March, converting it from a rather meager playground into a real outdoor classroom, one of the aspects upon which many of us pinned the most doubt was the feasibility of a functioning garden. For one thing the area we called "the garden" had largely been used for digging and mud play up to this point and even though we'd provided a new sand pit at the extreme opposite end of our courtyard for these purposes, many of us wondered if the children would allow us to make the shift.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about how we were crossing our fingers and knocking on wood, but so far so good. We've already harvested a feast of radishes, and we're now starting to see success with some of our other "crops." Our green beans are looking delicious.

Our burlap-sack potatoes are starting to show themselves above the soil.

Our cauliflower is getting chewed up by something, but our red cabbage is thriving.

As is our celery, which seems entirely immune from the pests in our garden.

We have a little bit of lettuce.

And our snap peas are mighty and blooming.

And we've always had a healthy herb garden (rosemary, lavender, mint, basil) even in the midst of our mud days. Our pumpkin vines seem stunted, however, and we're not seeing much action with our cucumbers or tomatoes, but what we have is very exciting and will help us in planning for next season.

Tree Blocks
I've continued to try to find just the right "marketing mix" for selling the children on our new tree blocks.

I've recently removed our "glitter house" from where it has hung as art for the past couple years and added it to the mix. 

This is an old metal doll-house one of our parents found along the side of the road with a "Free" sign attached to it. Two years ago, the children spent a couple weeks covering it in glue and glitter, adding layer after layer, day after day, even on the inside.

Since then, it has hung on the classroom wall, out of reach of the fingernails that always start picking away at anything covered in glitter. (At one point a few years back, by way of trying to protect our glittery birthday throne from those fingernails, we covered a large piece of wood with a thick layer of glitter for the express purpose of glitter picking. It didn't work. The board now hangs on the wall as well.) Since the beginning of summer Liam has been wanting to play with it, so I relented last week, moving it outside, along with the tree blocks, rocks, bark, moss, and figurines from Little World. I think it's working, attracting waves of intense play and becoming a temporary home for our pet slugs.

I've also moved it all to the dead center of the outdoor classroom, like a bulls eye, and this weekend made a special trip into school for the express purpose of breaking down the "walls" of Little World, doubling the area of this outdoor "play zone." I'm very excited to see how play evolves this week.

And finally . . .

Metal Working
Awhile back I wrote about my excitement in discovering that the metal from aluminum beverage cans was so thin and soft that we could punch through it with these tools designed for paper cutting.

Last time we nailed the resulting shapes to wood. This time we used regulation hole-punches to perforate the centers of our shapes, then strung them together on twine with pony beads to create sun-catchers, which are now hanging beautifully from the eves of our beach hut/castle.

The fact that we've hung them in a shady corner is really beside the point.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Playing In Artopia

On the way to Artopia I walked among these giants for a time. With those long legs, one would have thought they'd far outpace me, but instead I easily passed them, one by one, until our ways diverged.

I overheard them buzzing to one another in their strange electrical language as each stoically bore his share of the half dozen lines on the ends of his half dozen arms, slow-marching them forever, off into the distance.

When I came to the bridge across rapids of metal, I spied a playground below me full of things to ride and climb, and around which I felt a strong urge to explore.

It looked like it would be a good place to get grime under my fingernails. But where had all the children gone?

In the other direction, there was a checkerboard airport.

The people who live around here have their lives punctuated by the thrill of jets swooping so low over their rooftops that it seems you could touch their fuselages with a hand just by standing on tippy-toes. The roar is so loud you lean into it, like one does a strong wind.

Upon crossing the bridge I finally found people like me, playing. They were racing modified power tools, exploring industrial spaces made surreal with strange artifacts, taking the world apart with words only to put it back together in new ways, and dragging handsaws across sheets of scrap metal and banging empty oil drums. 

I found a machine there. Turning the big wheel activates a series of conveyors and gears, ultimately pumping the giant bellows, which inflates an orange balloon briefly before deflating it again.

All the children wanted to turn the wheel.

Some were cautioned by their adults about pinched fingers.

Sadly, those children stood back, eyeing this now dangerous machine with their hands behind them.

Those who weren't told to worry learned to be unafraid by turning the big wheel themselves and figuring out how it all worked. No one pinched their fingers.

Beside the balloon inflating machine, was a large frame. We took turns festooning this object with black, red and white yarn. It's maker, I think, had other ideas, but we made it our own.

Later, there was an excellent marching band, not marching, but accompanying the fire dancers at 120 beats per minute from a stage.

Without being told what to do, we figured out, on our own, where to sit and stand so that no one caught on fire.

After 5 hours of playing there, I walked back home, in the dark, through a neighborhood of immigrants, and lived to tell about it.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Boat Building

Last week we horsed around with making boats.

Our work bench was set up with craft sticks, corks, bamboo skewers, and glue guns. Off to the side was our magnificent sensory table filled with water for testing purposes.

I had an idea of what boats made from these materials would look like, but apparently I was wrong because no one shared my idea.

Some of our boats were little more than two corks stuck together.

While others were more rigorously engineered (although not necessarily more seaworthy).

This one (in hand) passed the still water test . . .

. . . so we had to try it under "real world" conditions.

"Why didn't it float in the river?"

We theorized that we would have to dig the water channel deeper if our boat was going to float in it, but never got around to testing that theory because digging was apparently a lower priority than continued boat building.

This is second time this summer that we've put hot glue guns into the hands of children as young as 2, and unlike last time several of the children reported getting "burned," mostly by virtue of accidentally touching the glue itself before it had sufficiently cooled. Only one had a visible mark, a small red dot that was forgotten almost the moment it occurred. I'm thinking that the increased number of burns over last time had to do with the smaller materials (craft sticks, skewers, corks) they were using for their constructions. Before, we used larger pieces of wood and there was only one reported burn. Having to concentrate on fine motor skills and the proper management of the glue gun, I think I've learned, is perhaps a little more than the littlest kids can manage. Or rather, they can clearly manage it, but at the higher cost of putting their skin into contact with the hot glue.

At the same time we also continue to learn about the incredible power of building with glue guns. These tools allow young children to bring their ideas into reality in a matter of minutes unlike any other building technique I've come across as a teacher. We can quickly create things, like seaworthy vessels, that would simply be impossible with the standard fare of white glue, tape or staples. The trade-off is that potential for a burn, a minor injury, it seems to me, on par with splinters and stubbed toes. 

As has been the case when working with older children during the school year, not a single tear was shed in spite of the burns. I take that to mean that the children also feel the trade-off is worth it.

(Note: I should mention here that as a cooperative preschool, we have the luxury of assigning two adults to manage the 3 glue guns we had in operation. In fact, I could have easily put a third adult on the task, but two seemed to be sufficient. I love teaching in a co-op.)

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