Sunday, September 19, 2010


On Friday, my friend and former Woodland Park parent Teacher Aaron came by the school. He teaches the North Seattle Fives which is located across the street, and like any good neighbor was dropping by see if we wanted to a share in a bounty of roasted coffee beans to use as a sensory material.

Aaron's daughters attended Woodland Park during the days when our outdoor space was little more than a slab of asphalt, a slide and a very muddy place we called "the garden." So it's only natural that when he visits, our conversation always touches on the transformation to our current outdoor classroom. As he stood looking at the space, he said, "It's like Roxaboxen."

He was the second person to make that connection in a week, and as I stood there with him talking about what we loved most about that incredible book (Aaron's favorite part is that their imaginary cars have speed limits, but if you're riding a stick horse you can go "as fast as the wind"), it struck me that for the first time since I started teaching I had skipped reading Roxaboxen to the kids last year.

I've always read Roxaboxen to the kids. Alice McLerran's celebration of the imagination of childhood has been a staple for me as long as I've taught. It's about the magical town a group of children create using only simple things they've found in a patch of desert like sticks, rocks, crates, bits of glass, and friends, told as a memory, and made alive by the wonderful Barbara Cooney illustrations. I've always started by reading it to my Pre-K kids. After a chance to discuss the book, I would then unveil our magnificent sensory table and the makings of our own mini-Roxaboxen: sand, sticks, rocks, beach glass and small rectangles of wood (in place of the crates).

It was a ton of fun working with the children as they made houses, outlined roads, collected "jewels" and, unconsciously imitated the children in the story. It wasn't the same, of course. Roxaboxen isn't a place that was created in a day or a week, but rather over the course of a childhood, and without the limits imposed by a sensory table (no matter how magnificent) and the adults hovering overhead, no matter how hand's off we try to be. And, naturally, the real Roxaboxen was outdoors.

As I stood there with Aaron I realized that maybe we hadn't read Roxaboxen last year because we hadn't needed to. Instead we have installed it at our school, almost without realizing what we were doing. As first glance it might look like "any rocky hill," but our outdoor classroom -- with its Little World now spread across the entirety of its landscape, with tools available for putting things together, with "stages" and other venues for acting things out, with paint, and water, and rocks, and sticks plentifully available, with flowers, food, worm, and spiders growing in the garden -- is Roxaboxen for our children. The children who are entering our 3-5 class as 3-year-olds will be the first class to spend 3 full school years in that place. How will they shape it and how will it shape them? Will they come back some day to see the outlines of a place that never existed, yet will live forever?

A few adults have complained that our outdoor classroom looks like a "junkyard," just as I'm sure that a rocky desert hill covered with "nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo," looked to some like a patch of wasteland. But they are wrong. 

As one of our parents wrote in a comment to a post from a couple days ago:
I think of our outdoor space as "The Magic Place." I love that there are so many things for the children to discover and remake there. And, it is totally their space. There is such beauty in a cracked piece of terra cotta stuck into a heap of rope and torn up fabric when you understand that a child actually created that and wanted to leave it for others to find.
Or as McLerran writes:
It (is) a special place: a sparkling world of jeweled homes, streets edged with the whitest stones, and two ice cream shops. Come with us there, where all you need to gallop fast and free is a long stick and a soaring imagination.
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Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

I've never heard of Roxaboxen before. However I will look it up. I'm just really pleased in that your outdoor space developments have been so positive and productive. One of the reason's I'm now an outdoor learning consultant is because I found developing play outdoors so empowering for the children and adults. It just makes the outdoor space a "happening" place and takes the pressure off the indoor area to be everything to everyone, which it can never be.

Best wishes

Barbara Zaborowski said...

"Junk" and "junkyard" are adult constructs. It's not junk to the kids and, after all, that's who it's for.

Unknown said...

I'll have to order Roxaboxen from the library. It's a title I'm unfamiliar with, but I'll take your endorsement. Maybe it will inspire our new class in our own Wee World!

Play for Life said...

I'm with Juliet and Ayn Tom. I've not heard of "Roxaboxen" but I will look it up and take a peek!
As for your outdoor space, it clearly is "The Magic Place" for your children and as Barbara points out it's not about the parents!
Donna :) :)

kristin said...

that has been my favorite book for years. oh, what a wonderful world you've helped create!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I have always enjoyed Barbara Cooney's books but didn't know this one(illustrated by Cooney), so I'll be looking for it. It sounds wonderful.
I agree, that the play of children is magical and empowering, and doesn't always look like I as an adult would have imagined.