Sunday, March 27, 2011

It Seems To Be Working Out Perfectly

One of the ways I've come to use this blog as a teacher is as part of my reflective practice. I take a few photos during the day, sometimes without looking at the viewfinder, then later as I transfer them to my computer, I find myself mulling over the day, reflecting on the things that worked, that didn't work, that I would do differently, that I want to help the children expand upon, or simply that I wish I could preserve in amber for all eternity. Often I notice things in the photos of which I was totally unaware in the moment, a gesture, a relationships, a moment of pure concentration or sheer joy that had gone on behind the backs of the kids upon whom I was focused. It didn't start that way, but as time has gone on, I find that the discipline of posting something here daily, coupled with the reflective time I spend with the photos has made me a more creative, more responsive teacher.

Lately, I've been scrolling through the photos from earlier in the year, last summer, and even back into the previous spring, reminding myself of the story, I guess, of how we've come to where we are over the past year. Last week, I stopped on this photo, for instance, remembering this tangle of ropes and sticks that Orlando had called a "monster trap," and that had, to all of our surprise and delight, actually caught a "monster."

What had become of these ropes? I wondered. For a long time, years in fact, these ropes had been a central part of all of our outdoor play, sometimes creatively, sometimes disruptively, but they'd been something of a constant, ropes being nearly as versatile as sticks. But I couldn't recall having seen much of them lately. Under the assumption that they'd been stored away somewhere, I searched through the likely shelves, cabinets and drawers to no avail. I was about to see if I could set some of the kids on a mission of turning over the sand pit in search of this buried treasure, when I spied them.

They were in a massive knot, hanging from the doorway to what I refer to on this blog as our beach hut, although it's never worn that moniker within the Woodland Park community. Seeing it reminded me that I'd known where the ropes were all along. Not only had my subconscious known that they had been in this predicament for some time, I had photos of it, images captured while observing a game that involved making the hut impenetrable to monsters -- that theme again.

I'd grown blind to it over the intervening months, looking but not seeing the way one does when things don't change often, or only gradually, one tiny thing at a time. If you had asked me two weeks ago if the beach hut was fulfilling my original vision for it, I might have answered, "Not really": the idea having been a "play house" that the children build themselves, over time, as need be, as an extension of their dramatic and constructive play. The discovery of this rope ball sent me back through the photo archives and if you asked me that question this morning, I would answer instead, "It seems to be working out perfectly."

This is where we started last April, a simple floor constructed from a shipping pallet and discarded fencing planks, some 2 X 4's on the corners, some more fencing planks across the top for stability, and burlap bags temporarily serving as roof and walls.

We've nailed bottle caps to it and otherwise decorated it, adding "furniture," even installing a rope and a couple pulleys that remain to this day, although the white basket has long ago worn out. That piece of peg board across the bottom was one of our first additions, involving measuring, sawing and hammering, a project of a day.

Late last spring, one of the guys had the idea of installing a doorway, using an old mirror frame for the purpose.

He didn't need a lot of help, driving nails through the frame without splitting the wood, something I would not have thought possible.

Click on this photo to enlarge it if you're interested in a
close-up look at his masterful hammer work.

One day, we hung an old rope ladder across the top because someone got a bee in her/his bonnet about making "indoor monkey bars."

If you'd asked me then, I might have enthusiastically agreed that the beach hut was taking baby steps along the path toward where I hoped it would one day go, but in reality I was starting to think of it as rather fallow ground, a place of great untapped potential.

But one thing at a time, day-by-day, the hut continued to evolve without my really noticing. A bell was added, a couple of old house screens were nailed up, a few random pieces of wood attached. I tried "fertilizing" this ground that I had mistakenly identified as fallow by doing things like connecting it to the ever-popular sand pit with long pulley system . . .

. . . without even really noticing the three board walkway that already connected the two. I don't even remember that happening. The pulley system is long gone, but those three boards have become a permanent, well-trod feature of the outdoor classroom.

We added a more permanent roof last fall, using some laminated particle board from a dismantled Ikea bookshelf, something driven by the advent of our Pacific Northwest rainy season, without disturbing the indoor monkey bars, which now sometimes serve as a kind of cozy hammock for one or even two children at a time.

Looking back at these pictures, I don't feel like I lost track of the hut at all, but if you'd asked me, I would have answered, "Not really," so slowly and naturally has it evolved.

Somewhere along the line a wobbly shelf was added because someone had the idea of using the hut as a store for selling some of the loose parts they'd collected.

It's a good place to hang out, leaning on it like a window sill, beaming at your friends busy at the work bench.

When I came to these pictures of us painting the hut as part of our Chinese New Year celebration, I was reminded that the roof has now become a new kind of playscape for the kids.

Almost daily now, a child or two climbs our step ladder to add something to the collection of toys up there, to retrieve something they'd stored there, or to splash the water that's standing there from the last rain. A couple kids have climbed up all the way on top while I stand with my hands ready. Off and on, there's been talk of adding a second story, but one of our parents who holds a contractor's license doesn't think our ground floor is strong enough for the weight. We could, however, build a new foundation, he says, and lift our existing structure on top of it . . .

As I was fingering the big knot last week, planning to free the individual ropes for more active play, Max stopped me, "Don't take that down, Teacher Tom."

"Why not? I thought you guys might want to play with these ropes."

"I tied that knot," he answered, a statement that I don't think is factually true -- it looks like the work of Orlando -- but one that I believe has become as true as anything can be over the slow-motion evolution of our beach hut. When we're talking about that kind of time span (20-25 percent of their lives), who can really know what actually happens? And frankly, who really cares? It's what exists now that matters. 

"It's how we lock the door."

Okay. Sounds like it's time for some new ropes, especially if we're going to build any more traps.

Bookmark and Share


kristin said...

i love it.

Scott said...

Your reflections and your teaching make me wish I lived close enough to Seattle to come and find your school. This is preschool at its finest. You're doing an amazing thing, empowering these children with the wide-open nature of your thinking and the opportunities you are providing. It makes me wish for something better for my own daughter, about to turn 3, than the standard run of the mill options where we are. Thank you for sharing your magic with us!

La Casita del Árbol said...

Love the time and thought you put into each blog you write you are a true inspiration for teachers and parents alike…

Anonymous said...

If I was completely free to do anything and live anywhere, I would want to move from Boston to Seattle and work with you at this school. It sounds like heaven and I love to read about what the kids are doing. Very inspiring and joyful.