Thursday, April 07, 2011

Not Better, Just Different

"Together we're a genius." ~Six Feet Under

The kids in our Pre-3 class emptied the "big block" box.

Until this year, the big block box has been kept in the hallway in a dead corner that seemed specially designed for mere storage. For eight years, the most reliable ways to get all (okay, most) of the kids working together on anything was when it was time to put those big blocks away. They paraded into the hallway carrying those blocks, through the bottle neck of a doorway and up two stairs to where I stood playing the Tetris game of getting them fitting them into the box as fast as they brought them, singing the song of what I saw happening:

Sophia is bringing a big block

Jack has a medium block on top of his head

Nia and Jane are working together . . .

Nearly all of the kids took part, crying sometimes if they missed their chance by being in the bathroom or helping out elsewhere. It was a challenge, navigating all those bodies and unwieldy blocks, not getting hurt, not getting stuck, not hurting someone else, balancing a block on your head, or figuring out how six kids could carry a single block.

A couple years ago I floated the idea of moving the big block box into the classroom, adjacent to where we actually play with them, but a small group of parents revolted, one of them saying, "Taking the blocks into the hallway is the best part of the school!" a comment I took as a compliment. But this year, for various reasons, it just made too much sense to move the blocks, which I managed by simply not saying anything about it in advance. The Tetris game has moved to a much faster level now, and I miss the team project of hauling those blocks into the hallway, but overall it's better this way.

And after all, we now have a new project: emptying the box in order to make a tippy, slidey, precarious monstrosity of a structure, which took all of about 15 minutes to create. Okay, so now what will we do?

Play in the box, of course. They "played a story" together, these three girls, one that involved pointing in different directions. I kept my distance, not wanting my lumbering adult presence to in any way affect what they were doing, but that also meant I couldn't quite make out what they were saying. They pointed at the ceiling, then they pointed at the wall.

When they pointed at the carpet I knew what was coming, but somehow also knew there was even greater danger in my stepping in with warnings and admonishments. This was play in full swing, at it's highest level, two and three year olds in a cooperative, imaginative game intertwining all three genius minds. They could have been building a rocket or creating a vaccine or some other thing the world really needs.

It's the kind of thing that happens sometimes, when you're really focused and still learning about the forces of nature, like gravity. Several grown-ups rushed over, worried that they hadn't been paying close attention. They thought Teacher Tom was watching, I suppose, and he was. He was watching the girls learn about playing in that empty block box.

Once the adults had returned it to its upright position, they got back in, this times joined by one more friend who had been attracted by the dramatic upsetting of the cart, not asking, just joining the way master players do.

This time when they looked at the carpet, they didn't lean quite so far. 

They spotted a "spider web" in the dark crack between the box and the wall, pointing, then putting their heads together to peer into that dark space, "Spider web! Spider web!"

I asked, "Should we move the box away from the wall so you can see it better?" Like a super-being operated by a hive mind, they clambered out again, while I pulled the box away from the wall. It's on casters to make it easy to move. They were not disappointed when it turned out to be a false alarm because now they knew something new about the big block box: it was on wheels.

Another friend joined them, climbing inside with the long plank he was too proud to be able to carry all on his own to leave behind.

They could move him around if they worked together. Getting those casters over the edge of the rug and around the discarded costume was challenging, but together they managed it.

There wasn't a lot of room to maneuver, however, so I suggested, "Maybe you could spin him." There were several frustrating moments as the girls worked at cross-purposes, their faces showed it with furrowed brows and tight lips. I thought for a moment that maybe they had given up together, but then suddenly it clicked and they all got going in the same direction. They spun him one, two, three times.

Then, without any apparent reason, they went their merry ways and I returned the big block box back to its new, not better, just different home right here next to where we play.

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Play for Life said...

But just think of all the fun the 4 girls AND the boy would have missed out on if the box was up the steps out in the hallway? You can move it back out there another time.
Donna :) :)

Barbara Zaborowski said...

There's no reason it couldn't move every year.

Jeanne Zuech said...

The container of something is often the best source of play, of course :) Fabulous photos of the 2/3 year olds cooperative, invented play AND your role to not intervene when potentially tipping over...(even though other adults rushed to the rescue). Your posts are always humorous and thought-provoking - thanks for helping me think about making changes in my classroom that may change how children think, invent and play!

Kierna C said...

I laughed so much when I read this...because for the past 4 years we have had a rule (why I don't know) that no one could get into the block box. But this year I decided why not & the children have been having so much fun, it's been a boat, a car, a bed etc. & yes they have tipped out of it, but have climbed straight back in. So thanks for sharing.

Noah said...

ohhhhhhhh - Tom, I've been away too long. It feels like a cross between a warm bath in a magical bathtub and flying through fireworks to come visit and listen to the great stuff you're writing about.
School has been busy, and it's like a balm to come and hear about the master players you've been hanging out with.
Amazing the things that happen when we slow down and give people room.

Chapter Forty said...

I felt the disappointment of there not being a spider web and the joy of discovering wheels.
Now I've had a good play.
Thank you

Different not wrong is something my 7 y.o. is learning about people. He's teaching me a great deal.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I was pleased that you allowed the children to play in the box, and as well allowed them to tip the box over. Where I work, I think we are overly concerned with "safety", depriving the kids from learning naturally. I am learning from you that kids can learn and have a certain amount of natural safety mechanisms, as in the post about the ladder.
Why not allow them in the box, or to stand on chairs, or tables as part of their play?
Thanks Tom.

Anonymous said...

in defense of those parents that were "worried that teacher tom was watching": i was letting it go (multi-tasking while learning the potential benefits of taxing incomes in washington state), watching what was happening and actually responded because i thought maybe it wasn't OK with you to let it topple over. now that i know we are on the same page, i'll not rush over again! :) i try not to be a worry-wart about the way my kids play, while still making sure that they don't break an arm or someone else's. thankfully, this co-op let's my kids do all kinds of neat things, akin to this that i read in the NY times a few weeks ago:
thanks, teacher tom!