Friday, May 20, 2011

The River Keeps On Rolling

I keep taking pictures of the river we made. It starts in the corner of our sand pit with the cast iron water pump as its source and runs through the wood chips, incidental sand, florist marbles and small toys that now cover the asphalt.

If you're concerned about literacy atWoodland Park, that's a bust of Shakespeare
lying there along the shores.

I suppose in part it's because creating, augmenting, and maintaining the river is what many of the guys do with their time outside these days. It's been going on for weeks now. Yesterday, as Isak ran for the pump handle, he stopped along the way to remove rocks, sticks and toys that he thought might impede the water's flow, anticipating, planning, engineering.

The new thing they've added is a system of plastic house gutters, diverting the flow through the sand pit in a new direction.

The caution cones, milk crate, and logs, I think, are there to warn others that its an active construction zone, to watch their step, to not monkey with the delicate thing they've created.

Maybe the reason I keep taking pictures is that we've been using our outdoor class room for about a year now and this is exactly the kind of play for which we'd hoped we were designing it. We wanted the children to feel that they had the power to use our work, the adult work, as a mere starting point.

We've had a ton of fun playing out there these past 14 months, but it's only been in the last two that I've really felt the children were shaping it into something new all their own. And I can only come to one conclusion about why it has taken so long and it's because it's taken me this long to learn how to get out of their way.

It's only been since it became clear that we were going to move away from this place that I've dropped my fussing about adult things like keeping the sand and water in the sand pit. With every shovel of sand on the asphalt I found myself fretting about the labor and expense of replacing it, of all the hard work the children's parents had put into making this place. It wasn't a conscious thing exactly, but a knee-jerk reaction, the kind that causes us to make rules and regulations that really don't make sense. 

Knowing that it was all going to go away in a few month's time anyway set me free from all that. My legitimate concern that they not flood the nearby work bench area, which creates a hazard for those trying to concentrate on using hammers and saws, they've taken on in a way they never took on my illegitimate fretting about which side of the tree rounds the sand belonged. When the water over tops the "proper" channels they've created, threatening the ground around the work bench, whatever game that is currently in progress pauses as they rush to fix the breach. They know how to do this and know it's important, unlike keeping the sand in the sand pit, which I see now, and which they've always seen, is unimportant.

It's a lesson I hope to carry forward into our new, much larger outdoor classroom, where I'm sure I'll have to re-learn it again as I always do.

During the last few days, the kids have been working on getting the water to flow not just to the end of the wood chipped area, but beyond.

While someone stays behind to pump, the rest of them have worked to get the water "all the way to the gate." At first they'd hoped to get it to go over the 4X4 beam that marks the line between the wood chips and the bare asphalt, but realized that they would never be able to create the water volume to do that.

The work then, has been about getting the water to flow under the beam. Using their shovels, sticks, and whatever else comes to hand, they've dug out the debris as best they can, then used a long shovel as a lever to lift the beam slightly off the ground.

As long as they've maintained this, the water keeps flowing, spreading into a delta on the asphalt, but the slope from there to the gate is inevitable, and for the past few days, the water's found it's way under the gate and down the sidewalk.

Time and again the lesson I keep learning from the children is to get out of their way, to let them play.

It took me a year to learn that lesson about the outdoor classroom and now we're moving away. In a few day's time this will all be asphalt again as the adults shovel it into the backs of pick-up trucks to haul away. I'm hoping that most of it will just come to the new outdoor classroom where we can use it to create the foundation of some small, grassy hillocks I want to create out there. But even if it doesn't make it down the hill and all the way to the center of the universe, I know the lessons we learned here will.

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Buddy said...

Looks like streaming stream streamers to me.
Cheers and careers, Buddy Foley

Buddy said...

Reminds me to renew my fishing license.

Juliet Robertson said...

I agree about our adult rules. I spent a wasted few minutes this afternoon trying to persuade a child of the benefits to keeping the soil in the digging pit or at least using the shovel to move the soil he keeps scattering back into the digging pit. The school janitor was also muttering about the need for a power hose in the nursery too. Ho hum!

The Coombes School had a fab children's project a couple of years ago where the kids built a massive canal all through the asphalt play grounds. It got in the way of everything but somehow that's part of the process.

In fact I think I might amalgamate all my guttering and ensure a P6 class with additional needs to "go for it" on the water front.

Thanks for another wonderful post.

Play for Life said...

Like you Tom it took me and Sherry a long time to relax about sand being kept in the sandpit and tanbark being kept out of it. And like your children once we relaxed about it their play took on a whole new meaning. Sometimes it can be hard for teachers and parents to remember that preschool isn't actually about them ... it's about the children.
Donna :) :)

FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist said...

Thanks for this post, and for the others about the transformation of your outdoor space.

I don't run a preschool but I have a 2 year old and a tiny backyard...entirely paved or decked (at least most of the surfaces are wood). I've searched the internet for ways to make it an effective play area. Your blog is the only place I've found ideas that inspire me.

Now, if I can just get hubby to agree to woodchip the patio...

Frances said...

hmm how come you don't have the kids shovel it out too? just curious, we always refill our sandpits on session, with many many helpers

Amber Greene said...

You know, in 2007 we moved into our beautiful new kindergarten rooms, beautiful they were, but the outside area was too pristine and fresh new grass and no dirt patches and lacked trees as it was all built upon land that had been built up with fill due to requirements. It was so hot in those first few weeks of school that we couldn't play outside at all, so we took the children back up to our old yard, by now overgrown with weeds and grassless and just full of dirt and stones and rocks with no playground equipment at all as we had transported it to the new one. BUT the children engaged in play here with gusto!!! Digging for crystals, cooking, stirring pots, making 'fires', shops, water cascades, rivers... you name it. To the day I left, we never saw such rich play in the new one, even after it became a little bit more roughed up and lived in. All you need is a place where they CAN play out whatever lives in their imagination, don't you think? I think the more dirt and less 'defined' space the better!

Anonymous said...

Tom, love your work, but can you please check the picture quote...
"If your (sic) concerned about literacy" - unless you're being ironic?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anon . . . Erk! I noticed that mistake yesterday and forgot to fix it. Thanks!