Sunday, July 31, 2011

Making It Their Own

Shortly after we'd undertaken to build our new outdoor classroom, Pastor Judy of the Fremont Baptist Church, whose office overlooks the space, told me, "Ever since you started doing all this, there have been a lot more birds out here."

We'd all noticed the "wildlife," at least in contrast to our previous space. It's mostly crows and squirrels, of course, but also some stellar jays, sparrows, and robins as well, not to mention an abundance of insects, like the large black ants that swarm across the ground. Maybe not the best place for a picnic, but perfect for curious young minds and fingers.

Not so much for our attempts at gardening, however. Ultimately, we intend for our garden to be located on the other side of the church, but for the summer Jody's mom Jennifer built us a set of raised beds from lumber she salvaged from the old place.

The garden itself, comprised of transplants installed by Jen, has grown quite well, but every time we try to plant our own seeds, the critters have treated them like a buffet. This has been more a problem for me than the kids given that the transient comings and goings of our summer enrollment means that most of the children haven't been around long enough to witness the results of the "patient art" of gardening. Yes, we've enjoyed harvesting a few snap peas, gnawing on spinach leaves, and observing the emergence of our broccoli and strawberries. We've also investigated lady bugs purchased from Swanson's Nursery and tossed handfuls of quick sprouting lentils and wheat berries into the worm bin on Thursdays, then opening it the following week to witness the magic of green sprouts which we then turn into worm food. So, it's not as if the garden has been fallow ground, but still I had the idea that we should try to do something about the varmints, which was my first mistake.

I thought a scarecrow would be a fun project, even if it didn't intimidate the crows. After all, we'd made one at the old place and it had turned out to be a creative construction project for a day. What I'd forgotten about that previous scarecrow is that the idea for it had emerged from the children, not from Teacher Tom.

I also decided that we could employ the bamboo cane and zip tie construction technique we'd so successfully explored last Fall, not remembering that we had explored those materials for several days before we were up to launching into an actual project.

In other words, it was an adult-generated project, using a construction technique for which most of the kids weren't sufficiently experienced, which explains why our parent-teacher at the workbench that day (Malaika and Liam's mom Phillipa) had to work so hard to get the kids involved. Typically, when that happens, I leave the instruction to just get going and make room for the kids to pitch in where they will and can. Phillipa worked hard to lure the kids in, but I think she did most of the construction work herself, including dressing the framework she'd built, although the kids took an interest in decorating the styrofoam head I'd made available for the purpose, then proceeded to apply paint to the straw hat and pants in a last minute flurry of finally claiming a bit of ownership.

The board and tangle of string leaned there against the scarecrow's leg
was a subsequent addition, that will have to be explained in a future post.

Building the scarecrow wasn't a complete disaster, after all, but also not one of those great moments in preschool history, which is kind of the story of much of what transpires in a play-based classroom. Still, we built a scarecrow, the kids had a certain amount of fun making it, and those that participated seem to feel at least a small degree of ownership, even if it's only that they know the story of how it got there.

A far more enduring a legacy of this project has been the introduction of those bamboo canes to the outdoor classroom. They're the type of cane sold for staking things up in the garden, the same ones that were the perfect size and weight for our spear throwing experiments.

I've been doing this long enough to know that in a place that hosts 2-year-olds, it can be rather hazardous to have lots of long, pointy sticks laying about. It seems that their favorite thing to do with them is to wave them around in other people's faces, especially near the eyes. This doesn't mean that we forbid such objects, but during the normal school year, when the same kids are coming week after week, we have the opportunity to teach them how to respect long, pointy sticks; how to carry and use them safely in their play. It's a teaching process that typically requires many days, a luxury we don't have in the summer.

As Phillipa and a small gaggle of kids worked on the scarecrow, many of the remaining bamboo canes were commandeered for other purposes, like fishing poles and wands, but most often, I'm afraid, swords. I did not take the canes from children, although I did quite often find myself "taking hold" of them as we talked through the potential hazards of using them this way versus that way. After all, the children were finding a way to make the adult-generated project their own and it's my job, in a play-based curriculum, to make it possible for them to do that without hurting themselves or their friends. That's not to say that when I found a cane abandoned on the ground, I didn't gather it up and return it to the workbench, but at the end of the day, there were canes scattered across the space.

When the children were gone for the day, I did my best to collect the canes, stashing them back into our storage area where I told myself they would remain until the start of the regular school year when they could be introduced in a more controlled manner.

The problem with these canes, however, is that they camouflage themselves very nicely against our wood chip covered ground, as well as amongst the like-sized lilac stems, so over the course of the next few days, the bamboo canes turned up here and there. I would thank the kids for finding them, wait until they dropped them on the ground, then discretely put them away.

Ah, but unbeknownst to me, I was not the only one on this mission. Last week, more than a week after our scarecrow project, I poked my nose into one of the the lilac forts as I prepared for our day, and what did I discover?

That's right, a stash of at least a dozen bamboo canes, hidden away like treasures in the one place the adults rarely go. I'd seen no evidence of them for several days, concluding I'd gathered them all up. It was a secret, I suspect, the older children were keeping amongst themselves, one they were keeping even from the younger kids because otherwise they would have been waving them about in people's faces, drawing attention from the adults.

I chose to leave them where I'd found them. Over the course of the day, I spied one or two in the hands of a few of the older boys, furtively, evident for a moment, then taken back into hiding. I'm sure they were swords because the game of the day was pirates.

The children still don't care that the squirrels and crows are eating our seeds and they are only mildly interested in the scarecrow, but indeed, as they so often do, they got the adult out of the way so they could make my stupid scarecrow project their own. Now my job is to try to keep up.

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Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Interesting dilemmas here that give me pause for thought...

1) What do the children think about the wildlife raiding their gardens? It sounds to me like the raised beds were adult led too, so perhaps the children don't feel the same level of ownership ... yet. I say "yet" as I don't think you've really had time to bed down outside and I'm sure in due course the raised beds will be of more interest and ways of protecting crops too

2) When it comes to gardening, there is nothing like a bit of foraging food to get children interested in crop protection. Perhaps planting food children want to eat will help...Sorry I know you know this. I'm just thinking aloud.

3) My favourite are garden areas that are dens too. By creating a high-rise net - thereby protecting crops from wildlife raids by birds and mammals, it also makes the garden much more of a play space. This brings in the fun of constructing the net den too.

4) Have a look at the areas outwith your outdoor space which are the wildlife corridors. For example where are most wildlife entering and leaving your outdoor space. This is where you beef up the plants, log piles and other animals homes and food sources. I reckon every outdoor space needs a pond too... this adds a lot of wildlife value.

5) Wildlife that becomes a menace is also fun to deal with, contrary to popular opinion. I've organised "Operation Cat Watch" and created deer unfriendly gardens in the past, amongst other measures. Birds are frightened of dead birds of the same species so if gulls are a problem then periodically holding up a cardboard fake dead gull gives them a good fright, as does placing fake food such as shells around the place. Sonic repellants are also effective in some situations, but not all.

6) Are you finding that children prefer the bamboo canes to real sticks? I've never experimented here so wondered if you'd noticed.

Best wishes and thanks again

Siobhan said...

There are a lot of things I like about this post, but I will limit myself to commenting on this:
It is a great relief to know that you can still get it wrong. I spend a lot of my time as a teacher being myself up for not doing it better. Recently, as I have been doing a lot of reading about inspiring things other teachers have done, I have also felt my own confidence ebbing away. Beautifully framed photos and well-told stories of other people's best moments can look so intimidating, and make my own day to day efforts look a bit pathetic.
So it is nice to be reminded that, even for a someone as famous as you, there is a continuous process of learning, and relearning and self-criticism and admitting to mistakes. And that not everything is inspirational and well-judged.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - well done with the reflection on how "your" great scarecrow idea did not quite translate as important to the children. That's a rarity for you. I think I would choose the bamboo for my pirate game, as well :) cheers to a new day, less crows, and super cool top secret bamboo adventures.