Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Magical Ability To Become Something Else

Yesterday Sadie's grandma sent in several hundred tiny plastic spoons along with the question, "Can you use these?"

The answer is, "Yes." It's always "yes." If you have "a lot" of anything, we can probably figure out a way to use them (with a notable exception of 200 patent leather, child-sized costume belts, which we finally threw out). It's part of the way we're able to provide the experiences we do on a monthly curriculum supplies budget of less than $150 for 40+ students. 

I've often written here about my own bag lady tendency, a trait shared by many in the preschool teaching sisterhood. In an era in which our elected representatives consistently choose tax advantages to corporations over funding for education, this has become a matter of survival for early childhood programs that depend on governmental support. And even those of us who rely on tuition are feeling the pinch, as families are increasingly struggling to pay our already low fee. 

But it's not economic reasons alone, nor even primarily, that leads us to scavenge and beg for supplies. My own comfortable middle class childhood was full of popsicle stick "log cabins," egg carton green houses, and wooden thread spool vehicles. The art/craft supplies of my childhood were bread bag twist ties and clothes pins and pine cones collected in the backyard. We could have afforded to buy kits (if they even existed back then) and brand spanking new art supplies, but there is great power and even magic in the process of imagining that one useful thing could, in fact, be transformed into another. Re-purposed materials, in a way that purpose-built materials never can, force the brain to take these kinds of creative leaps. It's a habit of mind that can transform the world.

Indeed, these items are better, from a pedagogical point of view, than anything one purchases from a catalogue.

I will admit that we own a stash of "craft sticks" that look every bit the same as those popsicle sticks we used to use. But, I still collect the actual article to add to our collection, if only so I can continue to refer to them as "popsicle sticks," hoping to remind the children that (at least some of them) were once something else. I've not yet been able to make myself purchase those wooden clothes pins or thread spools that they now manufacture specifically for craft uses, things that pretend to have once been something else, but never were.

This is why I was so excited earlier this week when one of the men from a 12-step meeting that convenes just after our class in one of the upstairs rooms of the building we share told me he had "a lot" of cigar boxes. "Can you use them?"

Are you kidding me? The cigar box is a classic. Although I knew no one who smoked the things as a boy, those sturdy, wooden containers were ever-present in my play, containing my most valuable possessions.

This donation was particularly touching to me given that there has been some friction between our two groups over parking lot usage and I saw this as a peace offering. 

I introduced the boxes during our Pre-K class this week, simply pulling them out for the children to examine. As we opened them, the pungency of tobacco filled the room, mingling with the already almost overwhelming fragrance of roasted coffee beans we have in our sensory table this week. (One parent quipped, "Coffee and tobacco, why not? We already have beer bottle caps and wine corks all over the playground.) My brain flashed on memories of being in the bleachers at high school football games, where there were always old men enjoying their stogies. It took the kids a few moments to warm up to them, flipping them open and closed, pulling at the paper and ribbon packaging that had been left behind inside.

Then Sylvia pointed out that one of the boxes was her favorite because it had a picture of "Hawaii" on it. She then proceeded to start making a "box collection," lining some of them up on the rug. Sena suggested we could make jewelry boxes from them, ones with little dancing ballerinas inside. Violet discovered a piece of vellum inside one box that was imprinted with a very detailed scene of spiders in their webs. We decided to hang that up on the wall as a Halloween decoration. Jody showed us that several of the boxes, the nicer ones, had "clasps," and demonstrated how to make them work. He also felt they would make good containers for keeping marbles. Sasha, Sadie and I got busy using them to build a "castle."

It was not a planned part of the curriculum on Tuesday, and I felt we needed to move on, but I suspect we could have continued playing with those boxes for much, much longer. And, of course, we will, as these boxes, along with all those little plastic spoons, possessing the magical ability to become something else, will be ever-present at Woodland Park for years to come.

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kristin @ preschool daze said...

you must be living right to score a load of cigar boxes!!!

yee haw!

harmonyathome said...

Absolutely awesome. I love reading your blog. If only the world was full of teachers like you. If only I'd had a teacher like you! I think I would have become truly spectacular without the internal battle of inadequacy that was kindly gifted by my hard line authoritarian teachers.

Jen said...

My dad smoked cigars when I was growing up and the boxes were used for all sorts of things by my brother and I. The old tubes (don't know if cigars come in those plastic tubes these days) were collected and used for a very special treasure hunt on the beach every summer. My friends dad would write the clues and put them in the tubes and bury them all over the beach. The final treasure was put into a cigar box for us to find. I have such fond memories and can smell that cigar box smell so clearly! What a great score for your kids!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

You've hit the nail on the head here, Tom - recycling objects and materials is a grand ECE tradition!
It is often necessary, and as well inventive.

Sorry to hear about the corks and caps in your play area.
At the center where I work, (we are near a designated smoking area at a university) we have countless cigarette butts in our children's play areas. This is cause for concern, and much discussion, but we don't seem to be able to do anything about it.


Teacher Tom said...

Actually, the corks and caps are intentional! Parents bring them in and we play with them. The caps are great for hammer nails through, and there are all kinds of wonderful uses for corks.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Ahh-I see, well good, that does sound like an interesting way to recycle these. So, they're not garbage, as in our cigarette butts.

Casberg said...

I have to tell you how pleased I am to run across your blog! I'm a stay-at-home mom of two, in a country where are all these trinkets listed in many blogs are unavailable. There are no Michael's, JoAnns, Dollar Trees, or even Wal-marts where I live. Trying to find interesting and engaging activities for my children has been difficult when everyone relies so heavily on the store bought kits or products. The few posts I've read here are like a breath of fresh air, and while coffee beans are a bit too expensive here, the sensory tables and other activities you've blogged about are starting to generate ideas in my head! Thank you for your blog, ideas, and dedication to children =).