Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Every Day Is An Experiment

I've been trotting the Halloween grid table out now for a couple years.  The idea is simply to use a table top to make a masking tape grid system, then populate it with seasonal items. 

I let this run, as I always do, for a couple classroom sessions. My idea is that the grid will somehow effect the children's play. Maybe they'll sort or count or otherwise organize the little skeletons, spiders, and jack-o-lanterns they find there.

I've observed, polled the parent-teachers who've had grid table duty, and even studied the remnants like tea leaves hoping to find some evidence that my idea has sparked something new, but for the third year running -- nothing. 

The kids play with the stuff, collecting the spiders together, or the skeletons, filling up the little jacks, even making up stories with the items. We did discover that if you press down on the spiders then let your finger slide off, they'll jump into the air, but I've seen no evidence that the grid has come into play in any way whatsoever.

I even went so far as to try to make up a checkers-style game, jumping the various pawns from square to square and was met with blank stares. The grid is gone now, but this doesn't mean it's forgotten. I still feel like there is something there and will return to it again. Someday, I'll have the right combination of materials, the right classroom moment, and the right collection of kids for the grid table to have its day, but today is not it.

In contrast, a few days ago, I showed you an experiment that was a spectacular hit, in which we used string and the bottom of a round table to weave a spider's web. This one too has run for several days, becoming increasingly complex and tangled. Many of the spiders and skeletons from the grid table became ensnared in it. I've done this job long enough to know that the string spider web might well be enjoying its hey-day, to never again meet with the right classroom moment and collection of kids, but it has now earned its way into the annual repertoire.

Yesterday, it continued to engage the children for yet another day as we broke out the scissors and announced it was time for the web to come down.

They went to town on it, struggling at first as they discovered that their rather dull classroom scissors were ineffective for cutting through multiple strands of string at once.

But once they realized this was going to be a one string at a time cutting operation, they settled in for a good half hour of dismantling, then sorting the various entangled items into the places they belong.

Everyday in preschool, for us at least, is an experiment. Since we're not going to compel the children to sit and "do the work," since there is no expectation that they engage with any one activity except as their playful instincts guide them, there will likely always be among the half-dozen or so "official" activities, one or two that lay largely fallow, unappealing for this day or this moment. I'll admit to taking pride when something creates a sort of frenzy, like the string spider web, but that can't be my only criteria for evaluating it. Just as the grid table has not yet clicked, I can't assume that next year's class won't finally discover what it can do, any more than I can assume that they will care at all about an upside down table and some string.

I've been using these cornstarch pellets in the sensory table during the Halloween season for years now, combining them with same stuff the kids found on the grid table, along with a variety of tongs. The packing material winds up scattered around the room, but it's a simple clean up, and the fact that they dissolve when wet, makes them a relatively safe all-ages thing to have around the place during our evening all-family (including babies) Halloween parties.

I know that other teachers have figured this one out, but I've never had much success with using the dissolving, sticky properties of these things for making art. Every year, I bring a basket of them over to the art table, along with dishes of water, with the idea that the kids, with a little moisture, can use them to erect towers and other sculptures on pieces of mat board, or something like that. The results have typically involved 10 minutes or so of activity and a handful of partially dissolved pellets, almost not worth the effort. Like I'm doing with the grid table, however, I've persevered year after year, tweaking slightly, until yesterday morning when I hit on the idea of the "rainbow ghost."

I drew the outline of a ghost on a large piece of butcher paper, then instead of plain water as our activating agent, we used liquid water color in small cups. Dip a peanut into the paint, let it soak it up a little, then stick it on the paper. 

The kids didn't exactly fall on it, but there was a steady stream of artists throughout the morning, finding just enough to experiment with to make it worth engaging.

Some stuck their pieces on, while others used them as rapidly diminishing mini paint brushes.

Some just put their pellets into the paint to observe them turn into mush.

Others preferred to forego the whole packing peanut thing and just dump their little cup of paint directly onto the paper.

In other words they just took their time playing with the world as they found it, not in a frenzy, not in the way someone showed them to do it, but according to their own inclinations, caring not in the least that their teacher was feeling like his years of experimenting were finally beginning to pay off.

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Anonymous said...

Mine usually figure out that if they want to build something with those packing peanuts, the "lick and stick" method is quicker. I try to discourage it, but I can only be in so many places at one time. So far, every one has come back alive after a good round of lick and stick... :)

Scott said...

Experimenting is a part of the teacher's life...just like the kids' lives. When the kids discovered a note pad a few weeks ago, they had a great time drawing and exploring. I added a table of note pads and it sat virtually ignored. Sometimes it is just the right kids and the right activity/materials at the right moment. But you're right - we must keep experimenting and trying stuff.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This is just so apt!

Megan said...

What if the grid pattern didn't cover the entire table?
At the moment it looks like a pretty patterned table. But what if you reduced it's width and length by one square so the pattern only covers the middle of the table? It might become more apparent that it's a grid?

Or maybe its just as you say, the right kids with the right materials at the right time.

cherib said...

Ha! I was so excited when I saw the picture of the grid, before I read the post. It was so colorful and intriguing (sp??) and I thought for sure it was some unique game/creation that I would run out and try to create...like sooo many of your other ideas, Tom!! Perhaps it is appealing to older children or adults like you and me. I still think, like you, that there is something special about that grid!!

carriecads said...

Just found this through your newest post, but I thought I'd let you in on another trick with the sticky peanuts for when you do try again. My 3-4 year olds make some great sculptures or just stick them on paper all the time - we like to use the colored ones on a black dinosaur shape. In order to create the 3-D objects I noticed that my children really enjoy making, I set out damp sponges for them to use to moisten the styrofoam peanuts. This way they stick easily but do not dissolve, which - while it may be fun and educational for another time - is not good for building.