Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"It's A Fire Contraption!"

Half-inch PVC pipe should be a staple in any classroom.

From a teacher's perspective it's convenient to have around for putting together all kinds of quick and sturdy structures, such pendulum painters, monkey bars, and sandpit plumbing for a mud pie kitchen.

And for kids, it's a sky's-the-limit building set for making big things fast. Most of what we have, I cut into 4 standard lengths many years ago, hoping they could be used kind of like unit blocks to create simple geometric shapes, but frankly, I'm primarily the one who takes advantage of this feature. The kids tend to create more linear things.

In the past they've used them to make marble runs and motorcycles, but by far the most popular things to manufacture are weapons. The problem we have with this is that the children always chose to ban weapons, both real and pretend. This class has gone deeper into the school year than any previous class before making this rule, but last week, for the 10th straight year, the children have elected to ban playing guns.

Adults will ask me if we pressured the children in any way. I know I didn't, unless very subtly. We do have a standing policy that you may only "shoot" or otherwise involve others in your games or stories with their permission, and I cannot vouch for what parents may be saying at home, but up until this week there was a small group of occasional "weapons players" in our midst. There had been a few instances of one child insisting that another "stop" shooting at him, but I genuinely didn't see this coming. In fact, I was stewing on the post I was going to write in June about our fully-armed school year, trying to figure out what made this year different than the others.

Then, last week, during circle time, Rex raised his hand, "I have a rule."

"Rex wants to suggest a rule."

"No playing weapons."

Rex is a bold, middle-of-the-action kind of kid. In fact, I know he's taken part in some of the gun play this year and hadn't seemed at all unsettled by it.

"Did everyone hear that? Rex suggests we make a rule that says, 'No playing weapons.'" I scanned the group, waiting for a response. I made eye contact with the boys who had been having fun with dramatic play involving weapons. "That means no guns, real or pretend." We make all our rules by true consensus, all it would take would be for one person to speak up against this rule. This group has rejected other proposed rules, so they know how it works. 

Ordinarily, that would be as far as I go before saying, "Okay then, that's a rule," and writing it on our lists, but I really wanted to make sure everyone understood what we were deciding. "Rex, why do you think we should have this rule?"

"Because people might get scared."

I asked the group in general, "Does this mean no shooting?" There was general nodding and a few vocal affirmatives. I again made eye contact with the boys who like playing these games, giving them a chance to speak up, but they were nodding too. "And this means no pretend guns, right?" Nodding. "And this means no pretend swords or knives, right?" Nodding. I let it hang again, almost hoping that one of the pro-gun play guys would speak. At least two of them are not normally shy about speaking up, but they were not only silent, but giving all the outward signs of paying close attention and agreeing with the decision of the group. "Okay then, that's a rule: no playing weapons . . . Because we don't want to scare our friends."

Then I finished as I do after making each of our new rules, "So if you see someone playing weapons in school you can say . . ."

And the kids finished for me, "Stop!"

". . . and that person has to stop because they're breaking the rules we made together."

Yesterday, when I turned the PVC pipe over to Addison's mom Jen, our parent-teacher at the work bench, I made sure she was aware of the children's new rule, but that I didn't want her to be "too hardcore" about enforcing it. I didn't want to stomp on anyone's fun unless it somehow upset the other kids.

The children built all kinds of non-gunlike things at the work bench with our PVC pipe collection. For instance, Lily made a bench, but she worried that it wasn't "sturdy enough" for actual sitting and involved others in helping her. Gray and Addison also created impressive inventions, but it was Rex who really went to town, putting together a long piece that he seemed to enjoy holding.

"What do you call this?" I asked.

"It's a fire gun."

Despite my words to Jen, I couldn't help myself, "But you just made a rule against guns!"

"Oh yeah . . . It's a fire . . ."

I waited for a bit, then began to offer vocabulary suggestions, "Contraption? Apparatus? Machine? Thing-a-ma-bob?"

"It's a fire contraption!"

He held his fire gun for a while longer, then wanted to put it down in a "safe place." 

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Kathy said...

So glad you wrote about this today, Tom. Just yesterday I wrote a blog post about war/gun play among children with parents in the military. I challenged the "no war/gun play" rule with these children and gave some reasons having to do with the meaning that the play has for those kids - a different meaning than it would have for others. What your post does is give teachers a way to deal with it that respects not only the meaning of the play for the children involved, but also respects their ability to take into consideration everyone's needs. I've added a comment to my own blog post encouraging readers to come here and consider how they can support and encourage a similar child-directed approach to war/gun play with their group of kids. Thanks again for sharing your experience and observations, Tom! (FYI - here is the link to my post: http://blogs.extension.org/militaryfamilies/2012/01/27/3-reasons-to-allow-war-play-in-your-early-childhood-classroom/)

Jeanne Zuech said...

Good Morning, Tom! Love the word "contraption" and love Rex's own test on his own nominated rule one day later! Well done by him :) Weapon play is such a wonderful discussion in any preschool and I truly appreciate your approach to support such play until the children address their issues around it.
My favorite quote from a 4yo girl who was part of a fabulous shovel-weapon pirate play - she jumped off the climber roof, stayed flat on the bark and yelled "Hey, everyone, I am dead! Come see!"
Have a great, weapon/free day!

Meagan said...

What are the standard sizes you used for the PVC? I have an office/studio full of furniture made out of galvanized steel piping, so PVC sounds like a natural fit for play building in my house, even though it will be a few years before my son is old enough to use them.

Jan said...

Tom, this blog is great! Using PVC for building is fabulous. No doubt you see many wonderful buildings, as well as contraptions. Like Meagan, I'm interested in the standard sizes you've used. I'm interested in creating a similar opportunity for my students, and am wondering about numbers - how many elbow joints, T joints, etc. you consider adequate for your children.
Thanks so much.

Jen said...

I had the same conversation with Rex before he called you over. When he told me it was a fire gun I also reminded him of the school rules and asked if he could think up something else to call it! I loved all your suggestions of alternative words ....I will have to remember to suggest the word contraption in the future..that worked so perfectly!

Teacher Tom said...

@Meagan and Jan . . . I don't know the exact lengths, but I have a bunch that are about 6 inches, then some that are around 8, 12 and 18. We also have several that are longer, but I only bring them out when we really need them. As for the joints, I really can't say how they're divided up, but we probably have 50-75 of various types.

Jan said...

Thanks,Tom. You've given me plenty enough to go on. Are any students still building?

When I read about the wonderful things that go on in your school, I wish I'd gone to a school like that when I was little.