Saturday, April 07, 2012

How Play Evolves In The Classroom Of A Lazy Teacher

It started a couple weeks ago with a big box. We played with it every day.

At first the plan, my plan, was for us to play with the box until it was all used up since I really have no place to store a big box, but then the Pre-K kids decided they needed it to serve as Hogwarts in the play they are working on as a treat for their friends on the last day of school. So now it's painted "rainbow," because that's the color we negotiated among ourselves, and I now have to find a way to "store" the big box at least through May.

The rest of the kids, however, did not seem like they were done exploring enclosed spaces together, so I pulled out our dog crates, which I do have a place to store because they come apart and nest inside of one another, even though they are still quite a pain to get out and then put away again. We have two large ones, one small one, and two toy ones.

The crates, like the big box, are also places of separation and intimacy, places within the classroom where we can be alone, together.

Places well suited for saying things we might not want the grown-ups to hear, like potty talk, or for haggling over the nature of our friendship.

Some of the children just wanted to be in there, to stay in there, their bodies smashed together inside our cages.

Some wanted to try being inside alone. I told them they would probably have a "long wait," and they did. Others experimented with the power of being on the outside, of keeping the others in. I've rigged the latching mechanisms so the crate doors don't actually "lock" closed any longer, but this is a place where the adults in the room needed to focus our attention, making sure the power wasn't abused.

Like with the big box after we'd cut us some windows with a "super sharp knife" that required everyone to first get out of the box, part of the exploration was peeking in from the outside, but with the added dimension that the crates, unlike the box, could support our weight when we climbed on top.

We could even put a crate on a crate, playing upstairs and downstairs.

Because they were pet crates and not boxes, we also got out our "compliment chains" (plastic chain links) because, I thought, we would want to make collars and leashes for stuffed animals and, perhaps, each other.

They did a little bit of that, but mostly, the chain links were used to decorate the crates.

At one point, a couple kids invented a "lock" by connecting a chain from the door to the grated window, making it impossible to open from outside (without, of course, removing the chain).

The technology of this lock transmitted itself rapidly from kid to kid, from the residents of one large crate to the other.

Meanwhile, over in the sensory table we were playing with a big pile of Easter basket grass, what we call in our secular school "spring grass," although the children all know its real name.

We've been playing with this same pile of paper and plastic grass for years. It's by now full of all sorts of trinkets and treasures, feathers, and faux eggs, some hollow and plastic, some glass, some stone, some wood, some metal. At the end of this week, I didn't even pick through it before shoving it all back into a box, I'm sure now full of new treasures to find next year.

I originally set it up to include a pair of puppets right on top, a hen on her nest, and a giant egg in its own nest . . .

. . . that opens to reveal . . . the Easter Elephant?

You might recognize this as the winged elephant baby that hatches from faithful Horton's egg in Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches The Egg. If you have a children's theater in your town, or if anyone is producing plays for kids, they can be a good source for cool preschool materials. I acquired this very well-made puppet from The Seattle Children's Theater, a leftover from their production of Seussical The Musical, in exchange for a donation. 

Theaters have the same problems as preschools like ours: storage is precious and props and set pieces need to be repurposed or find new homes. Naturally, I'd introduced the puppet a few days before by reading the very long book to the kids. It's a long way to go for the pay-off of this puppet, but I think most of the kids thought it was worth it.

The children worked hard on their plastic egg opening and closing skills and used our collection of baskets for their own purposes.

So by now, we were two full weeks away from the advent of the original big box, our springy-Easter theme was coming to a head, we'd interspersed it all with a trip to The Center for Wooden Boats, which means the sensory table really needed to be free for boat play, and I am simply too lazy to want to re-store the dog crates to their proper place under a whole bunch of other large equipment.

Some people criticize laziness, but me, not so much. Laziness is much more often the mother of invention than is industry. I told you the crates come apart. I figured I could sell them as full-body Easter baskets.

Thankfully, the kids were buying.

I know, I'm a teacher too: you're thinking about the mess because all that grass, those feathers, and those treasure-y trinkets, aren't going to stay in their nests.

And they didn't.

It was going to all come down to clean up time. I knew that if it wasn't just going to be a parent-teacher, or worse yet me, picking bits off the rug, I was going to have to role model like no body's business. We designated one crate half as the collection zone for everything: eggs, feathers, trinkets, baskets, grass, nests, puppets. We signaled clean up time, then I dropped to my knees announcing, "I'm collecting all the feathers. All the feathers."

A few kids joined me in feather collecting, while others announced, "I'm collecting eggs," or "I'm getting the toys." 

I knew the biggest challenge would be to get all those scraps of paper "grass" picked up, so I switched to that project, scraping it into piles, using my fingers like rakes, narrating as I went. Some of my friends began to pick up my piles and move them to where they belonged, others joined me in the raking game. When I looked up I saw that we probably had a dozen kids on their knees cleaning up with their pinching fingertips, one tiny thing at a time.

The finished product was imperfect, but I knew by now that their momentum would keep carrying them along. I kept one basket aside to have with me as we launched into circle time, which takes place on the same blue rug where we'd been cleaning. Throughout, children came to the front of the room with some bit or other they'd found on the rug. Without breaking rhythm, I held out the basket for them to deposit their finds.

When we got up to move on to what was next, we left a clean rug behind, and all that remained for me to do was put those crates away, which I still haven't done. That's because this lazy man has decided that instead of doing the thankless labor of putting them away, it would be less work to let our big box play evolve outdoors next week.

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