Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Giant Foam Blocks

I've written before about these giant foam blocks and I went back and read that post before bringing them out last week.

Playing with them can be crazy. They create a challenging environment, at least at our school, one of risk and conflict with the ever-present possibility of wildness. I know I have a tendency, honed by experience, to anticipate "problems" with these blocks, so I try to stay out of the area at first, counting on a parent-teacher to help the kids settle into some kind of play. Sometimes that means cooperatively using all the blocks to construct a parking garage or a castle. Sometimes that means launching bodies impulsively into them, pig piling, and tears.

It's hard to have both kinds of play going on at once, and therein lies the challenge of the giant foam blocks.  It really only takes one or two body hurlers to make all other efforts for naught. It really only takes one non-cooperative block hoarder to do the same. 

Everyone spends a lot of time negotiating when the giant foam blocks come out. There are a lot of declarations of, "This is not a knocking down building," but unless you say it frequently, it's the kind of thing that this environment makes easy to forget. The energy not being put into negotiating is more often than not put into assessing risk.

I suppose if you asked me what I "expect" the kids to do with these blocks, I would say, "Build," but from the moment I saw them in the catalog, I knew there was another side to them: a wild side, a dangerous side, the side that would have appealed to me as a boy. I usually tell the parent-teacher responsible for the block area that I consider playing with these blocks to be the single most dangerous thing we do at Woodland Park. Heads collide. Smaller children have blocks, along with bodies, fall on them. Structures that look both soft and stable, topple over when we try to climb on them.

Their greatest danger, however, lies in their apparently safety. They're soft and light, right? There are no sharp corners, no hard parts. Inexperienced children and adults alike tend to "let down" when they see them, as if these pillow-like qualities reduce their own responsibility be cautious, to assess risk, and consider others. I once made the mistake of laying gym mats down under them: never had we had more tears than on that day as caution was thrown to the wind.

I'll admit there are times when I wonder why I trot these out 2-3 times a year. They're exhausting for all of us, and they occupy a great deal of my precious storage space when not in use, but then I think of how it's an environment in which we hone those aforementioned negotiating and risk assessment skills, how we get to practice studying our friend's faces and bodies for how they might be feeling, how we find ourselves on both ends of the play if we put any time into it at all. As the teacher, I come prepared to work.

Yesterday, for only the second or third time this year, I made it all the way through to the final step in the Descriptive Cue Sequence: setting a condition, which always carries with it for me the stench of failure. I said, "I've seen you knock down a whole bunch of 'not knocking down' buildings and people are feeling angry because they've asked you to stop doing it. If I see you do it again, you'll have to play somewhere else. If you want to knock down a building you can build your own." Like I said, for some of us, the giant foam blocks create an environment in which it's hard to remember things, even important things, and when I saw him launch himself into yet another "castle rampart" I said, "I saw you knock down another 'not knocking down building.' You'll have to play somewhere else." He started to object, but one of his friends chimed in, "I want you to play somewhere else," and that did it.

The way this condition works, the only condition I've ever needed to set out in over a decade of doing this, is that he must leave the area. I watch him do it, escorting him if he needs the help. It is then up to him to decide when he's ready to return. Sometimes that means right away, sometimes that means never. Only once do I remember a child returning before he was ready to play cooperatively and that boy was later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Yesterday, our friend returned within minutes, but with a focus on building. I later returned to the area and saw him in the midst of the construction. I said, "I'm going to knock this down," and he answered, "Don't, Teacher Tom, it's not a knocking down building." Nice.

Luca's mom Megan was our parent-teacher on the blue rug yesterday and although these kids played with the giant foam blocks last week, it was Monday which is typically our most high energy day. The first time I checked in with her, she answered, "I'm hanging in there." Later she answered, "I'm having fun."

That's why we keep playing with them.

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Amelia De Mello, M. Ed. said...

So much fun!!!!!!! I am glad I found your blog! You rock!

Educational Software India said...

:)Aww such a cute blog I really enjoyed your blog i like all the students having so much fun.
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"Miss Missa" said...

These are ceartainly one of our favourite things to bring out in the gym, but we don't have many of them, so they take on the "precious commodity" role and cause a lot of "negotiation and assertiveness skills development".

lmm said...

Hello! Great blog!!!

I am wondering where these blocks can be purchased? Thanks so much!

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Imm . . . I believe we got them from either Discount School Supply or Early Childhood Manufacturers Direct.

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