Monday, May 07, 2012

Zen And A Visit To The Fire Station

We recently took a field trip to our local Fire Station 9. Every year we either visit a fire station or fire fighters bring an engine and visit us. 

Apparently, it's quite common for young children to run away, or even hide, from fire fighters when called to their homes in emergency situations. So as far as the fire department is concerned, the primary reason for entertaining groups of preschoolers is to familiarize the children with the reality of fire fighters, and to help them understand that even if they look frightening in their turn-out suits, helmets, and oxygen masks, they are, in fact, just regular folks underneath it all.

Usually, one of the fire fighters dons the full suit while the children watch, talking his way through putting on each piece, winding up a fully outfitted fire fighter right before their very eyes, then sort of just hanging out with the kids for a few minutes, letting them touch and talk. This year, however, they wanted an adult volunteer from our group and that turned out to be me. I was fine with it until we got to the oxygen mask. I've never experienced the sensations associated with claustrophobia before, but this gave me some of them. I felt as if I couldn't take a full breath, a fear made worse when fire fighter Joe put is palm over the intake nozzle to make sure we "have a good seal." I held myself together, trusting they knew what they were doing. Things got better when they turned on the oxygen, but needless to say I was eager to be back on the outside.

Because of the size of our group, we visited in two shifts, a second group playing in a nearby playground, then trading places with us. Knowing what was coming, as I lead the second group to the fire house, I made sure to secure a parent volunteer commitment in advance. One of the moms fell for it.

Actually she seemed fine inside the suit, joking around, making Darth Vader sounds through the built-in speaker, but it was instructional for me to see that even though it was his own mom inside that suit, even her own son was clearly frightened by the prospect, not wanting to touch even her gloved hand when she offered it. This is good stuff the fire department is doing.

Before entertaining us, we are expected to run through a bit of curricula that includes a few games and circle time activities focused on fire safety. After a decade of running through the materials, I've adapted it to suit the way our class operates, focusing mainly on what to do in case of a fire ("Crawl under the smoke," "Go outside."), what to do if your clothes catch fire ("Stop, drop, and roll."), what to do if you see a fire fighter in your house ("Go to him."), and a run down of various tools that could start a fire or burn you if used as toys (matches, lighters, stoves, candles, etc.)

We then spent last week trying to reinforce what we'd learned through dramatic play by breaking out our fire fighter toys, which mostly means the fire engine collection.

It's mostly boys who fall on these things and I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I point out that some of these vehicles are more popular than others. This one, in particular, is regularly fought over:

It's desirability was enhanced this year when one of the kids discovered a tiny button that activates the flashing lights, something we'd never known about before. Every now and then a pair of kids would agree to share it, which meant we could have four hands on it at once, but most of the children wanted their own turn. There was a time when I made lists and timed these things, and I still have that tool in the belt should it come to that, but I've found that most of the time it's unnecessary. It usually goes something like this:

Child 1: "I want to use that truck."

Child 2: "I'm using it."

Child 1: "Teacher Tom, he's not sharing."

Teacher Tom: "He's using it. Maybe you can use it when he's finished." 

My goal is to try to get the kids discussing this idea, usually with the result of Child 1 agreeing to turn it over when he's finished. Sometimes that's a long wait, but more often than not, I find the truck (or whatever) in the hands of Child 2 within 5 minutes. It doesn't always go this smoothly, and the conversation-process is usually longer and more involved, but turning responsibility for turn taking over the kids works more often than not. They understand, I think, the inherent fairness of taking turns, but tend to push back when they feel they're being strong-armed into it.

Of course, this is a talking process and for many young children the cure is far worse than the disease, so they find work-arounds that often warm my heart. Luca, for instance, is not a big fan of talking things out. He likes to speak is mind, then get back to work, not typically making a big deal out of not getting what he thought he wanted. After an early in the week go-around about the big engine, he decided to go another way, instead adopting this "pumper truck" as his own:

It is an objectively low-appeal vehicle, frankly. It long ago lost all it's parts, including even the roof over the cab. It has no ladder, no equipment, just six wheels and a few stickers to indicate what it once was. It's appeal, however, the charm that Luca found in it, was that when he wanted to play fire fighter, it was always available. By the end of the week he was making a beeline for it the moment he walked in the room. Several times he brought it to me to tell me how cool it was: often saying it just like that, "This pumper truck is cool." 

At one point I pointed out to him that he was the only kid playing with the fire trucks and that he could "drive all of them" if he wanted. He surveyed them as if considering my words, then said, "This pumper truck is just like the one at the fire station," then drove it away to put out a fire in a block building.

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Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for this post and the work you do on this wonderful blog. My moms' group is visiting a fire station this week with our toddlers (just a small group of about 8 toddlers). I was wondering whether you had any ideas for what would be an appropriate and much-appreciated thank you gift for the handful of firefighters who will be giving us a short tour of their station. Many thanks for your insights and ideas again!
Palo Alto Mom

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Palo Alto Mom! We usually just make a giant "thank you" card that they can hang on the station wall. We take a big piece of mat board and the kids spend some time drawing pictures for the firefighters. Then we make construction paper fire trucks and glue a couple on the board. Then I help the kids make a list of everything they learned ("Stop, drop and roll!" "Go TO the firefighters," etc.) which I write on strips of paper that we then also glue on. It often takes us a week to get it the way we want it. The firefighters I know, are particularly happy when they know that the kids have learned something.

If the adults want to give a gift, they all like food.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This really helps me figure out what to do. We will do as you suggest: artwork card from the kids and perhaps a gift card from the local taqueria (because I was going to bake (honestly) but it didn't happen and the tacos are going to taste a lot better anyway. :-) ). I really appreciate your response. Thank you once again.
~ Palo Alto Mom

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