Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Temporary Water Walls

A few years ago, I visited a school that had a beautiful water play structure built onto it's playground. Made from shiny aluminum, it featured a number of curving troughs into which children could pour water and let it flow. My first instinct was envy. I later visited another school with a similar installation, although this one also had a more vertical surface down which water could be poured, featuring funnels and a water wheel. 

The thing is, on the days I visited, I was the only one who played with them, the kids being busy with attempting to balance their way across a low brick wall or kicking balls, leaving these wonderful, permanent structures untouched. By the time I was done touring schools, I'd become less enthusiastic about these apparatuses, not because they weren't cool, but because they were exactly the kind of one-trick-ponies that are a rage for a day or a week, but then lose their play value for long stretches of time until there are new kids (or visiting adults, like me) show up to take lessons from them.

I've grown wary of permanent installations at the school because, especially if they're nice and shiny and requiring of budget and/or manpower to construct because I've found that the play-spaces that work best for us are ones capable of continual evolution.

We've now built 3 or 4 water walls since I first learned of the concept a couple years ago, making ours from 2-liter pop bottle parts, lengths of blue flexible tubing from the hardware store and zip ties. It's the kind of project that can be managed by preschoolers with a couple supportive adults around to help out.  We built a new one last week, employing the frame we'd built a few years ago from the sides of an old Ikea shelf to which we nailed a piece of peg board. The kids added a few more nails to make sure the thing was solid, then got to work planning the paths along which they wanted to water to flow.

Managed by a couple parent-teachers, the project took shape fairly quickly once we'd put the hammers away, growing to include at least a dozen kids in the process.

I'd set up the new outdoor sensory table nearby as a water supply for "testing" as we went.

For the entire morning we built and poured, built and poured, making a muddy business of the area around our workbench.

My idea was that once we'd built it, we could move it into the sand pit, near the cast iron hand pump, which is what we did on the following day, working together to carry it to the top of the outdoor classroom, then shoving the legs of our step ladders into the sand.

Which is where it stood, virtually ignored for the next two days.

The kids, it seems, have already learned what they needed to from it. I'll let it ride through this week. Maybe we'll decide we need to add to it. But whatever happens, I'll eventually cut all those zip ties with a knife and we'll reclaim that play-space real estate, sooner or later, for something else.

But it sure was fun while it lasted.

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Meagan said...

What if your water pump were installed into the ground instead of a bucket? I don't think all permanent features are bad... Being forgotten allows kids to rediscover things, explore them as individuals instead of excited crowds, and in general take them for granted, which isn't always as bad as it sounds. If you'd watched the water features for weeks, I wonder if you would have noticed something different about how the children interacted with them?

Or maybe I'm just arguing because I really love perminant water features of every kind. :-)

Scott said...

I agree, Tom. I think that "transitional" should be the best word to describe the preschool space. Things claim prominence for a while and then disappear, to be replaced with something new to explore and learn from. This happens with some of our indoor activities, too. When something seems really popular, I'll keep it out for a while. It never seems to attract the same attention after that first day. But I'll bring it back weeks or months later, and the kids are excited and try new things again.

Teacher Tom said...

Meagan, our pump is as permanent as they come -- it's our main water source throughout the school year. That never grows old. It's just that the water walls we build tend to exhaust their novelty fairly quickly which is fine because we can just build a new one a few months later.

cathleen said...

I fell in love with your 2-liter funnels and tube contraptions and set up a temporary, interchangeable water wall based on it. Instead of using zip ties though, I punched holes in the 2-liter funnels, drilled holes in some pieces of plastic gutters, and attached S-hooks so that the children can move the funnels and gutters around easily. Everything can be attached and reattached to a repurposed piece of decorative metal fencing. With a container full of tubing, various connectors, and buckets (mostly made from the bottoms of the 2-liters) nearby, the S-hooks let their play be a bit more experimental.

Kerry said...

I was wondering if it's the "constructive" element which is permanently attractive--I've noticed that blocks, woodworking, anything which can be "built" draws customers day after day. Thus, a water pump, or a set of elements, will continue to be popular. However, once the elements are solidified into a fixed arrangement, they do get old. Again, perhaps it's process vs product?

Teacher Tom said...

That sounds spot on, Kerry!

Cave Momma said...

My kids (almost 4 and 5) will play in water all day every day if they had their choice. And most of the time they did till our table broke. I have been working on a water wall schematic for some time thinking we would use wing nuts on peg board so they could change it when they wanted, how they wanted. Do you think adding that feature would help keep them involved?