Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Reward For Our Hard Work

Among the thousands of loose parts in our outdoor classroom are a few of these small tins in that originally held candy. One in particular has been of interest lately: an Altoids container that I spray painted silver several years ago when I was making end-of-the-year gifts for the children.

It was a pretty cool gift, I thought. Inside I'd put florist marbles to which I'd glued magnets, the idea being that the kids could use them to decorate the box as they saw fit, then store them inside when they were done. Many parents later told me their kids had discovered the entire box, with the magnets inside, could be stuck to the fridge door which is where their children kept and played with them. This box was a leftover from that project and has one way or another wound up outdoors, no one but me any longer knowing its origin.

What makes this box of particular interest, what makes it a loose part among the thousands that allows it to float to the surface in the first place is that there's something inside. I know it's not those old florist marble magnets because when we shake the box it makes a rattling sound. What makes it repeatedly float to the surface is that the lid is stuck shut.

On a regular basis children will bring it to me with the idea that I'll open it for them after they've discovered their own hands aren't strong enough. I will not open it for them, but I will talk with them about it. I will sit down on the ground and noodle the challenge through with them, talking about what might be inside, which for all I know could be a few common pebbles, but in our discussion become treasures with value beyond imagination, magic things that can make us fly, or seeds we can plant that will grow into banana trees.

These girls are wearing a pair of our fabric "toys" (Poppys) we received awhile back from Fafu Toys. They told me they were monks. When I asked what that meant, they said it meant that they had to be quiet. When I pointed out that they weren't being particularly quiet, one of them answered as if I were being particularly dense, "It's just pretend, Teacher Tom."

We've tried throwing it against a wall. We've tried dropping it from a high place. But mostly we've taken turns putting our thumbs up under the rim and straining with all our might. Every now and then someone will have the idea of using something as a lever. They have the idea of how the physics will work, but not the word "pry," which I share with them as we hunt for something that will work for the purpose. We've broken dozens of sticks in the effort.

Yesterday, Henry suggested a screwdriver. It was unclear to me whether he meant it to be used as a pry bar or if he had the idea of somehow unscrewing the lid. So yesterday we went at it with a screwdriver, the children taking turns poking at the box with it. If you're at all familiar with Altoids boxes, you'll know that they are hinged with small "flanges" that are cut from the bottom of the box and curled through small holes in the lid. At one point Marit had a breakthrough, "Look!" She'd managed to pry one of these hinges open, leaving a small rectangular hole.

We took turns peering into the hole to see if we could suss out what was inside. A few of us thought we saw "something," but no one was able to confidently say what it was. The hole, however, was exactly the right size for inserting the screwdriver, which we took turns doing.

As has happened now for months, we finally gave up on the box, dropping it here or there to be picked up on some other day and struggled and speculated over, a conversation piece that brings us together, a challenge that requires all of us. But before we did, 2-year-old Theo, who had only been involved as an observer, raced over to us with another box he'd found, this one a Fisherman's Friend tin. He barged into our circle shaking the box he'd brought us as if to show us that his too had something inside. Then he opened it to reveal a collection of florist marbles he'd collected. He beamed as we each took one, a reward, I guess, for our hard work.

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Judi Pack said...

There's nothing like a mystery to be solved...

Unknown said...

I LOVE that you didn't just open it for them and that it became an experiment :)

janetlansbury said...

Tom, you are an inspiration. I am SO glad you are this kind of teacher. Opening or otherwise fixing things for kids is something we tend to do without a second thought...or even a thought at all. It's like an
unconscious reflex. Thank you being so wise and sharing this with us. (And the monks are to die for!)

Emily Plank said...

What I love about this process is how you support the exploration. On either end of the "helping" spectrum, there's frustration and a helpless child. On the one hand, a child who doesn't have the tools to open the box, and a parent/care provider who opens it for them and remains helpless. On the other hand, a child who doesn't have the tools and a parent or care provider who does not help open the box for the sake of letting the child discover the process for his/herself, yet remains helpless. What is so amazing to me about your example is how you stay present with the children who are trying to get it open - validating their exploration with your connection, and supporting the search through materials and encouragement that you give them. Thank you so much for this!!!

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