Wednesday, August 15, 2012

At The Intersection Of Things, Time, And Children's Play

It's probably been six months or more since I brought these metal mesh squares into the outdoor classroom. Parts of a shelving system that I once used in a closet to house my t-shirts, I found them while cleaning out my family's storage locker. Too many of the parts were missing or broken to donate them to Goodwill, but the parts I still had were in too good of shape for the landfill. This situation usually means, lacking any obvious way for young children to hurt themselves, that something's a good candidate for the school.

I started out by moving them around the space, leaning them here one day and there the next, hoping the kids could discover them and figure out what to use them for. Occasionally, I'd find a couple scattered across the ground, but otherwise they didn't seem to be capturing anyone's imagination. They wound up tucked away against a fence in the lower part of our yard, where as far as I can tell they've sat untouched for the past 3-4 months.

They were likely on their way to the dump after all, when I noticed a couple girls last week using them to sift sand. It may have been a pure coincidence, but on the following day a boy brought a few of them over as his contribution to the story we were playing. Then a few days later, a group of older boys playing pirates arranged them along the ground as part of their hideout, where they fussily kept them swept clean of any debris. By now, I figured I was looking at a full on trend.

That's the life of things at our school. It's why I don't like to be too brutal about what we toss during our regular all-hands-on-deck school "cleanings." Like those seeds that survive in the arid desert for decades, just under ground, waiting for that one bizarre rainy week to sprout, bloom and lay down some more seeds to be ready for that next rare event, things, especially things that don't have the backing of animated movie tie-ins to artificially boost their popularity, need time.

Yesterday, a few of the kids were carrying the mesh squares to the top of the concrete slide, then letting them slide down. We've had a balancing act to walk lately as several kids have been testing all kinds of things in this way, including rocks and other items that could potentially injure someone at the bottom. Instead of an outright ban, I've been trying to walk the kids through a risk assessment, attempting with some success to get them thinking about what and how to explore these physics without endangering others. When I saw the squares going down, I moved in to start the discussion.

"Those things are going pretty fast."

Finn answered, "I dropped it down there."

"I saw that. I'm worried it will hurt someone if it hits them."

As part of the ensuing discussion about ideas for how to make the game safe, Ben decided to show me how he was going to slide down while holding it with his hand. We agreed that this, coupled with making sure there was no one standing at the bottom, was a good plan.

Well, there was only a short step from this idea to the idea of sitting on them and using them as sleds.

"Teacher Tom, I figured out how to steer it!"

As they tested out their new game, they carried on an ongoing safety discussion amongst themselves. 

"Don't go too close to the ladder or you might bump it."

"I'm going to go right in the middle because I don't want to be close to those rocks."

"Wait until I go so you don't run into me, okay?"

Yes, it's true that I couldn't keep my own mouth shut, as I unnecessarily chirping out my own cautions. At one point there were some tears brought on by a scraped hip, but within minutes he was back in action, insisting that he now knew how to avoid getting hurt.

A year ago, a group of us adults were trying to figure out some method that would allow the kids to do exactly what they were doing. We'd tried having cardboard or boxes available for the kids, thinking that perhaps the concrete was too rough for them. The children gamely tried out our ideas, but ultimately, we gave it up due to lack of interest and the fact that all that beat up cardboard was making the place look too junky.

But now, at the intersection of things, time, and children's play, it's an idea whose time has come.

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Monique said...

I love your persistence in keeping resources available for when children are ready to use them.
Often when I was working in day care, anything that the children didn't show an immediate interest in was put away as though leaving them out was somehow forcing the children to comply to a teacher-lead, rather than child-lead curriculum. So, it would end up that when a child looked as though a particular resource would be beneficial to their play, the teacher would get it back out and give it to them - which in a way is also leading to a teacher-lead curriculum as it's the teacher who suggested (decided) which resource would be appropriate or most helpful. Sometimes it is very difficult for people to see that children are constantly learning, not only just when they have organised a particular learning experience and many opportunities are often missed or devalued because they weren't 'planned'. Any resource is a learning opportunity waiting to happen, and the children are the ones who decide how and what they learn from it.

Amy said...

i love this! i have very fond memories of being allowed to use old bread crates to do this exact same thing :)

Unknown said...

What a cool observation and I love how you let the kids be scientists and figure stuff out eventually. I am always surprised when my daughter discovers something she hasn't played with in months and uses it for some completely new game. Awesome.