Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Behind The Windmill

We have this little platform built from a pair of shipping pallets and some discarded fencing slats that has resided just behind the windmill since we moved into our new space. They are products of our very first summer session, and we've been using them as outdoor "floors" ever since.

It's in the nature of "loose parts" to go wherever the children take them, but when I'm fluffing up the place, when I come across interesting toys and tidbits like seashells or baskets or cow bells or knots of root, I toss them into the area of these platforms behind the windmill.

I do it mostly so that I have a collection of objects at hand for playing stories. Sometimes when a kid gets upset or is missing mommy, after we've spent some time hanging out with the emotion, I like to bring her to the platforms and start "playing stories." It's a great way to reconnect that child with what's going on at school, especially the other children who usually then gather round, finding their own loose part props or sets or characters to take part in the game.

But I don't have to wait until a child is upset to play there, nor do the kids. I keep wanting to do something "more" with that space in the bull's eye of our outdoor classroom: maybe build it out a bit more, frame in a wall or two, create more opportunities for making cubbies or forts or whatever. I once saw a photograph from the 1920's of a giant outdoor doll house, which was really just a set of irregular, head-high shelves accessible from both sides. I've also thought it might be cool to inset colored plastic windows so when the sun shines through it creates patches of color on the ground. And I'd like to add some sort of mechanism that makes it a little easier for the kids to turn the windmill's vanes -- as it is now, only the oldest, strongest kids can manage it.

But then again, as much as I'm in love with my ideas, I like the ideas that already emerge in this space, a simply defined area in which I toss the loose parts.

The whole point of our school, and the reason that what we're doing is important, is that it's a place where children get to practice playing with the other people. It really doesn't matter how much you know, how many facts you can recite, how high you can climb, or how talented you are. If you don't learn how to play with the other people, it makes everything else a little empty. It's the other people, your friends and family, your relationships with classmates and teachers, your connections with co-workers, bosses, and customers: it's what happens there that at the end of the day makes for a happy life.

So when they connect, like a group of our younger children did the other day over this simple game of "feeding the pony" with the small pile of straw that remains from the big one we once had there, a game that started in earnest, then evolved into silliness, a game that erupted spontaneously as a result of several independent suns revolving around the floor behind the windmill, then suddenly syncing up, they are doing the most important work there is.

I start thinking about what we can do with this space behind the windmill when it sits fallow for several weeks on end, as it does sometimes, being used primarily as a pass-through on the way to somewhere else. I've watched how this area is used for a little over 12 months now, which has given me the data I needed to discard more concrete concepts like building a full-on play house, which is what I wanted to do when we first moved into the place. Anything we do here must be more flexible than that: it must support this kind of open-ended, freeform play, without placing the constraints on it of walls and roofs and windows. 

And so I'm glad we've gone slowly here, letting the children show us how they want to use this space without a name, this space behind the windmill where I toss the loose parts. I'm willing for this to already be all it ever needs to be.

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Robbie said...

Hello Tom,
What a wonderful,concise way to sum up my objective each day working with my very busy 3 and 4 year old groups....."If you don't learn how to play with the other people, it makes everything else a little empty." That's really what it is all about, whether you are three or forty three!! Thank you.

Susie Leiper said...

Lovely post. Simply lovely.