Sunday, August 05, 2012

Building A Ladder (Epilogue)

I've been writing for the past 3 days about how the children of Woodland Park built a ladder, a good example, I think, of how a play-based (or project-based) curriculum works, or at least as it works here at our school. Building the ladder was a project that emerged from the children themselves, and was sparked specifically by the driving vision of a single child, Charlotte, a 4-year-old who has not been told that building a tree house in our outdoor classroom is impossible. It has grown to include at least a dozen or more kids, each contributing according to his abilities and interests. If you've not already done so, I urge you to take a few minutes to read through the 3 posts leading up to this one (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three). 

Two weeks ago, Charlotte started talking about an outrageous idea, something that I know is impossible: she wants to build a tree house way up in the branches of our cedars. She's not the first child with big ideas. Every day someone talks about building a jet pack or a castle or a rocket. Often, they're talking about "pretend" things that emerge as part of typical dramatic play, dreams that are satisfied with their imaginations, which is always the key to making the impossible possible. 

When a child tapes parts from a dismantled DVD player to a back pack, it becomes a jet pack, and something "impossible" has happened.

When a castle is constructed from blocks, then inhabited by princesses and knights, something "impossible" has happened.

When a child holds a cardboard tube or a stick or nothing at all over her head and makes fiery exhaust noises with her mouth, a rocket is streaking across the sky, something that every adult in the room knew from the very start was an impossibility.

There are some who will say, "That's not real. That's just pretend," but they would be wrong. No, we don't have an actual jet pack on our hands today, but it's real nevertheless. To get even to that point, a child has confronted the impossible and engaged it with his imagination, before then taking the concept as far as his experiences, materials, and skills will allow. On the day I was born, February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first human being to orbit the Earth. Two other humans had preceded him into space, before that unmanned rockets went there, before that there were lesser rockets, prototypes, models, drawings, and outrageous ideas, each step of which was once known to be impossible, confronted, then taken as far as experiences, materials and skills would allow. And it was through this process of "pretend" that a new set of experiences, materials and skills emerges, ones that are then used to confront and engage the next impossibility. 

Glenn and his contemporaries talked of one day putting a man on the moon. There were some who said, "That's not real. That's just pretend." And there are some who still don't believe we put a man on the moon: that's how impossible it is.

When Charlotte began talking about her tree house, no one told her about the physics or regulations that make it impossible. Instead, we listened to her, asked questions, and generally engaged in a discussion about her outrageous idea. None of us currently have the experience, materials or skills to build that tree house, but as it turned out, we did have everything we needed to build a ladder that reached into the branches of the cedars. And like Glenn's orbit around the Earth, we are now one step closer to putting a man on the moon.

Last week, Charlotte's older brother Thomas came with their mom to pick her up after school. He had been part of his own ladder building project two years ago. I showed him our ladder. He tested it with his feet, then said, "Ours was better." And he's right: that previously "impossible" ladder made this longer, stronger one possible, bringing us right up to the threshold of our next impossibility.

I have little doubt, especially now that we have our ladder, that Charlotte and her friends are not finished working on our tree house. I know it's impossible, but I don't need to tell her that. I have no idea what will ultimately satisfy her, or any of us, with regards to a tree house. It might be enough to next week nail a piece of wood to the tree trunk. But whatever happens, we will keep talking about it and doing what our experience, materials, and skills will allow, and through this process we will come to understand the challenges and engage the impossibilities, emerging on the other side with experiences and skills, and a knowledge of materials, we didn't have before.

Making the impossible possible is an act of magic, the only kind there is, and it only comes from our un-quashed imaginations. As adults in the lives of children, we don't need to know if what they want to do is possible; we need only stop ourselves from telling children the lie that it's impossible and incredible things will happen. It's in the process that emerges from this, that we ourselves, the adults, will come to believe we can put a man on the moon. The children already know it can be done.

It's not a stretch for me to imagine the future, sitting in Woodland Park's tree house up in the cedars with Charlotte, showing her the work of the younger kids with outrageous ideas who will come after her. She will say, "Ours was better," and I'll nod and reply, "You are right."

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Meagan said...

So... why is a tree house impossible?

Teacher Tom said...

@Meagan . . . I think you're missing the point of these posts.

Meagan said...

No I get it, kids doing the impossible etc... I was just asking a practical question. You said something about regulations. I was wondering if you're not allowed to have Treehouse like structure?