Thursday, August 02, 2012

Building A Ladder (Part One)

This isn't the first time the children of Woodland Park have decided they needed to build a ladder, nor is it the first time we've evaluated the risks of using a real ladder, home-made or otherwise. But it's the first time these children have done it and it's a story worth telling.

Charlotte has been going on about building a tree house in the outdoor classroom for some time now, bringing it up with me, insistently, on a regular basis, with, I think, the underlying idea that I would do it for them. My response has been as it always is when kids imagine projects: to engage them in conversation, to agree that it would sure be cool or useful or whatever, to ask questions that help both of us understand exactly what it is they have in mind, to draw other children into the dialog, and to generally hang around with the idea, never once suggesting impossibilities or dangers, but also never offering to do if for them. If there are impossibilities and dangers, they'll emerge from the process without my having to serve as either a "fun stealer" or the grown-up who will do the work for them.

Last week, Charlotte, in thinking through the steps it would take to create the tree house in the row of cedars that divide our outdoor space into upper and lower parts, declared, "First, we need a ladder to get up there."

I pointed out that we have three ladders, store-bought step ladders, the tallest of which was being used a few feet away by children straining to reach the top of our temporary water wall. There were a couple of other kids listening in to our conversation and we all agreed that the step ladder wouldn't be tall enough. Having had the experience of children building their own ladder before, I was hoping we'd work our way around to that idea, but instead we started down the road of kids offering to bring in the ladders their families kept in their own garages, so I, reluctantly, made the comment, "I wonder if we could build our own ladder."

There was a pause in the conversation as everyone let that idea sink in. Then 4-year-old Charlotte said, "Yeah, we could build our own." She had been a 2-year-old the last time we made a ladder, a project for which her older brother Thomas had been one of the leaders. Maybe she recalled that, maybe not, but instead of getting lost in that reverie, I said, "We have lots of wood." And we do have lots of wood in keeping with the good, old-fashioned "scrap barrel" ethic of our school. "What kind of wood do we need?"

The intensity of our conversation suddenly notched-up, with children all talking at once, which in turn lured more children our way in order to find out what the excitement was about. They were all describing the parts of actual ladders they had seen or used. I tried to keep up, repeating the words I heard them say. After having echoed, "long parts" several times, Charlotte's voice rose above the rest, "We need two long parts for the sides." Then Makie added, "And then we need lots of short parts that go across."

I said, "Let's see if we have two long parts." We went together to take a look at our lumber supply, finding a pair of 2X4's that we thought would fill the bill. One was a couple feet longer than the other, but that didn't seem to bother anyone, and I figured that cutting that piece off would be a nice, challenging part of the project. In fact, I was thinking through how this might go, figuring we would need a couple sessions of hammering and sawing to get something functional put together. 

The kids worked together to drag the two 8-10 foot lengths of wood down to the work bench, where a couple kids were already doing something else (I don't recall what we had going on that day: we might have been tinkering with Tinker Toys). They arranged the two lengths on the ground, parallel to one another as is customary with ladders, then went to work scavenging through our boxes of wood scraps, arranging the pieces they found as rungs. It was a hodge-podge of lengths and thicknesses, but when we stepped back to look, we had something that looked like a ladder.

Now we needed to start nailing.

By this time, we probably had 8 or 9 kids involved in our process. We broke out some hammers, nails and eye protection and got to work securing our rungs. The problem that only I could see, the problem that I could do nothing about, was that we were approaching the end of our time for the day. We got a few nails driven, but the rest would have to wait for another day.

We moved our burgeoning ladder off to the side, out of way of our normal thoroughfares, but in a highly visible spot, then got busy with the rest of our clean-up. The kids were confident that we'd finish it up the following day. I wondered if we had enough juice to make this into a multi-day project. With two full weeks to go in this summer session, I guess we'd find out.

To be continued . . . (Click here for part two)

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