Friday, August 03, 2012

Building A Ladder (Part Two)

This post is a continuation of yesterday's post in which I described how the ladder project came into being. When last we saw our building team, we had run out of time leaving a partially assembled ladder resting on the ground where the kids could see it and hopefully be inspired to continue their work.

For the next couple days, however, the kids went about their business, not mentioning or even seeming to notice the ladder that had consumed them only a few hours earlier. I'd hoped that the sight of the two parallel uprights and it's dozen or so unsecured rungs lying there in plain sight would motivate someone to pick up a hammer and get to work. I knew that if one kid, just one kid, took the lead, others would follow. Up to now that person had been Charlotte, but she had other things on her mind.

Of course, there is no shame in half finished projects around the preschool, I stumble across the evidence of them every day: arrangements of sticks left in a corner, collections of "jewels" under sand in a bucket, pipe cleaners hung in a cluster from a lilac branch, ropes tied here or there -- things that held meaning for one or more children for a time. But time always passes and the people move on. I didn't want the ladder to be one of those, but it's not always up to me.

A weekend went by. When we got back to school this week, I figured I'd give the ladder project one more chance, so moved it from the ground, clamping the uprights to the work bench, arranging the mismatched selection of wood that the kids had collected to use as rungs. As I did so, I realized that many of them were pretty hard wood, or were pretty thick, characteristics that make it extra challenging for preschoolers when driving nails with 7 oz. hammers -- heck, those light weight hammers are challenging for adults even in the best of circumstances. I dug up some softer, thinner pieces of wood to replace the harder, thicker wood. Perhaps I shouldn't have done it, but hammering nails is for many kids enough of a struggle and I've seen too many kids give up when their nail doesn't budge despite dozens of direct hits. I also made sure our 1-lb. hammer was available.

This strategy worked to get kids interested again in the ladder project, although it was mostly the younger children, those who had not been involved in its genesis, who took up the challenge for most of the morning. I tried to not hover in that area, instead leaving that to the parent-teacher working the station for the day. 

At one point I found Charlotte, last week's diving force, on the swing. I couldn't help myself, "Those kids are down there working on the ladder."

"When they're finished we can start building the tree house." She looked up into the cedars where she envisions it. "It was my idea, you know."

"I know." That's when it struck me that she was doing exactly what I was doing: keeping the big picture in mind, holding the vision, but stepping back to create space for others to do the work. Most of the children were just focused on the challenge of the hammer and nail. A few could see the ladder we were making together, a group in which I include myself. Charlotte alone was keeping the tree house alive.

After about 30 minutes of steady hammering the rungs were more or less secure, although there were a lot of nails still sticking out. The children were simply not strong enough to finish driving them into the underlying 2X4's, so I took it upon myself to showily finish them off, making a lot of noise so that more kids would stop what they were doing to come see what we were up to. Once I had a decent sized group around the work bench I said, "I think we might be finished with our ladder. Now we need to test it to make sure it's safe."

I began tugging on a few of the rungs, saying, "That'll hold," while several of the kids joined in. After a few minutes, I asked, "Does that seem strong enough?" There was a general consensus that it was. "I guess now we need to try climbing it." Despite Charlotte's tree house idea, I'd formed my own idea that we could really use a ladder of exactly this length up the face of our "concrete slide," so proposed that this, at least, ought to be where we test it. 

Charlotte was the only one who objected and she did so forcefully, "No, Teacher Tom, we have to put it by the trees so we can build the tree house!" As a team of kids wrestled the ladder toward the concrete slope, I assured her, "Don't worry, we'll take it to the trees later, but I'd feel better if we tested it on the slope first." She wasn't happy about it, but resigned herself to the delay, especially since the kids had by now achieved their destination. I made sure the lower end was sunk into the sand for stability and one-by-one they climbed the ladder to the top, then slid back down, Charlotte joining them. In fact, everyone was so engaged in the activity that I wandered off to other things for a time.

Honestly, that's where I wanted this project to end, with a nice, useful ladder for climbing to the top of the concrete slope. And that's still where I imagine it will find its permanent home, but Charlotte hasn't forgotten her tree house and what happened next makes me start to believe that one way or another, that damn tree house is going to happen.

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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Fred said...

I can't wait to see what happens. Motivating younger kids can be so tough! Good job keeping them focused without forcing the project on them.

Sweet Counter Class Resources said...

We'll see in later posts if Charlotte's wish will come true. I have a great feeling it will. Great job in motivating the kids!

Melanie said...

I am very interested to hear what happens next! My 5 year old often has lofty ideas- great ideas of something he would like to build/create. However, his ideas are often too difficult for even me to implement (a
a more handy adult could help him accomplish his goals though). I don't really know how to handle these situations.

Teacher Tom said...

@Melanie . . . I don't think it matters if you're handy or not. More importantly, I think, is to engage in a full discussion of the vision, but then to help your child break it down into manageable parts. In Charlotte's case we figured out that the first challenge was getting up into the tree, which meant we needed a ladder. I did not suggest the ladder, but merely discussed the problem and she came up with the idea. I have no idea what will ultimately satisfy her with regards to a tree house. It might be enough to nail a piece of wood to the tree trunk.

Often, a good approach is to urge your child to draw his plans, then to perhaps, work on building a model (from clay or pipe cleaners or blocks or whatever is at hand). Often in this process children come to understand the challenges and impossibilities without you having to point them out or quash their vision.

In a lot of cases, a child will use grand terms to describe something that is really (from an adult perspective) quite simple, so it's important to let the child lead and tinker and strategize on his own. As any inventor or craftsman or artist will tell you, the final product rarely matches the initial idea -- that doesn't mean it was a failure, but rather reflects what s/he learned along the way.

Finally, I think it's important for kids to have access to tools and materials. If you don't know how to use the tools and materials yourself, it doesn't matter because you can learn right along with your child.

Melanie said...

Very helpfu! Thanks! I will get over my concern of failure (his AND mine) and let the process happen on these seemingly more complicated ideas. I can see that drawing the ideas out or modeling will be very helpful for us. Good point that he may not always be invisioning something as complicated as I interpret. I am often surprised by what he is happy with when we follow through on his smaller projects- the ones I'm not scared of. We have some tools in the house. I will make those more available and stock up on some materials. Thank you. I have been reading this blog for 5 or 6 months now and have found it so pertinent and useful with my 5 and 7 year old boys.

Melanie said...

Hey- I just wanted to say that my 5 year old just had a very successful project building experience from his vision until completion. As usual, his idea seemed impossible, but this treehouse/ladder series helped me know how to not squash his idea and help him talk through his ideas when he hit roadblocks (following his lead). His final product was not what I thought it was going to be (far less complex than what I thought he wanted). I'm certain it's not what he thought it was going to be either. He was ecstatic with the result because he it was all his doing. He probably spent 90 minutes on the project and he got so much out of the process. I don't think we would have made it through without the guidelines set forth in the treehouse ladder series. That concrete example was very useful in helping me to perform my role in the process.