Monday, August 06, 2012

How To Properly Use A Rake

Our outdoor classroom is a "terrain," and by that I mean, there are no paved or be-lawned flat areas. This is in part an accident of our topography, but it's mostly by design.

When a child moves through the space, she must always be aware of where she's placing her feet, even in the relatively flat areas which are covered in wood chips, but also might include a scattering of rocks or logs or other loose parts. Moving from place to place requires awareness, balance, and even strategy as most areas have more than one way to access them. When you go from one place to another, it always requires changing levels: the entire space is divided into upper and lower parts, the two-level sand pit is framed by tree stumps and raised a couple feet, the concrete slide is up a steep slope, the work bench is at the bottom of the hill. There is a platform behind the windmill built from shipping pallets, arrangements of manufacturing patterns, and a maze of raised garden beds to navigate. There are few 2-year-olds who arrive at our school with the physical ability to easily access everything on day one, and it's usually not until they're closer to 4 that they're able, for instance, to make it to places like the top of the concrete slide.

We have an ethic that the adults don't "help" children get to where they can't get on their own: no holding hands or lifting. Instead, when a child is challenged by our space an adult stays nearby, hands ready, knees bent, taking a page from the book of Janet Lansbury, saying things like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you fall."

We've become so accustomed in our culture to assuming that a "playground" is a place with a pre-fab climbing apparatus, a slab of asphalt, and a slide or two, that newcomers to our space often ask me, "Where do the kids play?" Just the other day, a 5-year-old girl joined us for the first time. When I introduced myself, she said, "There are no toys here," and I answered, "You're right." I've noticed that it often takes a half hour or longer sometimes for children new to our space to find something other than swings with which to become engaged. It's not a place that says, This is what to do, but rather an environment in which one discovers and explores: a water pump, a garden, slopes, sand, a work bench, easels, shovels, musical instruments, logs, rocks, sticks, pine cones, trees, jewels, buckets, baskets, trinkets, and a terrain inhabited by other people.

Our youngest newcomers, however, are never confused by our space, instead knowing without being told how to make it work.

Desmond isn't yet 2-years-old and when he came across a rake lying in the sand, he knew right away what to do. Carefully, he placed a foot on the handle, saying "rake," then walked the length of it, before turning around and walking back. He balanced back and forth several times, saying "rake" several more times, demonstrating to me that he already has a full understanding of how to properly use a rake, not to mention everything else, in the outdoor classroom.

(If you're looking for playground inspiration, make sure to check out Playscapes. I'm blown away every time I visit.)

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I was studying ECE one of my instructors emphasized the importance of giving students 45 minutes minimum outside to play and explore (as well as at least 45 minutes for indoor choice time.) In the coop program I taught in, we only stayed inside if it was pouring rain. Being in the Pacific NW we were outside on many less than lovely days. I found that 45 minute rule was so true and when I transitioned to programs that only provided brief recesses I really sensed the loss both for the children and myself. (I loved getting out for close to an hour every day too!) It really is scary to think how schools are either eliminating recess or reducing it to next to nothing! I definitely think all students (people of every age) need that minimum of 45 minutes outdoors! Imagine if we all did that every day! Probably we'd be a lot more mentally and physically healthy! So...I'm stepping out the door as soon as I finish this comment!