Monday, August 13, 2012

Steps That Could Take Us There

When last we visited the tree house project, I had talked my way through the installation of a pair of pulleys and a length of rope that allowed the kids to transport small buckets full of stuff to the top of the concrete slide. Prior to that, the kids had built a ladder, a process I chronicled in a series of 3 posts (herehere, and here) with an epilogue thrown in for good measure. 

I'd installed the pulley system because I thought the kids would have fun with it, of course, but also because I was hoping to plant the idea of these simple machines and how they could, theoretically, help us build a tree house. 

Up to this point, Charlotte has been holding the vision for this project, imagining it up there in the trees some 15 feet off the ground. Let me be clear, I do not believe that our preschool children alone are capable of building this thing she envisions. They simply do not possess the physical or engineering skills, and even if we could teach them, it would take years, but they don't know this. Or at least if they do, no one has said so. There are things we know, there are things we don't know, and there are things we don't know we don't know. I suspect that at some point in this tree house project, the children will come to learn about things they didn't know they didn't know, and see that the original vision of a house in the trees is impossible. From there, it's my expectation that we continue forward in our new knowledge with a more realistic tree house plan, although there is still a part of me underneath all that "impossible" thinking that hopes I'm proven wrong and we wind up with a house in the trees.

And until we reach our crossroads of unknown unknowns becoming known, we're still shooting for those trees.

When Charlotte arrived last Tuesday, I engaged her in a discussion about the tree house as she pumped a swing.

"I thought we could work on the tree house today."

Her cheery expression turned sour as she looked back over her shoulder at the ladder which has remained on the concrete slope. "The ladder needs to be in the trees." She does not like that we're using the ladder for non-tree house related business.

"I know, but only one person at a time can go up that ladder and we're going to need everyone's help to build a tree house." I pointed toward the branches of the tree where she normally points when discussing the tree house. "We're either going to have to make a whole bunch more ladders so everyone can be up there building or . . ."

At this point, her older brother Thomas who had come along to drop her off, interrupted, "We could bring all our ladders from home. That would be enough."

Charlotte liked this idea, but I, of course, being an adult with my head filled with the impossible vision of a half dozen preschoolers standing at the tops of ladders 15 feet in the air pounding nails and wrangling wood, pushed forward with my own idea, "That might work, but I was thinking it might be easier to build the tree house on the ground first, then move it up into the tree."

Thomas, who being a year too old to be a regular in our summer program, has attended a couple sessions as a student assistant, helping us, among other things to build the new Crazy Daisy, immediately went where I was hoping Charlotte would go, "We could use a pulley and hoist it up!" jumping as he said it.

Charlotte, still swinging, considered this idea with a furrowed brow. Finally, she replied, "We need to take hammers and nails and wood up in to the trees to build the tree house."

Thomas, now fully engaged with the pulley vision, got closer to Charlotte, saying, "I don't think you can do that. It would be too hard. We should use a pulley." In her frowning unwillingness to give up on this idea, it struck me that a big part of the tree house vision for her must be the prospect of working on the top of a ladder up there in the trees. It was going to be hard to give up, and she didn't, although she didn't reject the pulley idea either, but instead just kept on swinging.

I'd prepared for the morning by moving the work bench out of the way and laying down the largest flat piece of wood we had around the school yard, a round piece of plywood which you may recognize as the table top from our mud pie kitchen. I hadn't really thought things through beyond that: the idea of a floor, a collection of wood scraps, a couple old window screens, hammers, nails, and eye protection. Several kids took on the task of nailing things to the wood, but it was clear that the ones doing the work were not necessarily interested in a tree house. That's one of the problems in the summer time, with our short two week sessions: many of these kids hadn't been there for the genesis of the project and so were going off in their own directions. It didn't help that Charlotte appeared to be boycotting.

She was willing to discuss the project, telling me, "We need a roof," several times, but she wasn't interested in doing the work, keeping a casual eye on things from afar. It sometimes takes awhile to recalibrate when your original plans are thwarted. It may have had something to do with that, but I didn't pry.

Most of what was happening in the work bench area was kids struggling to drive nails. There were no walls or roofs taking shape. At one point Ben had the idea that we were building a climbing wall, so that's what it became. I asked, "Is it a climbing wall for the tree house?" and he answered, "Good idea!"

When the kids arrived on Wednesday, I'd installed the new climbing wall in a quasi-secure spot. As kids climbed on it, Ben complained, "But that was my electric wagon," apparently having moved on in his own thinking. But most of the kids accepted it as a climbing wall, trying it out for a day, then having exhausted its challenges, abandoning it entirely on Thursday.

Still, we now have a ladder, the idea of a pulley, a climbing wall, and a vision that I hope is still being held by Charlotte. It's still not a tree house, and a tree house is still impossible, but those are all steps that could take us there.

And as before, I want this to be continued . . .

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Meagan said...

Why did you want them using pullies? Is it just the practicality of preschoolers on ladders? Is it an educational difference, helping them see different ways of doing things? Is it generally a better way to build a tree house? Is it just because pullies are cool? (I've never built a tree house, but I'd like to when myson is old enough.)

Teacher Tom said...

Yes Meagan, there's no way we could have a half dozen preschoolers atop 15 foot ladders, actually building a tree house, let alone build a tree house that a person could actually use. There's also no way for preschoolers to use pulleys to hoist a finished tree house into the trees. Perhaps you are assuming that this is a projects the adults will DO for the kids at some point, but that's not how our curriculum works: I want the children to take the project as far as they can -- this does not mean we need to wind up with something that you or I would call a tree house. It's only important that the children, through this learning process, wind up either creating something that they call a tree house or they use what they are learning as a stepping stone to something else . . . like a climbing wall.

Meagan said...

I think you're misunderstanding my intent Tom. I'm not assuming anything, I'm trying to get practical ideas of how you build a treehouse with kids. :-) I am asking why you are doing things this way because I want to know why you're doing it this way. Not because I think you should be doing it differently.

Dawn Elise Carlsen said...

Your series on the tree house project is lovely and lyrical. Look at those "babies" building a ladder, carrying it together and then building a climbing wall. Amazing cooperative work and play for such young children. I love the way you encourage their dreams, visions and abilities. Amazing things happen when, as you say, "we hold kids capable". - Dawn