Monday, September 24, 2012

The Unicycle Merry-Go-Round

When most people see the unicycle merry-go-round, they assume it's some sort of antediluvian relic from an era when playground equipment was fun. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that no part of it is plastic. They're usually surprised to learn that it was one of the first major purchasing commitments I made as a teacher. 

I can't recall how much it cost, but it was several hundred dollars, a lot of money for our little school. It was one of my early attempts to do something about improving the small slab of asphalt we used for an outdoor space in those days. I liked the idea that it really wouldn't work unless kids were riding it together, peddling. I imagined them looking inward as they did it, smiling at one another.

We recently refreshed our wood chip ground cover, which entirely buried the track upon which the wheels turn.  These guys took matters in to their own hands.

It was popular right from the start and I was relieved, after such an expense, that kids were using it nearly every day, pretty much as I'd envisioned, but also in a way I'd not envisioned. Some of the kids, instead of sitting on the seats, wanted to push it, running in a circle. The old space was cramped and we'd positioned the unicycle merry-go-round a few feet from a brick wall (in fairness to us, anyplace we would have positioned it would have been near a wall). Sure enough, on our first day playing with it, a boy with hemophilia tripped, sending his body slamming into the bricks -- no blood, but it's the internal bleeding you need to worry about when someone has this condition. Fortunately, his father was there and the boy had recently been injected with a clotting agent, but as a result, we adults made a rule stipulating bottoms on the seats and hands on the handlebars.

They got it going quite fast.

It gnawed at me, this rule, because I have a genuine commitment to empowering the children to make their own rules, to the effectiveness of natural consequences, and a belief in children learning to assess their own risks. This rule flew in the face of those principles and was likely why it was such a hard one to enforce, with adults repeating it to the kids over and over throughout the day, and the children never really internalizing it, always needing the reminder.

When we moved to our new space I wondered if the unicycle merry-go-round had a future. It's designed for relatively flat surfaces, like asphalt, with a narrow metal track on which the wheels run. Our new outdoor classroom has nary a paved part, let alone a flat area, and once we decided to cover the ground with wood chips, I figured we'd render the thing inoperable, the only question being whether we should sell it or hang onto it as a sort of sculptural piece. With everything else going on, however, it was a low-priority decision so we found it a home and let it ride.

Then, making an inadvertent mockery of our old rule, began to let go, and hurl themselves onto the ground.

The kids figured out fairly quickly that if they were going to ride it, the track needed to be cleared off first, so, at least in the beginning, I made a point of keeping a couple kid-sized brooms at hand, but they were largely eschewed as most of the children found it easier to just remove the offending bits by hand.

At first, both the children and adults attempted to enforce our rule; or at least I did, and through me, they did. It was habit formed from asphalt, brick walls, and hemophilia, one that took awhile for me to break. At first parents-teachers would look at me, and ask, "Is this still a rule?" and I'd answer, "Yes, bottoms on the seats and hands on the handlebars," but gradually I began to feel like an idiot, especially since the wood chips on the tracks made it nearly impossible to pick up any speed.

But I am capable of breaking old habits. So, now the children play with the unicycle merry-go-round anyway they feel safe. Sometimes kids even sit atop the central hub while their friends pedal. And the adults are no longer in the nagging business.

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