Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Single Most Dangerous Thing We Do

I suppose if you asked me what I "expect" the kids to do with these blocks, I would say, "Build," but from the moment I saw them in the catalog, I knew there was another side to them: a wild side, a dangerous side, the side that would have appealed to me as a boy. I usually tell the parent-teacher responsible for the block area that I consider playing with these blocks to be the single most dangerous thing we do at Woodland Park. Heads collide. Smaller children have blocks, along with bodies, fall on them. Structures that look both soft and stable, topple over when we try to climb on them . . . Their greatest danger, however, lies in their apparent safety. They're soft and light, right? There are no sharp corners, no hard parts. Inexperienced children and adults alike tend to "let down" when they see them, as if these pillow-like qualities reduce their own responsibility to be cautious, to assess risk, and consider others. I once made the mistake of laying gym mats down under them: never had we had more tears than on that day as caution was thrown to the wind . . . I'll admit there are times when I wonder why I trot these out 2-3 times a year. They're exhausting for all of us, and they occupy a great deal of my precious storage space when not in use, but then I think of how it's an environment in which we hone those aforementioned negotiating and risk assessment skills, how we get to practice studying our friend's faces and bodies for how they might be feeling, how we find ourselves on both ends of the play if we put any time into it at all. As the teacher, I come prepared to work.

We played with them again all last week, and as usual it was a lot of work for everyone; fun, sweaty work, but work nonetheless. In our Pre-3 class we worked primarily on the idea of "knocking down buildings" and "not knocking down buildings." At home, the distinction probably doesn't matter much, with the game of build-it-up-and-knock-it-down being for many two-year-olds the game you play with blocks, but at school, where we share both blocks and space, learning to make a distinction will become increasingly important as classmates begin to erect more and more meaningful constructions. I certainly don't expect children this young to be able to consistently make these judgements or to control those impulses, but I was gratified when, by the end of this week, many of the kids had started experimenting with the idea of "knocking down building" vs. "not knocking down building" on their own, often asking first or even applying their own labels to their work. We've been working on this idea since the beginning of the school year, of course, so it's not as if they've never heard it before, but the giant foam blocks really bring the contrasts out nicely.

With the older children in the 3-5's class, we're still working on the concept, but risk assessment and thinking about our friends was more in the forefront of our work together. For some kids, the temptation to hurl ones body at the ramparts, to pig pile, to wrestle and writhe, is just too much to resist, and we certainly don't forbid this type of play, but there are other people to consider beyond whether or not it's okay to knock things down. We spent a lot more time "planning" our rougher play, making sure we limited the potential for injury or collateral damage, taking a moment to be sure everyone was on board with any destructive plans, and warning those who didn't want to get mixed up in it to get out of the way.

I was well-prepared for all of this, having taught these two classes for a long time, but this week was my first experience in breaking out the giant foam blocks with our 5's class. Yes, there were still some challenges with the whole knocking down business, although most was of the unintentional variety. And the play did tend toward the wild side at times, but what we really had to work on the most was the phenomenon of block hoarding.

There are only about 30-35 individual blocks in all. On Wednesday, the first few builders quickly used up the limited supply, creating "ships" and "castles" and whatnot in separate corners of our blue rug, then essentially spent the rest of the time resenting or defending the various hoards.

Hey, that's was my block!

You can't come in here, this is our castle!

They're using them all!

The natural state of defending a hoard is misery all around (are you listening Wall Street?).

I'd assigned myself the block station specifically so I could see how things evolved with this group. I did my best to assist in the constant, tearful negotiations, but at the end of the day few of them were satisfied. When we were done, I asked the group if they'd had fun playing with them and there was a general agreement that they had, which was followed up by a lot of complaining about individual behavior, most of which centered around the hoarding.

On Thursday, then, our next class session, I initiated a discussion about what we could do to prevent a repeat of Wednesday. The kids quickly coalesced around the ideas that we needed some rules, or agreements, about how we were going to play together with these blocks. We brainstormed a list of 4 ideas, the first being "We all build one big castle together and share it" with the other ideas being some version of creating fiefdoms. After some discussion we narrowed it down to a choice between:

     1)    We all build one big castle
     2)    Each person gets 6 blocks

I can't recall which option actually won the consequent vote, but it was close and even after the hands were counted, the controversy remained. There was some shouting.

All the adults in the room, of course, knew that the math didn't work on the second option. I started by trying to explain it, but it only made matters worse. We were going to have to make the idea concrete.

"Okay, I have an idea. Let's see what it would look like if everyone got six blocks." Normally, these giant foam blocks reside in our storage room, but for the week we've been stashing them, Tetris-style, stacked to the ceiling along one wall. "Let's get out the blocks and divide them into piles of six."

I didn't have to wait for agreement as they turned as one, joyfully pulling the whole thing down on their heads. After the initial hubbub, however, we got to work, and with coaching from the adults in the room, we managed to create something approximating six piles of six. There were some shouts of, "These are mine!" but I kept reminding them, "This is just an experiment," and "We're just practicing," and "I'll decide who gets which pile."

When the process was complete, we got all the kids to stand just off the edge of the rug, looking at their handiwork. I said, "Now, this is just an experiment to figure out if we still like the idea of everyone getting six blocks . . . Elena, let's pretend this pile of blocks is yours. Go stand by it." I then, one at a time, picked kids to stand by a pile, making sure to leave the children who were the most adamant about the six blocks per kid plan without a stash to call their own. I could see the anxiety in their faces as the number of available piles dwindled. When I called the last name, a couple of them burst into tears at the realization that they were the ones left out.

I asked the children left behind, "How do you feel about this solution?"



I don't like it!

It's not fair!

Then I asked the children who were standing by those piles of six, "How do you feel about the solution?" A few of them indicated they didn't think it was really so bad, but they all agreed, as they looked at their friends standing over there, left out, that it wasn't fair.

We then moved the blocks back off the rug and re-convened our little democratic meeting. "Okay then," referring to the easel upon which I'd been writing down our ideas and tabulating our votes, "We'll vote again since the first one was so close. If you want everyone to get six blocks raise your hand." Crickets. "If you want us to all build one big castle together, raise your hand." Unanimous.

As the kids got to work then, building, they started off in the pattern from before -- This is my ship. This is our castle -- so I reminded them, "We agreed that we were going to build one big castle together." It took awhile, but soon they were saying things like, "This is the castle's ship," and "This is our castle."  I joined the play at first, using stray blocks to "connect" the emerging constructions, saying things like, "This can be the bridge that hooks the ship to the castle." After awhile, the kids started doing it on their own and I backed off. 

After about 15 minutes, every block was in use, and we'd settled into dramatic play in which all the girls were queens and all the boys were kings, except for a couple of "drivers" and a "guard" who marched back and forth outside the castle humming the chant of the witch's guards from the movie Wizard of Oz.

At one point, someone had the idea of building a new castle. Marit took on the job of eliciting agreement from the rest of the kids, then after a frenzy of demolition, they constructed another castle. A similar play pattern emerged on the following day.

Yesterday, I was mostly just sitting on a bench off to the side, watching, listening, relaxing, a new experience for me when it comes to the "single most dangerous thing we do."

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1 comment:

Michele @ The Hills are Alive said...

Love it. and your patience and trust in the kids and the process. Well done !