Friday, November 08, 2013

"Open" And "Closed"

Play is like love, any kind is the good kind, but what makes my heart sing the loudest is when large groups of kids play together, not because they've been organized by adults for a soccer match or party game, but because they've freely and spontaneously chosen it.

It's our 5's class that is visiting the fire station today, but it's been our 3-5's class that has fallen on our "fire fighting supplies" in this way this week, charging about the place with their helmets and hoses in groups of 10 or more, putting out fires and rescuing babies. 

Of course, it helps to have enough of said supplies to go around, which we do. Last year, a parent brought me a large stack of fire fighter party hats, cheap, thin, disposable plastic things, complete with rubber bands that stretch under chins to hold them on their heads. I accepted them, as I do most donations, saying thank you, but thinking that they were such chintzy things that they could never be used in dramatic play, figuring I'd want to come up with some sort of art project involving these items which were, after all, designed for one-time use. It turns out I was wrong about these helmets. We have a half dozen sturdier helmets at the bottom of the supply tub that have been ignored by the children in favor of these flimsy things. It's probably because they are so light weight and easy to keep on our heads (what with the rubber bands and all), but there is also something in the fact that everyone who wants to play gets an identical one, marking them as a full-fledged member of the team. 

Our hoses, which are also plentiful, albeit on their last legs, are lengths of the kind of gray pipe insulation you can buy at any hardware store. These we've been using for years. The kids identify them as fire hoses without any coaching or coaxing and no matter how hard you swing them, it's virtually impossible to injure a playmate, wether by accident or on purpose.

These dinosaurs have been rescued and are on a stretcher (formerly the base of a rocking horse that lives permanently in our outdoor space) which as many as a half dozen fire fighters have been carrying around the place. 

The intensity of the large group collaboration has really been a wonder to behold these past few days, with boys and girls finding roles within the game, jostling, joking, and negotiating, merging their imaginations and knowledge together in a way that seems magical. This is something I could never manufacture, or rather, if I'm being self-congratulatory about it, I could only have manufactured by bringing out a tub of helmets and hoses, setting them down on the ground, then stepping back.

I suppose one might ask, If this is so good, why aren't the fire fighter supplies available all the time? Why must the children wait until you chose to bring them out and set them on the ground? Shouldn't the children always have this choice since it's their space and their education?

Over the years, I've been chided at times by readers when I've written about some things being "closed" and others being "open" around our classroom. This came up most recently when I mentioned that we hang fabric covers over our in-classroom storage to signal that certain items are closed, removing them to signal that it's open. Likewise we "close" the sensory table with a piece of fabric. Why not just leave everything open? The short answer is because we have a ton of stuff. In my experience, in a room full of 20+ kids, if all the shelves were open, that would mean that all the stuff would be pulled out each day, creating a chaotic clutter that would make it impossible to walk, let alone engage in meaningful play. As it is, there is always a child or two who are driven to empty any shelf to which they have access, pulling, say, all of the blocks onto the floor, or dumping all the pretend produce from the toy fridge. As it is, there are times when even moving from one part of the room to another without twisting an ankle is a challenge. For practical purposes alone, some things must remain closed.

But there's more to it that this. We also have a storage room that is almost as large as our classroom, stuffed to the ceiling with supplies of all sorts, a massive collection of "closed" materials. Throughout our space, there are closed doors and child gates designed to close off other parts of the building in which we lease our space, places that are "closed" to the children. There is a fence surrounding our outdoor classroom, effectively closing off the rest of the world. This is our environment, my colleague, our third teacher. It's my job to listen to the children, to observe them, to anticipate and then to work with the third teacher to create a space within which we can freely play. Free play does not mean, and should not mean, everything all the time.

That said, some version of fire fighter play happens almost every day at Woodland Park, smaller groups of children employing imaginary helmets and hoses to accomplish the same thing, but when the box of special supplies emerges, when the cheap party hats and pipe insulation are "open," the novelty, the excitement, the specialness can ignite a flame unlike nothing else. It's the way the world works as schools and stores and restaurants are sometimes opened and sometimes closed, as holidays and birthdays roll around once a year, and as even the leaves on the trees are sometimes on the branches and sometimes on the ground as nature opens and closes parts of itself in the cycle of its seasons. There is magic in this: it's how such crude stuff as cheap party hats and pipe insulation are made so beautifully special.

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