Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Democracy In Action

One of the magic parts of teaching a class of two and three year olds is to watch them discover one another. There's a group of boys, for instance, who had, just before the holiday break, started connecting with one another by crowding into our tiny playhouse, leaning from one of the windows and shouting out together, cracking one another up. There's quite a bit of jostling as they vie for space in the window, but so far it's been part of the game, part of the learning about one another.

Being away from school for two whole weeks can feel like a lifetime and there have been times when the return is a little like starting all over, but not for these guys who found one another again in the tiny playhouse and remembered their game together.

During the summer, I purchased a wheelbarrow for the school. We were always borrowing them for adult work parties and other projects, so I figured we should just own one as they're not terribly expensive. Besides, I thought, if I get a smallish one, the kids will probably have fun with it. And they have had fun with it, I guess, or at least tried to. I've not really seen any kids actually using it over the past several months, but I find evidence it's been used in the form of finding it tipped on its side, abandoned, usually some place very inconvenient like under the swings or in the middle of well traveled walkways. I return it to its parking place only to later find it again, once more abandoned on it's side where it's blocking the way.

I'd begun to feel that it was simply too big for the kids to manage. I'd concluded that they were trying to use it, and had been using, pushing it until it tipped over, then finding it too heavy to set upright again had simply left it where it had fallen. A couple weeks before the break, however, a group of kids in our 3-5's class managed to wrangle it into the top level of the sand pit, installing it upside down near our cast iron water pump which had been rendered inoperable due to freezing weather. Day after day then, they reassembled up there around the wheelbarrow, using it as a kind of replacement for the pump which had previously drawn them together. Heads down, hand full of shovels and other improvised tools they mounded sand around it. Adults tend to think that groups of people need leaders in order to function, but that's not true. There was a lot of discussion about what they were building. Some say it's a "wood grinder." Others are calling it a "train machine," while some have simply labeled it "the construction site." Whatever the case, there has been a continual swarm of activity around this new device, a team of workers, looking for all the world like a well-oiled machine, yet really made up of a collection of independently operating preschoolers, each contributing to the project as he is willing and able. 

We left the wheelbarrow as it was over the break. So far, they haven't returned to their game, but on Monday, children from our 5's class discovered it. When they asked, I told them that someone had called it a "wood grinder," and they went to work figuring out how it works.

At bottom, this is what we come to school to do, it seems to me: find other people, then figure out how to do things together. I wish I knew why humans do this, although I suspect it's an adaptive trait, one that has helped guarantee our survival for so long on the planet. No curriculum planner would have come up with these projects -- yelling together from a playhouse or building a "wood grinder" from a wheelbarrow -- they're the sort of thing that can only emerge from children with the freedom to play together as their internal lights guide them. 

This, my friends, is democracy in action, real democracy, the kind that can only be learned through opportunities to freely play with the other people. No one is telling anyone what to do in order to produce some pre-determined end result, but rather through the process of coming together, through doing and talking, we the people emerge. The particulars of any project are always secondary to that.

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