Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Curse Of The One-Trick Pony

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to visit several preschools, a couple of which had playgrounds that were quite impressive. They had obviously had healthy budgets with which to work and the spaces were designed with creativity and insight. What caught my eye first in both places were their stainless steel water play installations; shining, elegant, upgrades to the plastic house gutters we use at Woodland Park. The thing is, in my short time there I never saw kids playing with them. Granted, it was winter, but still, it gets to be winter here in Seattle as well and the kids rarely take a break from water play.

It didn't take me long to conclude that the fault lay in their immutable permanence. I'm sure that they were quite popular when they were first installed, all solid and gleaming, stable, reliable waist-high channels through which water flowed. And I suspect that children new to the space are drawn to them for a time during their early days at the school, but like with anything, the newness wears off. It's the curse of the one-trick pony.

Several years ago, a big meme running through these blogs that address matters related to early childhood education was the idea of what we were calling "water walls," vertical installations mounted on fences and walls featuring funnels and troughs and tubes, through which children poured water while conducting their free-form experiments with liquid and gravity. Many of these were adult created on behalf of children, but I was interested, as I always am, in figuring out how children could at least take part in the manufacture of their own water wall. Since then, we've made at least a dozen variations (if you put the words "water wall" in the search box over there on the right you'll find a few more related posts). While ours is not so fancy, it has the benefit, I think, of being very inexpensive and, even more important, temporary.

"Inexpensive and temporary" is the antidote to one-trick ponies because you can easily move them off to pasture when the children's play has run its course, because it doesn't pain you in the pocketbook when they do, and because they can always be made new again simply through the passage of time. Indeed, that has become one of my key criteria when considering new additions to our space, indoors or out: Can we easily get it out of the way when the kids are done with it? If it can be brought back, like our water walls, all the better. Even our cast-iron water pump, a "toy" that never seems to grow old, is installed in such a way that it can be packed up, cistern and all, and put away if necessary.

Last week, one of the kids found the old water wall panels shoved against the fence down by the work bench, pulled them out, dropped them on the ground, and asked, "What is this?" a question that lead to not one, but two water walls being built during the week. They served as the buzzing center of our play for a couple days, then for a day as a place where one or two children experimented in relative solitude. On Friday, they stood, ignored, as the children moved on to other explorations and inventions, some involving water, some not.

I expect to leave them there, leaned there against the fence, for another week or so as invitations. Often the play of young children in groups cycles back to old experiments several times before running its course.  But it will run it's course and then we'll want that space for something else.

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