Friday, April 25, 2014

Playing Community

Although I'd more or less been watching all along, the project was well under way before I recognized it. A bunch of boys, starting out as independent or duet players, had wound up with a large, single train track resulting from a fad to "connect together" and now they were all figuring out how to play with their creation. There was a group of 8-9 of them, jamming their bodies together, crawling across one another, jostling, each pursuing his own interest, but within the context of this train playing community, the project-based workgroup, that had spontaneously emerged from their collective efforts.

Most of them had assembled their own long trains and were attempting to maneuver them at the same time on the same tracks.

A couple of the guys were more prickly than others, barking out commands and objections, waiting, sometimes futilely sometimes not, for the others to react as they wanted. Others were more bent upon keeping the track together, stopping frequently to re-erect a bridge or re-link a connection. A couple were all about collecting "favorite" train cars, a couple were social lubricators bouncing from place to place, filling in wherever there was an empty space, while some kept the "story" going, talking generally to the group about what they were doing, holding the vision for the group, making train sound effects. And all of this within a small, fragile space.

"We need more curvy pieces over here!"

"Hey, that's part of my train!"

"I'm stuck between your train and your train, we either have to back up or go forward."

"Aw, the bridge is knocked down."

"Beep, beep, you're sitting on the track!"

It struck me as a more sophisticated version of the classic preschool puppy pile, a writhing knot of boys negotiating, arguing, asserting rights, ideas, complaints, and solutions, not necessarily politely, but effectively, efficiently even. The best part, I think, was that for them I wasn't even there: this was their project, their world, and each was playing a chosen role while reacting to the chosen roles of the others, then changing as the need arose only to fall back to a default position when the moment passed.

Not long ago, the sharp words they often used with one another, the commands, the assertions of rights,  might have escalated into hitting and tears. Voices and bodies were still bossy or whiney or even angry, but no one seemed to take them personally, but rather as simply part of the communication or personality, an expression of emotion mixed in with the actual words. They listened to one another even when they didn't agree. They knew which friends they could simply nudge out of the way and which would need verbal coaxing. They followed and lead, but only to a point; only as far as their individual consciences or creative visions allowed. 

There were were many instances when as a younger, less experienced teacher I would have leapt in with all my teacher politenesses and techniques to guide and goad, yet yesterday as I sat on a bench at the edge of our checkerboard rug, letting things go several rounds beyond civility, I realized that my intervention would not only have been unnecessary (unless mere courtesy was the goal) but would have, in a moment, broken up the entire project, scattering the boys back into fiefdoms. I regretted how often in the past I'd rendered children incompetent by stepping in too soon.

These guys have been playing together in spaces like this, with limited resources like this, for many months now and it shows. It has, in fact, been showing for some time. They know one another, care about one another, and the history they've created together has shaped itself into a genuine community.

A couple nights ago I was in a meeting in which the subject of community came up. Someone laughed about a neighbor who was forever taking the lead in making things happen, quoting her as explaining her motivation, "I just like playing community with other people." Maybe it was that expression that allowed me to see what was happening there amidst the trains yesterday.

Later in the outdoor classroom, I walked in on another project that was well under way involving most of the same boys. This time they had wrangled a plank of wood to the top of our small climbing frame. The concept had started as a kind of catapult that launched buckets of water, but by the time I was on the scene, they had replaced the small plastic bucket with a large galvanized steel muck tub. They were working like a line of ants transporting containers of water from the pump, up the ladder, and across the walkway to fill the tub, negotiating, arguing, asserting rights, ideas, complaints, and solutions, not necessarily politely, but effectively, efficiently even, just as they had earlier on the checkerboard rug.

We seem internally driven to create community and that's what communities are all about: people working together to solve a problem or create an opportunity. It's within communities both large and small, whether we call them workgroups or committees or crews or congregations or teams, that we spend most of our time outside our homes. It's really what we do with our lives if you think about it, getting together with other people to figure things out.

When the muck tub was full, everyone stepped back. I don't know how they had decided who got to pull the cord that they'd tied onto the board as the launching mechanism, but the entire community took a moment of silence. The cord was yanked and instead of soaring over their heads as they'd imagined, the heavy tub slid sideways from the board and banged off the concrete wall drenching it with water.

The first words I heard were, "That was cool!" Then, "Let's do it again!"

Just playing community with other people: that what it's all about. Let's do it again.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love this post (and your whole blog). I share it with everyone I know and am so grateful that you write! I wonder if I could pick your brain for a sec? I have a 4 year old who is in a great, progressive preschool here in the Bay Area (Peninsula School if that at all rings a bell: He's has had a super short fuse at school (and home) recently, and his teachers are concerned that many of his classmates are going to get angry enough with him that they will start to blame him for things whether or not he had any part to play. We're all looking for ways to help him, but all coming up short. How have you handled this with kids in your classrooms? Would love to hear any tactics and ideas you might have!