Monday, April 07, 2014

The Goal Of Life

Those who have never worked with young children simply cannot understand. No matter how meticulous one is, things rarely go as planned. And it's hard for those who have never taught where the children lead to understand that when things get off track, they will stay off track no matter how hard you push, perhaps especially if you push. If things are ever going to get back on track it will be because an opening presents itself and an attentive teacher seizes it. We're rightly proud of ourselves when this happens, but more often than not, and for the better, our own agendas are necessarily set aside as the children pursue the experiences, explorations, and knowledge that drive them, both as individuals and as a community.

This is how a play-based curriculum has to work. Children were designed by god or nature with not only a thirst for understanding, but a means by which to attain it: play. And by play, I mean free play, which is why a teacher's agenda can only, at best, be a starting point.

That said, it's impossible, I find, to go into my day without some sort of agenda, at least insofar as I have expectations and best guesses about what my provocations will inspire. I once set up a small stage with props, costumes, and chairs arranged like an audience only to have the first boy though the door see a ship, and that's what it was for the rest of the day. I once had an idea for how we could create a giant marble painting, only to have it turn into a tempera paint wallow. These kinds of things happen every day: last week our art table was primarily used as a place for girls in gowns to paint on purple, elbow-length "princess gloves." Despite a carefully constructed and scrupulously executed democratic process to decide how we were going to manufacture a "moon" for our year-end play, the children, in what I think of as day-to-day retail democracy, decided amongst themselves to use markers to add color to the plain white paper upon which they'd previously agreed. When I asked, they simply answered without looking up, "We're decorating it."

Nothing ever goes as planned.

Except sometimes it does.

One of those times happened a couple weeks ago in our 8 child Pre-K class. Normally, when we play with our marble runs, we do it in our awesome sensory table because the basins help contain the marbles. On Tuesday, however, I wanted to try get this group down on the floor, all together. For some reason I thought it might foster teamwork. During the transition time between our lunch together and circle time, I said, "I have marble runs."

They were uniformly enthusiastic, which is rare even for such a small group.

I said, "I want to play with them on the floor, but I'm worried the marbles will go everywhere. My idea is to spread out these towels for under the marble runs to keep the marbles from going under all the furniture." This was certainly true, I was hoping that the towels would dampen the tendency for marbles to run across the floor, but I was additionally hoping to create a smaller work area, which would cause the children to play closer together instead of spreading out into their own little fiefdoms around our larger rug. I sometimes arrange spaces like this so they have to bump elbows.

Still enthusiastic, they spread the towels out themselves, arranging them picnic blanket style, fussing over making sure all the edges matched up, creating exactly the sort of space for which I'd hoped.

Then they got busy building. All but one of them worked as part of a team, which is again something I'd imagined happening. They talked amongst themselves about what they were doing:

"Let's make it more stable."

"Let's try one now! It came out there!"

"Let's make this a double."

"Let's use that yellow one?"

"Hey, let's connect ours together."

If you had asked me before the day began, I'd have told you I wanted to hear lots of sentences starting with the word "let's," let us, a contraction that has more magic in it than the word "please." It's the invitation that makes community happen.

There was no bickering, hoarding, or excluding. There was cooperation, compliments, and sharing. Most of all, there were discussions about observations and ideas, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. This is the goal of a play-based curriculum: this community of sociable, motivated children who work well together. It's also, not coincidentally, the goal of life. These are people who are, through their free play, figuring out the most important things.

When I suggested we rehearse our play, they all agreed, put away the toys, scooped up the towels, and raced to the stage.

Nothing ever goes according to my plan, but if I'm doing it right, it always goes according to theirs. And every now and then I get to walk away with the illusion that I know what I'm doing.

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