Monday, June 30, 2014

Achievement Is Just Gravy

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." ~James Baldwin

Ninety-six percent of us say that we are trying to raise ethical, caring children with high moral character, yet eighty percent of our kids say their parents and teachers care more about achievement and happiness than caring for others. As reported in a recent piece in The Atlantic:

In the study, "The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending About Values," the authors point to a "rhetoric/reality gap," an incongruity between what adults tell children they should value and the messages we grown-ups actually send through our behavior. We may pay lip service to character education and empathy, but our children report hearing a very different message.

And here's the irony:

Studies show that kids' ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance.

In other words, if you genuinely care about your child's achievement and happiness you'd better jump on that character and empathy bandwagon with both feet.

Unlike the study's authors, I'm not at all surprised by the results of these Harvard Graduate School of Education findings. I've never met a parent or teacher who would admit to placing academics over ethics in their pantheon of values, yet time and again I've witnessed these very adults "teach" precisely the opposite, be it through direct instruction, like forbidding a kindergartner from helping his friend who is struggling on a test, or role modeling, like pushing to the front of a queue or parking in a handicap parking spot because we're in a hurry. This is true on an institutional level as well. When preschoolers discuss big problems like homelessness and hunger, their solutions are the ones we never actually try: give them houses and give them food. As a society, however, despite having plenty of vacant housing and ample excess food, we object to fundamental human kindness by selfishly, and quite convolutedly, fretting that helping others with the basics of food and shelter will make them lazy, that they'll come to rely upon our tax dollars, and that they will be made somehow immoral simply by virtue being the beneficiaries of our own moral behavior.

And so it doesn't surprise me in the least that 8 in 10 American middle schoolers care more about their own achievement and happiness than ethics, character, and moral values. This is not due to a break down in the family, people turning away from the teachings of the church, the media, or some fundamental flaw in one political party or another. No, this is due to each of us and the priorities we demonstrate through our behavior on a day-to-day basis.

So while this study doesn't tell us anything we didn't already suspect, except the hopeful fact that adults do, at least, desire to raise their children to be good citizens, it begs the question: how do we teach character and empathy?

The study's authors are rather vague about this. I know there are curricula out there that purport to support this kind of learning, and I've heard good things about some of them, but it seems wrong to me to rely on the abstractions of worksheets and videos and exercises and formulas to address what is really the most basic of human things: getting along with the other people. From where I sit, the only way to really learn this is the way we learn everything -- through practice. And it's damned hard to practice empathy and character when you spend your day competing with the other people the way we do in traditional schools.

No, the only way to practice these fundamental skills of citizenship is by working with, not in opposition, to the other people. A play-based, or project-based, curriculum is the ideal venue for children to experiment with these vital skills, these orientations and habits we all want for them. When we play together, we must learn to listen, to accommodate, to understand our playmates and their wants and needs. When we undertake projects together, we practice sharing, compromising, and looking at the world from the perspective of our workmates. These are the building blocks of empathy and character.

Every study ever done that looks at the key components of a "successful" life as measured by such things as steady jobs, a stable home life, the companionship of friends, and self-reported satisfaction, finds that it comes from the things that can only be learned by playing together: sociability, working well with others, and motivation. That it also leads to "achievement" is just gravy.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Being "Strict"

While the rest of the kids crowded around the workbench, awaiting their turn at power drill painting, "Alan" was working on his own independent project. Finding our crate of wood scraps, he was purposefully arranging pieces on the ground.

This is summer at Woodland Park, a time when children come together for only two weeks at a time, rather than for the nine month long haul of the regular school year. There are many of our "regular" students enrolled for a session or two, but these rosters are mostly comprised of girls and boys who have never been together before, or at least not since last summer. As a school that sets community building at the center of it's curriculum, this is a fascinating time for me. It's like the first week of school every week: the learning curve is steep, and just as we're beginning to understand the most clearly defined contours of who we are, together, in this place, with this teacher, it's time to say goodbye. It's a bit like having a look at a "control group" in the experiment of where I am as a teacher and where our school is as a place to build community. 

Yesterday after class a boy and his mom who have been with us for the past three years brought a lunch to share with me after the others had left to commemorate our last day together. We sat down at our art tables, along with the big sister and her friend. The older girls started talking about their elementary school teachers, describing some of them as "strict." Joking, I said, "I'm the most strict teacher." The children got the joke, saying, "You're not strict at all," but mom corrected them: "Teacher Tom is strict about some things. He's strict about treating each other well. He's strict about not hitting or hurting people or taking things or being mean . . . Well, maybe "strict" isn't the right word. Strict in the gentlest possible way."

At first I wanted to object, but upon a moment's reflection, had to concede her point. It's true that the things I'm most "strict" about are those foundational principles of community that always emerge from the agreements (the rules) the children make with one another. For better or worse, I am the executive charged with carrying out the legislative intentions of the children and I do take that responsibility seriously. So in that sense, I suppose it's fair to say I'm strict.

But that's how it works during the regular school year, when we have the time to discuss and wrangle; when we have the luxury of agreeing and disagreeing, of failing and succeeding, of trying out this and trying out that. During the summer, however, we have no choice but to take it one day at time.

Several years ago, a couple boys, one with a year of experience at Woodland Park under his belt, Charlie, was eating snack with Nathan, a summer-only kid. Nathan suggested that once they were finished, they should race around the classroom, to which Charlie replied, "We can't. It's against the rules. No running inside." Nathan asked, "What happens if we break the rules?" After taking a moment to digest this idea, Charlie shrugged, "We don't break the rules."

I reckon I take Charlie's lead when it comes to summer: I tend to assume that the agreements from the most recently completed school year are still in force, even if we don't actually talk about "rules."

Alan was working on his project methodically, moving back and forth between his construction zone and the crate of wood scraps where he carefully selected pieces of a certain shape and size. While his back was turned, a younger boy, "Luke," spotted the creation. While Alan was bent over the wood crate, Luke helped himself to one of Alan's lengths of wood, then kicked at the construction, disheveling it. When Alan returned, he immediately noticed the alterations. He stood for a moment as if confused, looking from the ground to Luke, who still held the piece of wood he'd removed.

I'd been standing aloof, observing from a few feet away. Alan turned to me, "Teacher Tom, that boy is breaking my bridge."

I answered, "That's Luke. He probably doesn't know you're building a bridge."

"I don't want him to break my bridge."

"He probably doesn't know that either. Maybe you should tell him that."

Alan paused for a moment and I wondered if he was feeling that I'd abandoned him, even if it was to his own devices, but he apparently decided to give it a try. By now Luke had removed several more pieces of wood from the bridge. Alan said, "Luke, I'm building a bridge. I want you to stop breaking it."

Luke stopped in his tracks, looking from Alan to the wood on the ground. Alan said, "You're breaking my bridge."

Luke replaced the wood, then Alan dropped to the ground to arrange it more perfectly. Luke toddled away, returning moments later with a new piece of wood, not exactly the shape and size that Alan had been working with, but close enough, and lay it down in a way that more or less matched the pattern with which Alan had been working. 

Alan stared at Luke long and hard. When Luke returned with another piece of wood Alan apparently decided to share his project, showing him where to place it. When Luke then proceeded to awkwardly cross the bridge, Alan said to Luke, "It's our bridge."

These are the baby steps of community building, using one another's names, telling one another what we want, sharing resources that are always in some way limited, and undertaking projects that we come to call "ours." Throughout the entire interaction, I knew that if push came to shove, I'd have "strictly enforced" at least the spirit of the regular school year rule that you can't knock down other people's buildings. But before getting there I found myself attempting to adhere to a higher rule of giving the children the time and space to figure it out on their own without the interference of adults or rules they'd not had a voice in creating, and this time they did. 

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Equality Vs. Cruelty

Yesterday, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a "major shift" in how the federal government evaluates the effectiveness of special education programs. And by that he means, subjecting special needs students to the same sort of high stakes "tough love" rigor that is already reducing young children across the country to tears and causing them to hate school. He said, "We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to robust curriculum, they excel." He is not just wrong, he is lying. He does not know this. No one knows this. There is no data, research, or other reliable evidence to back him up. As with the rest of the corporate education "reform" agenda, this assertion is pure guesswork based upon an ideology that asserts that unleashing "powerful market forces" of competition, standardization, and punishment and reward, will magically make everything better.

Duncan is using the logic of the spanker: If I hit the kid hard enough and often enough, he'll come to see the light. Never mind that there is no science behind this "logic," indeed, most researchers point to significant negative consequences from spanking, just as they point to significant negative consequences from the drill-and-kill of high stakes testing, rote learning, teachers separated from unemployment by one bad batch of blueberries, and schools closing, only to be replaced by unproven, often shoddy, corporate charter schools that have no problem toeing the line Duncan, Bill Gates and the rest of these bullies have drawn in the sand.

The sick part is that the guys behind this purport to be all about data. They are forever throwing out assertions that start, like Duncan's did, with the words "We know . . . ," but they simply do not know. They conflate knowing with believing. As a teacher, as a person who wants what's best for young children, I want to really know. I have my beliefs and ideas and ideologies like everyone else, but when it comes right down to it, what I do in the classroom is ultimately based upon what science tells us is best for children intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically. Yet here are these guys with deep pockets and positions of great power who are worshipers at the alter of "free markets" (as if free markets have ever existed) hell bent on subjecting our children to the cruelty of competition, standardization, and punishment and reward, you know, for their own good, even if it robs them of their childhood and kills their joy of learning.

I've been struggling with this for some time. How can we get through to these guys? I started with the hope that they would respond to reason.

For instance, much of the rationale for this corporate "reform" push comes from the US's middling scores on the international PISA tests and the resulting fear that "the Chinese are beating us." Of course, Finland is beating us too, regularly joining the Chinese at the top of the charts. So why is it that these guys are seeking to emulate the Chinese model of romanticized suffering instead of the much more humane and effective methods of the Finns? They do this even as the communist dictatorship of China is backing away from its drill-and-kill methods in favor of "schools that follow sound education principles" and that "respect . . .  students' physical and psychological development." Why are they ignoring the lessons of the democratic nation of Finland, a nation with a civic culture much more similar to the US, in favor of the admittedly failed methods of the dictatorial Chinese?

But reason is ineffective when it comes to ideologues. 

This has been a frustrating thing for me these past several years as I've become increasingly involved in the pushback against those who would turn our schools into institutions of vocational training at the expense of everything else. The primary focus of the Finn's educational system is on equity, community, and citizenship, and that, after all, is the primary function of education in a democracy. The rest of their education success comes from that. And that is the sort of schools for which I am fighting.

Let corporations train their own damn workers. Our schools have more important work to do. And that, at bottom, is why I think these corporate "reformers" are so focused on creating Dickensian schools: they hope it results in the sorts of workers they are seeking to fill their cubicles. Fine. I'm an adult. I can chose to not take part, but forcing it on our children, even our children with special needs, that's pure cruelty, which sadly, seems to be the new American way.

I will be on the doorstep of the Gates Foundation this evening fighting for a different America, one based upon the democratic ideals of equality rather than the corporate ideology of cruelty.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Not The Time For Backing Down

I recently wrote about the Gates Foundation's call for a two year moratorium on high-stakes consequences for standardized tests in our public schools. As the primary driving force behind the corporate education "reform" movement, this sounded to some like an admission that education dilettantes like Bill Gates were starting to listen to the growing criticism coming from those most impacted by their Dickensian vision for our nations schools, teachers, parents, and students. But we can't be that naive. As veteran teacher and founder of the Network for Public Education Anthony Cody recently wrote over at Education Week, this is clearly just a tactical measure designed to mollify us at a time when we are finally beginning to make a little headway in pushing back against the disaster the corporatists are making of our public schools:

The movement against high stakes testing and corporate reforms has had a few victories in recent months. The Common Core tests have been a disaster in New York, compounded by official arrogance and unwillingness to respond to protest. The Gates Foundation's $100 million data warehouse inBloom collapsed as a result of parental concerns about student privacy. This coming Thursday, there will be a teacher-led protest at the Gates Foundation's headquarters in Seattle (disclosure - I will be among the speakers at this event). Mayoral candidate Ras Baraka defeated a heavily funded rival in Newark, New Jersey, where corporate-style education reform was a top issue.

Some have suggested that this is an admission by the Gates folks that they need to take a closer look at the evidence, to re-evaluate, and to hold accountable those responsible for the disastrous prat fall of so many of the corporate-sponsored initiatives, a roll-out that has left children in tears, parents up-in-arms, and veteran teachers leaving the profession in record numbers. But as Cody points out, we would be naive to think that this is anything other than a delaying tactic. If indeed the Gates Foundation were following the evidence, they would have abandoned most of their agenda years ago:

A real appraisal of the evidence would reveal:
  • Charter schools are not providing systemic improvements, and are expanding inequity and segregation.
  • Attacks on teacher seniority and due process are destabilizing a fragile profession, increasing turnover.
  • Tech-based solutions are often wildly oversold, and deliver disappointing results. Witness K12 Inc's rapidly expanding virtual charter school chain, described here earlier this year.
  • Our public education system is not broken, but is burdened with growing levels of poverty, inequity and racial isolation. Genuine reform means supporting schools, not abandoning them.

It's clear, however, that they are not a community of evidence-based people. They are instead relying upon their faith in, as Gates puts it, "powerful market forces" they plan to "unleash" upon our schools, teachers, and children.

The fundamental problem with the Gates Foundation is that it is driving education down a path towards more and more reliance on tests as the feedback mechanism for a market-drive system. This is indeed a full-blown ideology, reinforced by Gates' own experience as a successful technocrat. The most likely hypothesis regarding the recent suggestion that high stakes be delayed by two years is that this is a tactical maneuver intended to diffuse opposition and preserve the Common Core project -- rather than a recognition that these consequences do more harm than good.

In other words, now is not the time for backing down. Now is the time to re-double our efforts.

I urge you to head over and read the rest of Cody's piece and if you live anywhere near Seattle, please come down to Westlake Center at 5 p.m. tomorrow and hear him speak as one of several local and national speakers who are taking part in our rally and march on the Gates Foundation headquarters. I'm sure there will be hundreds of us, but with your participation we can make it thousands. We can make this happen, but it will take all of us, teachers, parents, and students.

This is not some fight between equally armed political factions. What we have is democratically controlled public schools being systematically overrun and dominated by federal policies that mandate how students, teachers and administrators are held "accountable." These policies are being driven by a handful of large corporate philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. When we push back against this, we are advocating for participatory democracy, for a return to civil society based on the will of the people, rather than the purchase of influence. We want our schools controlled by locally elected representatives, not distant government or philanthropic bureaucracies.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Do Not Help The Children Get To The Top

One of the special features of our outdoor classroom is what we call the concrete slide, a slab of concrete poured on a steep slope as part of erosion control efforts that also includes several large lilacs. I've written about it before, telling the story of how we started our lives here some three years ago, banning the children from playing there, such were our fears that they would kill themselves on it.

It took us a month or so to pull ourselves together, and after quite a bit of consultation, came up with a solution that we felt mitigated the most extreme hazards without robbing the concrete slide of its challenge and thrill. Today, kids run up and down it all day, treating it, in combination with the lilacs, as a sort of fort or climber or just a place apart. Whereas I once positioned a parent-teacher nearby to warn of danger, I now find I need only instruct adults on one thing: Do not help children get to the top of the concrete slide.

This, of course, should be the adult role anywhere children play. If a child is incapable of getting places on her own, then she should not be up there. And while children still occasionally pick up raspberries and bruises on the concrete slide, our simple mitigations along with this lack of adult assistance has rendered it no more risky than any other square inch of our space. Indeed, I would reckon that children are a bit safer playing there given the level of concentration it takes to gain and maintain your place. Some of the 4-5 year olds basically live up there, interacting with the slope and the branches like the seasoned experts they are. 

By the same token, we rarely find 2-year-olds up there. It's not that they don't sometimes try, but the grade is quite steep, even for the most competent of them, and the alternative of climbing around from the side, while less steep, is a tangle of roots and rocks that require a bit of strategy. No, most of our youngest children challenge themselves at their own pace, perhaps struggling up a few feet before giving it up for another day. That's our greatest safety mitigation, getting out of the way and letting the children explore this unique feature at their own pace, using their own judgement.

That's not to say that our youngest children don't sometimes make their way up there. In fact, yesterday two of them did.

I was sitting at the bottom chatting with a crowd of fairly rowdy boys who had tied ropes to the top and were using them to climb up and down. They were swinging and jumping and running and climbing, demonstrating not only physical competency, but also a growing mastery of the fine art of playing on the concrete slide, with others, in a way that acknowledges that no one wants to fall, that we're all in this together. This is the kind of thing kids simply can't learn with adults forever cautioning them.

Through that tangle-town of legs, I noticed a very little girl carefully making her way along the back of the lilacs, using hands and feet to pick her way to the top. I wondered as I watched her how she would feel when she got up there, looking down that hard, steep slope, amidst all those larger, faster moving,  louder, more capable bodies. She inched her way along the top ridge, gripping the rope we installed up there for that purpose, her other hand clutching the chain link fence behind her. I half expected she would need me to rescue her.

When she got to a relatively clear spot she stood looking at the slope beneath her, then, apparently making up her mind, she cautiously fell into a squat, then settled onto her bottom. She sat there for quite some time, then, in the midst of a mini-maelstrom, studied on that slope, before rolling over onto her belly, feet downward. 

The older children didn't exactly acknowledge her, but they also didn't jostle or impede her as she lay there right in the middle of their games. I swear we could all see a sort of protective bubble around her, an unspoken acknowledgement that this little girl was trying something for the first time, a moment we all wanted to honor, not with warnings or rah-rah encouragements, but rather with a bit of space and time for her to do it her way.

Slowly she inched her way down. We call it a slide, but it isn't particularly slippery. I saw her shirt ball up, exposing her belly to the bare concrete. I imagine it hurt, but she didn't stop. When she finally got to the bottom she stood up, wiped her belly, pulled down her shirt and without a sound, moved on to other things.

Moments later, another young child, a boy, made his way to the top. This time, his older brother saw him as he sat there contemplating the challenge below. Sitting beside him and taking his hand, the siblings went together, going faster than the younger boy anticipated, and right at the bottom he lost control and spun around, landing on his face in the sand. I expected him to come up in tears, and he did show a face screwed up for a moment in pain. He looked at me, then held up his hands, which were covered in sand.

I said, "You can wipe them off on your pants."

"I can't do that."

"You can wipe them off on my pants."

He started to say, "I can't . . ." then smiled and came over to me, where he gently brushed the sand away.

Then, he too, moved on to other things.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

"No, I Showed You!

Of course, we keep a supply of bandages in our first aid kits for real blood lettings, but I also always have a box of my own at hand for those less serious (e.g., non-existent or ancient) owies. This is how it typically goes and is another example of a technique I call "playing dumb."

"Teacher Tom, I need a bandaid."

"Do you have a bloody owie?"

She shows me the afflicted body part.  Sometimes she'll confess it's not bloody any longer, but it was bloody yesterday. We'll usually have a discussion about how she got her owie.

"Okay, let me get you a bandaid." I remove one from the box saying, "I'll have to show you how it works."

"I know how, Teacher Tom."

"No you don't, I'm the grown-up and you're the kid. Show me your owie . . . Okay, so this is how it works. I have to stick it on." I then wrap the bandage, still in its wrapper, around her finger or knee. As it falls to the floor I say, "There, that's how it works . . . Hey, something's wrong with this bandaid! Let me try again." When it falls to the floor a second time, I say, "This bandaid is broken. I'll have to get you another one."

It's at this point that someone always says, "No, Teacher Tom. You have to open it first."

I play at being flummoxed. "What do you mean?"

"Open it . . . " This is usually when she takes matters into her own hands. Sometimes it's not the child with the owie, but rather an onlooker. "I'll show you."

As she starts removing the wrapper, alarmed, I'll say something like, "You're tearing it!" By this time, we've usually drawn a crowd. Someone will assure me that the bandage is just being opened. Once the bandage is removed from its wrapper, I officiously take it in hand again, saying something like, "Okay, now I'll show you how it works," and proceed to attempt to stick it to the owie without removing the backing from the adhesive side, which naturally results in it again fluttering to the floor. If she still has patience with me, I go through the whole "it's broken" routine again, but more often than not this is when she snatches it back from me and proceeds to apply it herself.

Once the wrapping has been disposed of properly, I'll say something like, "There I taught you how to put on a bandaid."

And more often than not she'll object, saying, "No, I showed you."

It's all part of our curriculum of teaching the children of Woodland Park to question authority.

I'm sure I'm not the only preschool teacher for whom boxes of bandages are a curricular essential.

At the beginning of each school year, during our monthly parent meeting, the parents of our incoming 2-year-olds give the rest of us tips on how to comfort their child when upset. "Bandaids" are always high on the list of comfort items, usually right after "books." It makes sense. Bandages are a concrete symbol of caring and healing.

Sometimes we make art with them, but more often than not we use them to heal our babies who are tragically covered in bloody owies.

It's dramatic play . . .

. . . it's a way to work on fine motor skills . . .

. . . we have conversations about our own experiences with owies . . .

. . . talk about body parts . . .

. . . and emotions. Oh, those poor, poor babies!

After awhile their owies will heal and they'll be all better.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

How To Build Your Own Backyard Playground

A couple days ago a reader left a comment on the Facebook page asking, "If I have $200 to make my backyard look a little more like your school, what should I get?"

First off, $200 is a pretty good budget for a project like that, mainly because most of the coolest stuff we have in our outdoor classroom we acquired at little or no cost. 

So here are some suggestions:

Sand or at least someplace for digging. Backyard sandboxes are great, but they're often really too small and too shallow for growing kids. When our community has created playgrounds, we always talk about "full body" sand pits. Sand, while not terribly expensive (around here we get about 60 lbs. for $3), could eat up that whole budget, however, but setting aside a digging area involving just regular dirt is an acceptable alternative.

And, of course, you'll need shovels, pails, and other tools. We use cheap plastic ones. We've tried metal, but galvanized steel buckets are heavier when full and tend to get bent out of shape quite easily in our rough and tumble environment. We do own some metal shovels, rakes, and hoes, but they aren't for day-to-day use even though they would probably make the work go easier. The reason is that our shovels are as often used as "weapons" as for digging, and while they both hurt, getting accidentally brained by a plastic shovel is generally preferred over being brained by a metal one.

Our two-level sandpit wouldn't be itself without a cast iron water pump. You can get a new one for under $50. Our's is mounted on a board that rests atop an inexpensive 30-gallon plastic tub that serves as our cistern. We drilled holes in the lid for the uptake pipe and for a hose to refill it when it's empty.

A natural extension of the pump, of course, are lengths of guttering. Ours are cut into 6-foot sections although we have a couple 10-footers stashed away for special uses. If you spend more than $200 on a pump set up, you've spent too much.

Using the gutters as loose parts is much preferred over a permanent installation. Not only does that allow kids to change the direction and flow of water as their needs demand, but we can use the gutters for other purposes, like down at the art station where we employ them in painting on adding machine tape with balls, mini-pumpkins, and/or toy cars and trucks.

Much of the stuff that makes our space "look" the way it does are things on which you really shouldn't have to spend anything. You can usually pick up logs and tree rounds, for instance, from a neighbor who has recently removed a tree or done some major pruning. Tree services will often give you some if they know its for kids.

Our two boats have both been donations. You just have to get the word out and wait.

It's important to remember, I think, that nothing lasts forever. It's good for kids to spend time playing on, with, and around things that are in various stages of deterioration. So when we got our new metal boat, we simply left the old, rotting, wooden one in place, where it is slowly "sinking" into the sand.

And speaking of loose parts, you shouldn't have to spend a penny on those.

Most of the toys, broken things, cartons, containers, boxes, and whatnot that we're ready to toss out, spend at least a little time in the outdoor classroom before reaching their final resting place in the dumpster.

"Loose parts" is just another name for junk.

Counted among our favorite loose parts are those larger bits that can be hoisted about by teams of kids.

Planks are incredibly versatile.

Ours range in length from 4-8 feet. These have all been donated by families and others looking to make space in their garages.

It's best if you can get new wood without a lot of knots in it: kids really like to experiment with the springy nature of the planks. Some of these have lasted us 3+ years being outdoors year round.

Shipping pallets are a great addition to planks. Ours were all acquired for free. We used to just grab them from the side of the road, but since learning that there can be some chemical and biological hazards associated with pallets, we've started making sure to only use those that are stamped with "HT," which stands for "heat treated." You don't want the chemically treated pallets around kids. We also avoid pallets that have been used to transport food products.

Old car tires are also staples around our place.

And we have a couple of galvanized steel garbage cans. They not only make great, loud, "thunder drums" and hidey-holes, but we often commander them as impromptu table tops.

Other free and inexpensive things we like to have around include brooms . . .

. . . ropes . . .

. . . pulleys . . .

. . . chains . . .

. . . roles of plastic fencing . . .

. . . pvc pipe . . .

. . . old bicycle inner tubes (in this case, we used them to make a sort of catapult) . . .

. . . pipe insulation . . .

. . . cardboard boxes . . .

. . . hoops . . .

. . . stick ponies . . .

. . . chalk . . .

. . . and lots of stuff to just bang on.

As far as more permanent things, I think it's nice to have some sort of playhouse. Again, ours was a donation from a family whose kids had outgrown it, although one of our grandfathers is building us a new one as we speak. A playhouse can be as simple as a cardboard box, however.

It's also nice to have some sturdy tables and chairs. We've purchased ours and they were quite a bit outside the $200 price range, but that's because we're a preschool with over 65 kids playing out there every day. Cheaper stuff, and even cast-off items with the legs cut down will work for backyard purposes. You can often find workable stuff at Goodwill.

And our space simply would not be what it is without a garden. Ours is just a collection of raised beds, but you don't even need that. 

Pots, soil and few seeds will suffice.

We've also re-puposed an old sensory table as a compost/worm bin. 

None of these things are expensive and that's how a child's play space should be. If there is any great truth about an outdoor classroom it's that it should be continually evolving and adapting, a hodge podge of old and new and everything in between. I am not exaggerating when I say that we acquired everything discussed in these photos for not a lot more than $200, other than the furniture and the sand, although there are work-arounds for both of those. If you're just outfitting a backyard, you can probably do it all for less.

That said, it's a backyard, which implies neighbors. As educational as these kinds of spaces are for children, these wonderlands of loose parts, dirt, rocks and compost, these bastions of junkyard chic, they are often perceived as eyesores by the uninitiated. Before going too far, you might want to save up to build a fence.

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