Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Turning My Project Into Their Project

A couple weeks ago, a reader sent me photos of her class' version of "paint skiing." I'm glad she did because I'd forgotten about that particular project. Maybe that's because in my mind it wasn't paint skiing at all, but rather "super-dooper sized marble painting." You see, the whole idea evolved from a game of intercontinental one-upsmanship between the children of Woodland Park and Jenny's (of Let the Children Play fame) kids Down Under. It had gone back and forth from "marble painting" to "giant marble painting" to "super sized marble painting" and this, what became "paint skiing," was my idea for taking it one step beyond: we were going to make a painting by kicking balls through paint on a tarp. The kids gave it a go, but then dispensed with the balls in short order, turning my project into their project which was to make it a sort of paint wallow.

So, grateful for the inspiration, last week we broke out the tarp and paint again, although this time, instead of attempting to paint with balls, we used brooms, my assumption being that it really didn't matter because it would just turn into "paint skiing" or "paint wallowing" anyway. I was wrong again, of course. This group of kids really enjoyed pushing black and purple paint around with brooms. I even removed my own shoes to demonstrate proper paint skiing. They watched politely, moving out of my way as I skated past, then returned to sweeping. Lukas even said, somewhat humiliatingly, "Good job, Teacher Tom!"

I've tried labeling what I do when I set up activities like this as "invitations" and "provocations," and they are, by turns, both of those things, but neither term really fits for me. They're really just things that seem like they'll be fun, so we break out the materials, perhaps make a suggestion or two, then try to keep up with the kids as they make it their own. It was a challenge as a new teacher to watch my best laid plans run away from me, but I've now come to see the beauty in the unexpected ways the collective creativity of the children will take materials when presented in the context of free play. It's all part of setting my agenda aside in favor of the children's better one. Sometimes I think that's the most important, and most difficult to learn, teaching skill of all.

Now there are some activities, like the balloon cage, that always work exactly as I envision. Of course, we've been doing it for a lot of year with a lot of kids, so we've figured some things out, but I knew I wanted to try it from the day I was hired at Woodland Park. It had been one of my childhood fantasies to get to play in a padded room with hundreds of balloons, so one of my first acts as teacher was to install hooks in our ceiling to hang the cage.

Of course, it's exceptional when my agenda meshes so perfectly with that of the kids. More often than not, like with the "grid table," the kids never find my idea as fun as it seems in my head. In fact, for the first time in several years, I didn't even bother setting up a grid table at all after years of trotting it out in the hope that this year, this time, this group of kids will make it their own. And, in a way, I guess they always do, by ignoring it altogether. And that's always one of the options in a play-based school: the freedom to shrug your shoulders and find something better to do.

Although, I've found, it's important that I not give up on things too quickly. Sometimes it takes years of "failure" before one kid, perhaps only one time, sees the beauty that I see in my mind's eye, making it all worthwhile. I'm thinking in particular of a collection of dolls that I purchased for the school because I preferred them over Barbies. You see, I was working on the mistaken assumption that the fun part of Barbies was dressing and undressing them and these dolls had great wardrobes without being so stereotypically sexualized. They lay largely abandoned for years until Sasha made them her own, which is why those damned dolls come out year-after-year in the anticipation of one more kid like her. Maybe I should do the same with the grid table.

As I watched the kids joyfully sweep the paint last week, I wondered how things would have been different had we offered balls instead of brooms. Would it have turned into paint skiing again or would this particular group of kids have brought in the brooms all on their own? A few of them imitated me by removing their shoes, but most kept their feet covered, not wanting to get paint on their toes. In fact, after a time, I began to hear the children's conversation turn increasingly on the idea of "cleaning" the tarp, as if the project, in their minds, was to sweep the paint off the tarp. Taking on that challenge, one of the boys had the idea of using gutters and pipes to direct water from the nearby cast iron water pump onto the tarp, based upon the theory that running water could do in this case what brooms could not.

This is the dance we perform every day at Woodland Park between the teachers and the children. The adults invite or provoke with things that seem like they might be fun, be they ideas from Australia, childhood dreams, or the children themselves, then, when we're doing it right, we get out of the way as the children make it their own, or not, as the case may be.

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1 comment:

katie said...

My own children happily invented 'slip painting' last year, after I attempted to guide a painting experience on an opened out large cardboard box. Needless to say, they ignored my guidance quite happily, and ended up stripped down to their underwear, sliding all over the cardboard, running up and launching themselves across the cardboard, and then rolling on the grass to see what paint they could transfer! Nothing like I planned, but fabulous fun on a warm Australian summer afternoon - and a hose off was the perfect clean up! Slip painting is now on high rotation during the warmer months over here :)