Monday, July 21, 2014

What Color They Chose To Paint It

"The third teacher" is an expression that comes from the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning and is generally used to refer to a school's physical environment. I find it a useful way to think about our space and my relationship to it as a colleague, although the more I work with her, the more I come to understand that she is more than just design and layout -- she is that, plus the entire organization and culture of our school.

If you've been reading here for awhile, you've probably seen our old play house turn up in the photos. This is what it looked like when it was relatively new, but it was staring to fall apart.

Being a cooperative, I think, is just as much a part of who our third teacher is as the concrete slide, the cast iron water pump, the sandpit boat, our incredible sensory table, and the walls that surround us when we're indoors. Thinking of it that way, thinking of our third teacher as being a product of this community, lets us see how it perpetuates itself, evolving just as the other two teachers do: parents and the classroom teacher. 

This shelf had recently given way from the weight of all the kids who had climbed on it while using the window as an entrance and exit, exposing a number of sharp screws.

Our entire outdoor classroom is an example of this institutional evolution, starting as a smaller community experiment in our former location, then coming to fruition in our present space where it has continued to change and grow as our cooperative changes and grows.

We had the roof off before I knew what was happening.

We've discovered that Allen wrenches, sometimes called "hex" wrenches due to their hexagonal shape, are the sort of "just right" tool for preschoolers. They're fairly simple to use, which is probably why Ikea and others use them for their self-assembly furniture.

As everyone discovers about screws, at some point it's just easier to twist them with your fingers.

One big-ish change came a couple Autumns ago, when Finn and Gray's family donated a small playhouse they no longer wanted. It was in good shape since one of the reasons it became ours was that "the boys don't play with it at home." We set it up behind the windmill where we had kept the drum kit until it was, after we'd managed to break all the drum heads by hitting it so hard, conveniently "nicked" to leave an empty space. I'd always envisioned a playhouse extending from the back of the windmill and while this one was smaller and more conventional than the one in my mind's eye, it had the virtues of being free and on the back of a truck ready for delivery.

This is another project created for us by a grandpa. In this case, Ella and Audrey's grandpa made this crazy "mailbox" for us. It's a sculpture of found wood, rebar, brass, lucite, glass, and miscellaneous random parts.

It was a little tippy, so I'd used nails and wire to secure it to the pallet platform under the old play house.

It had to be moved for this project, so we broke out the wire cutters.

Finn and Gray's playhouse served us well, but it simply wasn't designed for the rigors of a preschool. The walls were wobbly, the plastic roof was cracked, and entire sections had begun to pull away from the larger structure leaving exposed screws. One of the more fun administrative tasks at Woodland Park is, at the end of each school year, deciding what to do with any surpluses we happen to generate, and this year we cut free $300 to "build a new playhouse," a project that Audrey and Titus' grandpa Jim took on. We met once at the school where I gave him my basic ideas, which were "a simple frame," preferably "two stories," and with the flexibility for children to "change" and "build" to suit their purposes, "like big Lincoln Logs or something." If that sounds vague, it's because I was thinking about how I wanted kids to be able to play with it rather than the engineering details, which I left up to Jim. One of the ethics that come directly from the influence of our third teacher is: "He who picks up the paint brush chooses the color," and in this case he held the hammer and seemed comfortable with it.

Sometimes two hands just aren't enough.

We've saved all the parts, leaning them against the fence behind the work bench. Some of us think we might like to try putting it back together again sometime in the future.

A couple weeks ago, we got word that the new play house was finished and we arranged to get it delivered and installed on Saturday. A call went out for adult help to make it happen, a project we figured would involve lots of heavy lifting as well as demolition to remove the old structure. Last week, however, I discovered a collection of Allen wrenches that I'd saved when we built our new outdoor furniture last summer, something the third teacher had been holding for me, and not only that, but they fit the screws on the old play house. I figured we'd help out the weekend work team by letting the kids take a stab at dismantlement.

The underside of the pallet foundation was both a treasure hunt (we found lots of old toys under there) and a scientific exploration.

By using a measuring tape, we figured out we would have to move a few of the tree rounds to make room for the new play house, but we ran out time, so that job was left to the adults.

I had no idea what to expect. I was prepared for the kids to not be physically capable of handling the project. I was prepared for strong emotions as their beloved play house was torn asunder. I had back-up plans and alternatives in mind. 

The kids, working in a swarm, had that thing completely down in 45 minutes. In fact, the process was going so fast that I scolded the adults, "Hey, this is the kids' project. We have plenty of time. Don't help them," only to learn that the only help the adults had provided was to hold onto the larger parts as they came loose so as to prevent them from falling on someone.

The adults were calling the top part, "The Kid Cage." The kids were calling the whole structure "The Tower."

And when they were done removing the playhouse, they got to work prying boards from the shipping pallets we'd used for a foundation, boards that children who are now in 3rd and 4th grade had hammered on five years ago. I would have been happy to let this happen, but it soon became apparent that we couldn't count on the kids to keep track of all the rusty nails they were removing, plus I'd forgotten that those pallets were part of the way we had weighted the heavy metal windmill so it didn't topple over when kids clambered on it. If it had been up to the children, they would have kept working until there was nothing left, but the adults decided that safety was at stake.

I'm sure I've told the story of our windmill before, but the short version is that it's a heavy metal prop left over from a now defunct local circus called Cirque de flambé. It was part of a bit based upon Don Quixote that involved a fully enflamed dragon (the wire frame of which you can see in this picture if you look carefully) emerging from behind the windmill to represent the don's enflamed imagination.

Jim had told us that the footprint of the new playhouse was 4' X 8', so we put away the hammers and wrenches and pulled out the measuring tape to figure out exactly where the new structure would sit.

This was the genius part as far as I'm concerned. Jim had taken my vague "Lincoln Log" description and actually devised a real world system. The down stairs walls can be constructed using these pieces of wood, which can be slid into place. The idea is to be able to create doors and windows wherever the kids choose.

Friday night, I lay abed thinking about our new playhouse, fretting about all the challenges ahead, about the new agreements we would have to make, about the hazards we would have to mitigate, and about the learning this new aspect of the third teacher would necessitate and stimulate for all of us.

The kids onsite were given the job of installing the walls. Jim had made them to slide in horizontally.

The kids almost immediately figured out how to use them vertically to create windows and "kids only" doors.

The children decided we needed a collection of toys on the top.

On Saturday then, a group of adults, mostly dads with more arms and legs than we really needed, showed up at Jim's house where, after donuts and coffee, we loaded the trailer before reconvening at the school. It was quick work, made quicker by the children's contributions from the day before. Audrey, Titus, and Henry (who had really taken the lead on the dismantling) were part of our work crew, and as we put the finishing touches on installing the play house, Isaac, Miles, and Ernesto also dropped by to test it out.

This hole through which the ladder is installed was a great size for kids, but we were worried it was too small for adults. A few of us tested it out. It's a tight fit, but several grown men were able to manage it. That said, I discovered that the quickest way to the top should an emergency arise, is to simply scale the outside of the structure and step over the railing.

No one needed to tell the kids to take turns using the ladder. The advantage of the small aperture is that it discourages more than one child at a time.

Another feature of the ladder is that the bottom rung is higher than the rest. We figured that if a child isn't able to manage that first step on his own, then he's probably not ready to climb into the "kid cage."

Our third teacher casts everything in a whole new light, opening perspectives we've never seen before.

I needn't have fretted. Not only did the kids' sense of self-preservation, as it usually does, prevent them from doing anything crazy, but they, on their own, suggested a few rules such as "No dropping heavy things from the top," "No pushing people on the ladder," and "No climbing on the railing," a good start.

Today, we're not in session, so tomorrow will be the first official day for our newly made-over third teacher. I'm already imagining pulley systems connecting the playhouse to the top of the concrete slide, moving furniture into the downstairs to turn it into a bus or a train, and how we will chose to decorate it, but that's no different than my Friday night fretting, something that will likely resolve into nothing. That's because the children now hold the paint brushes, so we'll just have to wait and see what color they chose to paint it.

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Melissa said...

I absolutely love how their house turned out, and am wishing there was a carpenter among the parents and grandparents for the preschool I organize. What an insightful project this was for all involved!

It has me wondering, though, what is your interaction with child care licensing? Does the cooperative nature of your program exempt you from regulations in Seattle or do you just have a great relationship with your local licensing office? There is so much I want to do here that I'm unable to try because of regulations and it's really stifling at times.

Teacher Tom said...

@Melissa . . . We are not licensed.