Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Engineering And The Quest To Control Nature

I'm certain I can't do this justice, but I have to try.

One of the key attractions of our playground is our cast iron water pump located at the top of our two-level sandpit. The upper level is all about the pump and its attendant gutters, pipes, buckets, and shovels. The mantra for this place is quite simply, "If you play with water you'll probably get wet." We usually say it when someone gets wet. It's part of the natural consequences of even just hanging out in this area.

Between this level and the larger, usually dryer, lower level is a row of cedars lining the top of a short, sloped, concrete drop of about 2-feet, which is usually covered in sand. This lower level is where we keep both of our boats: the new one that Cecelia's grandparents gave us and the old, sinking one. Every year the lower level nurses dozens of "rivers," sourced from the upper level, most of which are created by either a driven solitary pumper or a well-coordinated team effort (and, admittedly, sometimes a dutiful adult). The pump can only generate a certain volume of water and it takes quite a bit of steady work over a long period of time to create a satisfying river, one that gives everyone a chance to actually explore it.

All hands on deck "conferences" are a regular feature of these projects.

This group of four and five year olds, have been experimenting with this process for the better part of the first two months of school, not all of them every day, but most of them at one time or another. At some point they started monkeying around with the large muck bucket that we used to use to store shovels and pails before the advent of our new storage chest. 

Planks are regularly used as bridges, not to keep our feet dry, because most of us are wearing boots, but to protect our channels, dams, and levies from being damaged in by an incautious step.

They figured out that if they filled the bucket to the top with water, essentially emptying our entire cistern, then all worked together to dump the bucket, they could temporarily flood the lower level. It was happening two or three times a week, always to much excitement.

They then took it up a notch. There was still a group in the upper level, filling the muck bucket, but now there was a team in the lower level, digging channels in anticipation of the flood. 

This is the muck bucket the kids have been using to create sufficient and sudden water volume for their engineering experiments.

This has lead to amazing conversation among the children and adults, speculating about where the water was going to go, whether our dams and levies were strong enough, and how we are going to make sure the water doesn't get into the garden.

You see, this is one of the key features of Woodland Park river play. Up until this year, our raised garden beds were not raised high enough and it was possible, indeed likely given the shape of our landscape, that our floods would wash out our plantings. Someone would shout, "It's headed for the garden!" and we had an engineering emergency mission. This summer, our gardening team rebuilt the raised beds, making them higher, removing this possibility, but the cry continues. "It's headed for the garden!" and we all work feverishly, often not to great effect, to prevent sand from getting on our lettuce. This is often the raison d'ĂȘtre of our engineering experiments.

One day a couple weeks ago, I was in a circle of these canal builders who were explaining where they thought the water was going to go. They had dug a deep hole at the end of a channel, all the while discussing whether or not it was better to dig their channels and holes while water was flowing or, like now, when there was no actively flowing water.

"When its flowing it's easier to know where it's going so you know where to dig."

"When it's dry you can get it just the way you want it, then see if it works."

These are four and five year olds having thoughtful discussions about engineering.

This is the pit they've now created to better contain and control the water.

Suddenly there was a whoop from above, following by a manic rush of water that quickly overwhelmed the upper level's ability to hold it, providing a maximum test of our best laid plans. Dams were decimated, others held, the water both followed and overwhelmed our channels, our holes were filled, and the water ran beyond our planning, but in this instance, none went into the garden, a source of pride. Meanwhile the kids were running around in it all, shouting about what they were witnessing, wielding shovels in the attempt to bail or steer or somehow otherwise influence the tsunami we had been anticipating.

This has happened dozens of times now, the kids coming up with new devices, some of which work as anticipated, most do not. But last week, a few of the kids, lead by Henry, came up with the idea of digging a huge hole right where the water tends to cascade from the upper to the lower level, effectively capturing the entire flood. In fact, this reservoir as now constructed can hold at least two muck buckets full.

The water breached the reservoir, sending a torrent of water toward the garden.

It left behind a tongue of sand reaching quite a way into our floodplain.

Henry, as the primary driver of this project has taken to standing in water that must regularly top his boots, continually maintaining the hole, digging, patting, shaping, supported by a rotating group of friends. Then, when the time is right, they decide what they're going to do with the water, knocking down a part of the hole, releasing the water with a plan in mind, even if it's just to get the water to flow into a second hole farther down the hill.

The kids make their collective plans as the water collects in the it, then, when the time is right, they release the water so that it flows in their chosen direction. In this case, the plan was to get the water to flow under the boat.

It took a couple tries, but they finally got it to emerge from beneath the stern.

We once had the idea to get so much water under the boat that it would float. We didn't manage that, but it was no small achievement when we got it to flow under the boat at the bow and emerge from the stern.

We also once had a catastrophic failure that resulted in a flood that battered the walls of the raised garden beds, leaving behind a tongue of sand like one might find in any floodplain. 

The attempt to control nature has historically lead to mankind's highest achievements and greatest follies. It's through these processes that we learn about about abilities and limitations, both as individuals and while working together. Most fascinating is watching how each experiment, each attempt, is built upon discussions about both the successes and failures of the past, with those failures usually inspiring the most creative innovations.

When people doubt the educational power of play, I wish they could see what I see day after day, week after week, projects that build upon themselves. It's so much better than what I've presented here. I didn't do it justice, but I had to try.

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