Friday, January 23, 2015

Monkeys Jumping On The Bed

A couple days ago, Isaac and Mile's mom Lisa asked me if the school could use an inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump. The mattress, she said, had a slow leak and their family had not been able to give it away, having literally left it on the curb in front of their home with a "Free" sign on it for several days. That's almost unheard of in Seattle. It's an article of faith that if you have something with any value left in it at all, you can get rid of it by putting it at the curb with a "Free" sign. I myself have done this many times and nothing has ever sat unclaimed for more than a few hours. Recognizing it as pure garbage, Lisa decided to offer it to us before hauling it off to the dump. And, of course, I said yes.

This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say that one of the functions of preschool in society is not to use stuff, but to finish using it. We run our school on garbage, literally: toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, yoghurt containers, wine corks, bottle caps, and occasionally things like leaky inflatable full-sized mattresses with built-in electric pumps.

Yesterday, we put the un-inflated mattress on the workbench. Lisa was the parent-teacher responsible for that station. 

The first things that she and the kids figured out as they unfolded the mattress was that the workbench was too small. The nearest flat, open area was over by the art station, where kids were making stuff with toilet paper tubes, theater lighting gel, tape, scissors, twine and hole punches.

I was busy coming and going, so I followed the project intermittently. The next time I stuck my nose in,  the pump motor was running and a half dozen kids were sitting on the still flat mattress. A few kids then began working on the theory that the mattress would inflate faster if they all got off it. They began urging their friends to "get off" the mattress, having the experience all teachers have had, the one that makes us feel like we're herding cats: as soon as they had shooed one kid off another would step on, but finally they cleared it and, indeed, the mattress at least appeared to be filling faster.

The next time I turned my attention their way, there was a debate about whether or not they should be jumping. Some of the kids felt it was "too dangerous" and others wanted to use the mattress to "sleep" which the jumping made impossible. Lisa was moderating by more or less repeating what the various children were saying. At some point the classic early years song "Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed" came up. Silas replied, "There are more than five monkeys on this bed!" This seemed to stand for everyone as a final mooting of the "no jumping" argument.

I noticed too that the motor was still running, despite the fact that the mattress appeared full. A few kids were messing around with the controls. Lisa occasionally asked, "Do you think it's time to turn it off?" a question to which the children universally replied, "No." If this hadn't been garbage, we adults would have likely made them turn it off, but since it was garbage we could treat it like garbage.

And that's the point of building a curriculum around garbage. This piece of garbage, not even good enough for the curbside, was the focal point of ongoing, free-form social, physical and scientific experiments, lead by the children themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, since it really was pure garbage, we adults found ourselves in the pedagogically correct position of not having to worry that the kids would "break it." This is the power of garbage: it's already garbage, we're just using it one more time before sending it off to the dump.

Then the inevitable happened. We heard a pop and a whoosh. "It popped! It popped!" Then from the other end of the mattress there was another pop. Both holes were easy to find; the size of quarters.

It was at this moment that the adults who had gathered around to watch began to talk over the kids' heads. This was the end, and we all knew it. We said things like, "It was fun while it lasted," and "I'm glad the kids got one last hurrah," and "I doubt there's any way to patch this thing." Meanwhile, the kids, after experimenting with staunching the flow of air with their hands, continued their sunny community experiments despite the overcast of us naysayers.

Henry shouted, "Tape!"

We adults continued our conversation over the kids' heads, "I wonder if duct tape would work?" "Maybe, but we just used up our last roll yesterday . . ." blah, blah, blah.

Henry went straight to the art table a cut off a nice long piece of the cheap colored masking tape we keep on our "tape machine" and put it over the hole. After putting his cheek down to it, he declared, "It's working" which prompted his friends to add more and more tape to each of the holes. Some kids continued to romp on the mattress while this repair work was underway. Others managed the pump controls, officiously regulating the air flow into the mattress, keeping it fully inflated. The impromptu repair crew used their eyes, ears, and hands to determine the exact location of where air continued to leak out from under their tape, then added more tape in a game of whack-a-mole. When that didn't work to their satisfaction, they tried taping on pieces of the theater lighting gel. Mateo had the idea of filleting a toilet paper tube, showing it to me saying, "I'm going to try to block the air with cardboard."

At the end of the day when the kids came inside for a final story, Lisa remained outdoors deflating and folding the mattress. She reported that the kids' patchwork efforts were "pretty effective" -- it had taken her longer than she had anticipated to get the air out even with the pump running in reverse. 

It may be a long time before this leaky inflatable full-sized mattress with a built-in electric pump becomes garbage again.

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