Friday, November 06, 2015

"Anything Goes"

Earlier this week, I mentioned our "dangerous" blocks, those over-sized foam things that are covered in vinyl in the manner of gym mats. We've been playing with them this week. As a teacher in a cooperative school, one of the luxuries I have is to be able to assign a parent-teacher to each of our classroom stations. In preparing our "block parents" this week, I've explained the potential hazards of these blocks, their tendency to tempt some children into out-of-control, body hurling play, the kind that drives all but the most thrill-seeking children from the area, not to mention the bonked heads, split lips, and claustrophobia-induced shrieks of children who find themselves trapped under a pile of blocks by a classmate who just couldn't help himself. 

Next week, we'll have an opportunity for the children who choose to engage with the blocks in this way to do so, but this week, in the interest of both safety and inclusivity, I've been providing our parent-teachers with a fairly long list of tips and cautions as they've begun their session as "block parent." Now please understand that we're a school that includes wrestling as a regular part of it's curriculum, so we're not, I don't think, particularly prone to hysteria when it comes to run-of-the-mill childhood injuries or rough-and-tumble play. Believe me, I would not prepare the parent-teachers like this if I'd not found it necessary.

After I'd prepared a parent-teacher earlier in the week, a veteran parent, one who has been with our school for four years now, overheard my spiel as she dropped off her son. She said to me, "I remember the first time I was responsible for these blocks. I thought, 'Oh, it's Teacher Tom's class -- anything goes. I had a miserable day.'"

I think that's a common misunderstanding that those looking in from the outside have about the sort of play-based curriculum one finds at schools like ours. For many, when they hear about a child-lead preschool that strives to operate on democratic principles, one that permits wrestling and other sorts of risky play, where children make all their own rules, where questioning authority is encouraged, and where obedience is discouraged, they envision a kind of dog-eat-dog, law-of-the-jungle free-for-all where only the strong survive. 

I'll be the first to confess that we sometimes walk that line, but the reality is that we rarely cross it.

On the one hand, we make clear that the parent-teachers' primary responsibility is keeping the children safe: not necessarily in the institutional sense with lots of adult-imposed rules or systemic safety procedures, but rather in the much more effective manner of having plenty of eyes on the play and relying upon our situational judgement to know when to step in with something like, "I can't let you hurt yourself or other people," and when to stay out of it.

On the other hand, we strive to empower the children with the knowledge that they are responsible for their own community: that they can speak up when they don't like what's happening; that they can advocate for themselves and others; that they can negotiate and make agreements with one another about how everyone is to be treated. This is the core of a play-based curriculum: practicing the skills required to be a satisfied, conscientious, and productive member of a community.

Yesterday, one of our five-year-olds declared himself a "bad guy." A half-dozen kids took him up on it. They walled-off our playhouse, fashioning it into a jail and were determined to put him in there where bad guys belong. It was a game that incorporated equal parts chasing, grabbing, wrangling, and wrestling. I stayed out of it, but watched their faces for signs of distress, especially that of the bad guy who, while one of our oldest kids, is also one of the slightest. It was the sort of rambunctious game that might lead outsiders to think "anything goes." As I tracked the play, I stayed focused on facial expressions. It was a game that I'm certain would have been scuttled in traditional settings.

Then, as it happened, a grabbing hand connected with a dodging head. A cry went up, and everyone stopped. They went from rough housing to concern in a flash. All eyes went to the injured child. Not a single one of them looked around for an adult, even though their play had attracted the attention of a couple of others besides myself, and who, like me, kept their distance. Two children asked, "Are you okay?" One put his arm around the bad guy's shoulder. They stood this way for a good minute, studying their friend's face as I had been doing, responding to the look of pain they saw there, striving to comfort him.

Then, as suddenly as he had stopped playing, the bad guy said, "I'm okay," and started to run. The good guys grabbed at his jacket, out of which he deftly wiggled, and the game was on. As they raced up the hill I noticed that one of the good guys continued to carry the jacket, not wanting to just drop it on the ground. She found a grown-up and handed it over for safe-keeping before chasing off after the bad guy.

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Unknown said...

This gave me goosebumps. You are doing it so right! I would give anything to come observe your class.

Anonymous said...

Me too, anytime I read his posts I wish I was there to witness, watch and learn how exactly he does it.