Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"Go Outside"

When we moved into our current location at the Center of the Universe, we built our children a two-level sandpit with a cast iron pump at the top. Day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, the pump at the top of the sand hill is where the action tends to be. Of course, we adults knew from the start that erosion was always going to be a challenge. At first we figured we could just purchase new sand as the old sand was washed down the hill, but we quickly realized that if that was our solution, the entire space would soon be blanketed in sand, an undesirable outcome.

So, two or three times a year, we break out the shovels and the adults meet on a Saturday and dig out the lower level, mounding the sand as high as we can in the upper, reinstalling the pump on top. A couple years ago Yuri's dad Bill, an engineer, built us a wooden track designed to accommodate our two little red wagons with the idea of expediting the process. We've used it a couple of times, including with the kids during class, but for the last couple digging sessions, including this past weekend, we adults decided it was more efficient to just use wheel barrows and take the sand around the long way.

This means that we have a large, well-built piece of useless equipment lying about the playground. And it has literally lay on the ground in a corner, too heavy for the kids to budge on their own, for the past 12 months.

On Monday, the kindergarteners decided they wanted to "use" it. I don't know how that came about, but the preschoolers found it braced against the newly formed sand slope like a kind of ladder. At least that's what the kids started using it for. As I explained to various folks that the original purpose of the track was for helping to convey the wagons up the hill, it suddenly struck me that it might be fun to try to ride a wagon down.

Yesterday, during the 4-5's class, Rowan's dad Terry helped me move it to a different, less extreme slope, one covered in wood chips rather than sand. This was me playing, not the kids. I really wanted to know if it was possible to ride the wagon down the track without killing myself. I was genuinely nervous as I launched myself, hanging onto the wagon's tongue in order to steer, just as we'd done as kids when riding our wagons down driveways. I made it all the way down to the art table without incident.

That's when kids started queuing up. I said, "Hey, I'm an old man! If you want to ride the wagon, you have to take it back up yourselves." Several of the most eager children raced down and wrangled it back to the top, where I lifted it onto the track. The first to try it couldn't figure out the steering and the wagon's wheels repeatedly stuck in the track, making it a lurching, not fun ride. The next two kids wanted to ride together. They tipped off the side of the track falling in a red-faced, giggling heap. After several other failed efforts, a pair of guys finally nailed it, careening smoothly down the track, onto the rougher wood chips (which I was counting on to slow them down), veering to the right, crashing into a table, tipping themselves over with the table landing on top of them. It was relatively slow motion so I had no fear of them being injured and they came up laughing and eager to try it again.

Their crash didn't deter anyone. Indeed, it attracted more kids. A clutch of them, after my initial prompt, took on the task of returning the wagon to the top. After a few goes, they realized that they didn't need me to lift the wagon onto the track, figuring out how to back the unwieldy thing up it from the bottom. It was also interesting that while the first few attempts had been "failures," most of the subsequent efforts found the kids successfully managing to make it to the bottom of the track at a speed sufficient to make them to want to do it again, viral learning at its best. Most of them, upon hitting the end of the track, then veered to the left or right and crashed into something (in the interest of full disclosure, I positioned Terry at the top while I waited downhill to catch or divert the wagon should its trajectory appear hazardous), but several managed to match or exceed my original ride down to the art table.

By the end of our session, it was running as one would hope, with the kids in charge of playing, experimenting, wrangling, debating, and organizing themselves, while the adults focused primarily keeping an eye out for hazards.

A couple days ago, one of the kids' grandmothers was visiting class. She asked me, "Do you have a philosophy of play?" I answered, "When we were kids and our mothers needed to get some work done or we were just driving them crazy, they would say, 'Go outside.' Remember that?" She did. "Then we would find the other kids whose mothers sent them out there and figure out things to do, on our own, without many toys and without much supervision. Now, parents can't do that: most have to resort to TV or video games to occupy the children while they get things done. If I have a philosophy of play, it's that our school should to be as much like the 'outside' we used to have as possible." We then exchanged a few stories of the things we used to do outside, with few toys, friends, and little supervision.

As the children bickered, commanded, requested, and queued, as they worked their process, their play, out for themselves, as they tested and failed and tried again, it looked a lot like the sort of thing we used to do in yards and driveways along my childhood cul-de-sac. That's what I had, without realizing it, role modeled when I played with the wagon.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That reminds me of a wagon my sister and I played on as children. So much fun racing down the hill and occasionally crashing.

Sometimes our family uses YouTube as a distraction for the children during the last 10 minutes before dinner is on the table....It's an easy way to stop the whining. But most of the time, they are very good at entertaining themselves. My son spent a long time today creating roadworks on a playmat with toy cars and tiny Lego pieces in place of the stones. I like it when I overhear his running commentary on what's happening in his play world.