Friday, March 25, 2016

You Can't Measure This Stuff

This is a sort of a companion to yesterday's post about how learning emerges from everyday things in a play-based curriculum.

Preschools are hard on vacuum cleaners. After years of stumbling along using a series of inexpensive machines that needed to be replaced annually, if not more often, we finally sucked it up and purchased a high-end Miele. It's effective, quiet, lightweight and, most importantly, repairable by a local shop from whom we also purchased a service plan. It was still the right decision, but we recently had to wait a week and a half for a part so a family donated an old one that was on its way to the landfill to fill the gap until it was repaired.

When the Miele returned, no one wanted the junker so, naturally, it became part of the our state-of-art, junkyard chic playground. We harvested some parts from it using screwdrivers to use for a robot we were ostensibly building, although mainly we were just having fun dismantling it, after which it got set aside for a few weeks while we focused on other things.

Then, one day, it became the toy of the moment as its cord and hose became the focal point of a massive game.

At one level it was an irregular game of tug-of-war, with children pulling in all directions, one with ever-changing alliances as first one collection of children pulled one way and others another. There was constant chatter as they strained and vied: instructing, coaxing, taunting, and cajoling. The game moved around the space like a giant amoeba, sucking children in, and spitting them out, each finding their place along the line.

At another level it was a game of pure cooperation, especially as they negotiated around tree trunks and swing sets, and people who didn't want to be involved, requiring teamwork to unstick and untangle and work-around. Again, they talked: arguing, agreeing, cooperating.

They were engaged in a massive physics experiment, one that explored tension and angles, flexibility and friction, momentum and inertia. It was a massive sociological experiment, one that tested teamwork and competition, conflict and agreement, problems and problem solving.

If there was a goal to this game, it was in the heads of the individual children who wrestled and ran within it, each pursuing it as they would, learning from it what they sought to learn.

You can't measure this stuff. You can't pretest them to create a baseline for what they already know about playing with an old vacuum cleaner, then re-test them at the end to demonstrate mastery of vacuum wrangling knowledge or skills or whatever. You can't even really know what the children learn from this sort of thing, but the fact that they are engaged, together, in a communal project lets us know that they are, indeed, learning, each discovering, exploring, and confirming things about themselves and others and the physical world.

As the game wore down, we were left with a couple buddies still tugging on the power cord, really leaning into it. I happened to have a pair of wire cutters in my pocket (you never know what you'll find in my pocket). I wielded it in front of them with an evil villain expression, then pantomimed cutting the cord as they pulled in opposite directions. "Do it, Teacher Tom! Cut it!" So I did and, of course, the boys fell onto their backs as we all suspected they would. We did it again and again, until the cord was no longer long enough for pulling.

The cordless vacuum cleaner itself, I believe, is now in the playhouse, standing in a corner, waiting for someone else to have a question that only it can help answer.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The results of not playing enough are measurable.