Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Start Your Journey: That's Enough

Back in January, our kindergartners dragged home a couple of Christmas trees that had been left at the curbside by neighbors for trash collection. We've done a number of things with them, including decorating them with impromptu ornaments, but mostly we've used them as material upon which to practice our sawing.

There was a time when we didn't use saws at Woodland Park. I don't think it was a matter of considering them too dangerous, exactly, but rather that we simply didn't consider using them at all. The whole idea of preschoolers engaged in woodworking was alien to us. Oh sure, once or twice a year, I would set up a "safety zone" and invite the kids one at a time to enter it for a turn pounding nails, but it was a project in which I engaged with a great deal of planning and trepidation and I made a show of the safety measures we were taking. Even so, there were parents who forbid their children from taking a turn and I didn't judge them.

Today, we have a permanent workbench where we use tools of all sorts -- hammers, saws, drills, screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, glue guns. We supervise and support the children, but otherwise engage in what I consider to be common sense caution. We have a few workbench rules, such as we don't use tools while feeling emotions strong enough to make us cry or yell. We strive to keep the ground clear of toys and other debris. Tools stay at the workbench. And we wear eye protection. There are some logs and other large items arranged in such a way that the workbench area is a bit separated from the rest of the outdoor space in order to prevent the sort of pell-mell entry into the area that could jostle or otherwise distract someone at work with a tool.

The main difference, however, is the attitude of the community. This type of play, over the course of several years, has become normalized at Woodland Park. We have enough experience now, as a community, to know that preschoolers can be trusted to assume this sort of responsibility. Indeed, I've witnessed dozens of children who typically exhibit the high energy lurch-iness of a golden retriever, settle into a studied focus with a tool in their hands. It takes everything most children have to hit a nail on the head or guide a saw through a tree branch. For many children, it's a calming activity.

I've had the opportunity to speak to dozens of audiences of both parents and teachers over the course of the past several years, usually telling a few stories from the workbench. Invariably, at the end of the talk, someone will approach me, say that they wish they could introduce this kind of activity, but worry that their superiors/licensors/parents won't allow it. Let me tell you, had I attempted to introduce our workbench as it now exists, whole hog, I too would have confronted overwhelming pushback. Getting where we are today, on all sorts of child-led things (not just using tools), continues to be a journey at Woodland Park, a process whereby we've confronted our adult fears in small increments, learning about both ourselves and our children in the process.

I sometimes get frustrated at the world: witness yesterday's post. I look around and find a place in which children are not respected or trusted, where adults still tend to dictate to them from dawn to dusk, where children are generally considered to be incomplete and incompetent. I'm impatient. I want things to change right now. I want every child to have a childhood that includes a workbench. But then I reflect upon our own story, my own story, and see that it's been a journey, one full of milestones and thresholds that once seemed monumental, but now from my current perspective, look like all the other steps along the path.

There are communities farther along the road than us toward a truly child-led  education and we are farther along than others, and like all journeys, all of us started with but a single step. So I suggest that you do what you can, today. Start your journey: that's enough. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

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Unknown said...

I wish my son was in your class...teach on!

Anonymous said...

how scary would it be to reflect back on practice say, 5 years ago, and still be doing exactly the same thing today? I was blogging just last night, reflecting on something that happened a couple of summers ago, and it's amazing how much we've developed. Love the honesty of your blogs, look forward to the next one.