Friday, January 20, 2017

My Colleague Who Knows This And Many Other Things

Our sensory table was built decades ago by someone who really knew what she was doing. It's made from solid maple, held together by long, brass screws, and finished with a marine varnish. The two square basins are galvanized steel. It predates me at the school, where I found it languishing outdoors. One of my first orders of business was to bring it indoors and have one of our handyman parents drill out a pair of drains to make it easier to empty at the end of the day. It's a good sized table with lots of elbow room so as many as a dozen kids can play there at once. The heavy-duty castors screech when we move it and the basins tend to get rusty over the course of the school year. I deal with the rust by "re-gavanizing" the thing a couple times a year; the wheels could be quieted with lubricant, but it's never risen to a level of concern that I've done anything about it. In a way I think of those squeaky wheels as her voice.

We've been teaching together my entire career, always there, always reliable, and almost always fun. I expect she'll outlast me.

On most days I fill both sides of the sensory table with the same materials: water, rice, flax seed, beans, various "goos" and potions, or as in the case of the photos you're looking at here, a mix of un-roasted and over-roasted coffee beans. Every now and then I'll put different materials in each side of the table (e.g., corn meal and coffee grounds) which tends to guide children into a frenzy of mixing, until the balance of the universe is restored and both sides are filled with the same material.

The fact that the sensory table is divided into two parts is an important part of who she is. Sometimes, like with what happened yesterday in our 3's class, there will be a few kids who want to play more wildly with whatever is in there, while others are interested in more contemplative play, so we'll designate one side for each style of play. But most of the time, the influence of her divided nature is more organic and subtle than that.

For example, when we finished the day yesterday, all the coffee beans, tree part blocks, and model Pacific Northwest animals had been moved to one side, leaving the other barren. Indeed, this is how the sensory table ends on most days in our 4-5's class, be it water, grains or legumes, and it has stayed consistent throughout the years. Sometimes it shifts back and forth several times over the course of the day. The 2 and 3-year-olds don't do it, but the older children always do it, and it's rarely the project of a single child, but rather a team of 2-4 working together, usually telling a story about a world that is experiencing a "volcano" or "earthquake" or "flood" or some other natural disaster.

There was a time when it bugged me, but as I've learned to let go, I've come to understand how important it is that children at this particular developmental stage do this. I could speculate why it's important, but it doesn't matter why they do it: the fact that they do it, that the always do it, is enough for me to know that they need to do it, together, telling their story while moving it all from one side to the other. I could guess why, but the way we do things at Woodland Park, the only one who needs to understand is the sensory table itself, this teaching colleague who knows this and many other things about the ways and whys of children's play.

I try to not get too connected to stuff, especially around the preschool where the relentlessness of play accelerates the decay of everything, but our sensory table has become a colleague who does things I can't do and knows things I can't know. The zen part of me knows that she is already rusted and rotted away, but I hope every day that she outlives me.

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