Monday, February 27, 2017

Until He Was Ready To Walk Away

I used to keep a collection of styrofoam around the place, but over the years I've disposed of it and not just because it takes up a lot of storage space. Sure it's fun to stick or hammer things into it, like golf tees, but that idea invariably and ultimately turns into a festival of breaking, then shredding, leaving those static electricity filled tiny toxic balls all over the place, which is a mess worse than glitter and not nearly as festive.

Still, when someone from our community purchases new electronics or something that comes with large pieces of the stuff, they often think of us. I don't even know where our most recent pieces came from, but I'd spotted them stashed where the kids couldn't reach them on the playground so decided to make use of them for a day.

My idea was to combine the styrofoam with pipe cleaners. It's not the first time we've done this and while there are usually a few kids who get into the process, it's not generally one of the most popular things we do at the art table. Last week, however, there were even fewer takers than normal. The parent-teacher assigned to the project did her best to role model playing with the things, but the station was evolving into a game in which kids were placing "orders" for things like pipe cleaner "bracelets," "flowers," "glasses," which the adults then manufactured for them. It's a fine activity, I suppose, and I guess the kids had found a way to make it fun so who am I to judge?

That's how things stood when my friend took a seat at one corner of the styrofoam and pulled a container of pipe cleaners toward himself. If he had taken note of what the others were doing, it wasn't apparent. He started by successfully sticking one end of a pipe cleaner into the styrofoam, then another, then another. As he worked, he began to twist the fuzzy wires, bending the pieces together, weaving them together, purposefully tangling them. He didn't say a thing as he worked, concentrating fully on his creation.

I was tempted to sit beside him, either to ask about what he was doing or to, as I often do, begin narrating his process in the hopes of attracting more kids to the project because everyone wants to be part of our classroom's ongoing stories, but I didn't. Instead, I left him to his solitary work, a man with a vision. I stopped by several times over the course of the next half hour as his magnificent tangle became increasingly complex. When he was finally finished a half hour later, he pushed himself away from the table and didn't look back.

I gave some 40 kids the opportunity to play with the styrofoam and pipe cleaners over the course of the day, most of whom declined the invitation and even those who accepted it tended to treat it like a kind of drive-by activity, something not worthy of their full engagement. But one boy did and that's enough for me to call it a success.

We carefully uprooted his sculpture from the styrofoam and put it in his cubby to take home. I'm sure from his mother's end, it just looked like he had simply crushed and twisted a collection of pipe cleaners in his fists, the work of a moment. Most preschool art goes home this way, a product that can't by itself tell the story of how it came to be. I've described the visible part of his process here. I can make guesses about what he learned. I could question him. I could even, I suppose, devise some sort of pre-test and post-test and compare the results to produce "data," but at the end of the day no one but this boy will ever know what questions he asked and answered while creating this purposeful tangle of pipe cleaners stuck into styrofoam. 

It needs to be enough for us to know that it engaged him until he was ready to walk away.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom, you describe a wonderful commitment to process not product here. It took me a long time to understand this when my boys were in preschool. Thank you for posting and your many thoughtful descriptions of what "learning through play" is really all about.