Friday, July 07, 2017

Listening, Negotiating, And Agreeing

Last week we mixed up a large batch of cornstarch and water, resulting in a substance that is often referred to as "oobleck," a term invented by Dr. Suess (Bartholomew and the Oobleck). I don't usually share that coinage with the kids, however, because I want them to name it themselves. That's part of the fun of playing with something new.

Anyhow, I thought maybe we would want to play with it again, so I saved it. I know from experience that if you leave an open tub of the stuff out for a time, the water evaporates, leaving you with a nice, thick slab of cornstarch, which is fun to crumble between your fingers. I also know that after you do that, you can reconstitute the goo by simply re-introducing water. So that's what we did.

The group that chose to play with it, named it "lava." Some thought lava is red, some thought orange. After a bit of discussion, the decision was made to add both red and orange paint to the lava to make it more realistic. We wound up with a pale pink lava, which, apparently, met with everyone's approval because no one objected.

Not long ago, a team of parents showed up on a weekend and built us an outdoor stage. Part of that process involved a bit of excavating. The dirt we removed was unceremoniously piled adjacent to the stage. Within a few days, the kids had turned that pile into a mud volcano. Over the intervening months, this mound of soil with a hole in the top has been packed down by hundreds of little feet until it has become a semi-permanent part of the playground. One of the boys playing with the goo thought, logically, that the lava belonged in the volcano.

He said to me, "I want to put the lava in the volcano."

I answered, "There are a lot of people playing with it right now. You'll probably have to talk to them."

He polled his playmates, most of whom ignored him, although he found one who agreed to his plan while another stood opposed. He reported the results to me, "He wants to put the lava in the volcano, but that boy won't let us." I answered, "What are you going to do?" And he shrugged resignedly, "I guess we'll wait for him to be done." Within minutes, the boy to whom the majority had deferred, knowing that others were patiently waiting for him, stepped aside, which is what typically happens when adults don't intervene with our grown-up ideas of fairness.

The two boys who had been in favor of dumping the lava then wrangled the tub over to the edge of the volcano where they sat it on the ground. One of them threw a fist full of sand into the mixture before asking his partner, "Let's put sand in it, that will make it cooler, right?"

I could tell that his instinct was to disagree, but after a pause, he replied, "Sure," so his friend tossed in a bit more sand, limiting his original idea, I think, in deference to the lukewarm response. Their minds were alive with their own ideas, yet also finely tuned into the needs and desires of one another. Then, with the sudden enthusiasm that is generally accompanied by a lightbulb over the head in cartoons, he said, "I've got an idea, let's put it in the bathtub!"

I knew that he was referring to our little red wagon, which he had earlier named "the bathtub" after manoeuvering it under a pipe some other children had placed to direct the flow of water from the cast iron water pump. His playmate, however, had no idea what he was talking about. After some explanation, they came to an agreement. Most of it would go in the volcano, but they would save some for the bathtub.

And that's what they did.

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