Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Moldy, Rotten, Broken

We currently have several retired jack-o-lanterns rotting on the playground. It's been too cold so far for them to begin growing their grey beards of mold, but they will soon, then after a month or so they will be gone. The children aren't playing with them any longer. We dropped a few from high places and some of the parts are in the worm bin, but otherwise they are just out there keeping our memories of the holiday alive while slowly returning to the earth.

There was once a wooden row boat in the sandpit. It moved with us from our former location to our current home in Fremont. As wooden things do in our damp climate, it had begun to fall apart so we tracked down a larger metal one as a replacement, not removing the old one, but just dropping the new one partially atop it. Over the next couple years then, the old wooden boat slowly "sunk" into the sand. Occasionally, kids would band together dig it out, discovering the remaining shape of its stern or bow, but then in the course of their play it would become buried again.

Today, none of the children remember that boat and while it likely exists down there deep in the form of rotted scrapes and rusty nails, no one digs after it. I think about that boat down there quite often and was reminded again last week when we received a surprise visit from one of our alumni, a boy who is now 9. He asked about that boat and when I told him its story he went to stand in the spot, looking into the sand as if he could see it again.

Our playground is big enough, but not so big that we can't afford to use every square inch. I'm generally a big fan of moving things along once the children stop playing with them to make room for something else, but not everything goes -- even when it begins to get moldy. Perhaps especially when it gets moldy. It's important, I think, that certain things stay around past their prime, that they slowly disappear rather than vanish in an act of spring cleaning. Aging, deteriorating, rotting, decomposing: newness is a mere moment in time, but decomposition is life itself, a process of things becoming something else. We do children no service when we whisk things away just because they are no longer a popular plaything or because they are moldy, rotting, or broken.

As that older boy kicked around in the sand, he was not looking for that boat as much as reliving it, an experience more profound than simply remembering. Indeed, the boat he knew wasn't even a boat when he knew it, but something that had once been a boat on its way to becoming something else down there beneath the sand. It's a sentimental idea, I know, but sentiment has its place in preschool.

Thrice a year, the parents come together on a Saturday for what we call a "cleaning" under my direction. Each time I pick a parent who has been with us for at least three years to take on the job of patrolling the playground for what needs to go to the dumpster. My instructions are usually something like, "Throw away anything that is either hazardous or that is clearly garbage," then leave them to their own devices. I once made the mistake of assigning it to a new parent and we simply lost too much. Since then I've always picked someone who has lived a few cycles out there with the children and knows at least our most recent stories, who has developed sentimental attachments. Often they pause in the midst of their work to reminisce with me over something they uncovered. I've found I can trust these veteran parents to know just how much moldy, rotting stuff to keep around.

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