Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"If I Only Had Two Blocks . . ."

I purchased our set of oversized, vinyl-covered, foam-rubber blocks over a decade ago using a $2000 windfall in the form of a generous donation from one of our families that included matching funds from an employer. The only stipulation was that the money was Teacher Tom's to spend as he saw fit. I'd seen these blocks in a catalog, knew that they were something I would have loved as a kid, and spent every penny purchasing a set.

An irritating aspect of owning this expensive and attractive set of blocks is that as much storage space as they eat up, when all is said and done, there aren't very many blocks, maybe 30 in total, which means that one industrious kid can commandeer the lion's share of them in a matter of minutes. Every time we have them out, there is controversy about someone "having them all." I'm not saying that this doesn't present an opportunity to learn all sorts of things, and it does, but it's still irritating nevertheless.

Yesterday, I saw the pattern emerging as two builders were cornering the market. I figured I knew what was coming, so I laid my hands on one of the few remaining blocks and announced, "I'm going to build my house with this block. That's all I need for a house, one block." I stood the block on the floor and stood beside it, "There's my house."

The kids playing in the area didn't exactly stop playing, but a few of them heard me. One boy said, "You can't build a house with one block. You need two blocks."

I replied, "I only need one block for my house, but if I only had two blocks . . . " I didn't finish my sentence intentionally, leaving it there for his brain to complete.

"You have to have two blocks so you can have a door," he said as he picked up one of his blocks and brought it over to set beside mine. "See? You can move it like this to open and close it." He demonstrated.

I said, "That's cool! Thank you," then to the everyone in general, "This is my house. I made it out of just two blocks and it's so cool . . . But if I only had three blocks . . ."

Another boy brought me a block, positioning it on the other side of me so that I now had three walls.

I thanked him, then said, "Wow, now my house is extra cool and I only used three blocks. I have everything I need . . . But if I only had four blocks . . ."

Soon I had a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth block. As the building began to grow around me, I stepped away, offering my spot inside the house to others. By now all the builders were working together with these scarce resources, dismantling their individually "owned" buildings in favor of this cooperatively "owned" building. I was reminded of the story of making stone soup, in which the traveler offers to create the most delicious soup with nothing but a stone and water, then adding, "But if only I had a pinch of salt . . . " except in this case I started with a house made of a single block. Just as the traveler does, I'd counted on their better angels, the ones that almost always win out when no one is commanding, but rather simply offering up information and giving them a chance to do their own thinking.

I probably should have let them discover the pathway to cooperation on their own, through scarcity and conflict, the way kids have done with these blocks for the past decade, but instead I'd "tricked" them into a shortcut. We'll play with those blocks again today and tomorrow. There will be ample opportunity for things to take their normal course, but maybe, just maybe, some of them learned the lesson of stone soup. The proof will be in the building.

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