Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I Don't Know"

Our most enduring tradition at Woodland Park is that the oldest kids, the five-year-olds who are moving on, stage a play. I introduce the idea in January, telling them that those who came before them have written and performed a play, and for the past 17 years, the children have agreed they wanted to follow in their footsteps.

We begin by choosing what characters we want to be, making a list that is destined to change on a week to week basis, then launch into the process of writing the script. For the next couple months, I take dictation from the kids, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups. Occasionally, I read the work-in-progress to them when we're gathered on the checker board rug so we can take stock, together, of where we are in our process. Almost always, we decide it is "too short" and that we need more pages.

This year, we declared the script finished in early March. They likely would have kept writing it forever had I not held out the carrot of getting on the actual stage to try it out. And then we rehearsed, usually once a week, sometimes more, rewriting the script on the fly. It's an experience I've had 17 times, this amorphous, messy, child-led process of producing a play. At the end of each rehearsal we gather together to discuss how we felt it went.

"It's too short."

"I want more to do."

"I liked it."

"Let's do it again."

To the adult eye, these rehearsals appear as pure chaos: kids running around, goofing off, cracking jokes, and "hiding" under chairs as I read the script in my role as narrator/director. Sure, some of them take it seriously, but most are there to play with their friends which is as it should be. This is their play, not mine, and I have learned over the years to dis-invest my own ego from both the process and the end result.

Meanwhile, we created our sets and props, then last week we worked on costumes. Some kids brought things from home, but many created theirs from our massive collection of costume parts. On Tuesday, we had our dress rehearsal. It was like all the other rehearsals, except in fancy dress. The kids chattered amongst themselves, missed their cues, spontaneously ran around the room at intervals, and ad-libbed entirely new plot lines. One boy chose to lie on the floor to roll on and off the stage. More than one good natured wrestling match broke out.

Yesterday was the big day. Parents took days off work and siblings played hooky from school. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and special friends came. I had set up 50 chairs for our audience, but we almost doubled that number.

Then, after all that work, performed our play, which we had entitled I Don't Know, as apt a title as there has ever been. And for the first time in all our months of preparation, the kids performed their play exactly as they had written it: very little backstage chatter, no one missed a cue, no spontaneous running around the room, and only one brief attempt at ad-libbing. The boy who had rolled instead ran. There was no wrestling. Indeed, it was as professional a performance as any preschoolers have ever staged. I had prepared our community for an hour long show, privately expecting it to run over, but we were so efficient that we went from beginning to end in a brilliantly efficient half hour.

When I read, "The end," the audience erupted as it should and the children took their bows like seasoned vets.

I've been doing this for 17 years, guiding children through a play of their own creation and this has been the experience every time. And even so, it's always a kind of miracle to me. I know it's coming, this smashing success, but I'm always expecting it to be a roomful of adults watching kids run around in their costumes, which would be fine, but obviously the children, collectively, expect more from themselves and, collectively, they nail it. Whereas I once viewed the running around and goofing off as distractions, I've come to understand them as essential parts of how they make it their own.

Honestly, I think this is how all early childhood education should be. It doesn't always look the way we adults expect learning to look, but they are learning: this goofing around, this chaos, this messy process. But the proof is there when the time is right. I see it every single year.

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