Thursday, July 12, 2018

Not Flipping The Boat

When I came across the boys, they showed me that they had wedged a long plank under the stern of the sandpit row boat. I had seen them using the projecting end as a spring board, but they told me it was a lever. They were, it seems, on a mission to overturn the boat.

This isn't the first time kids have set themselves that goal. A few years back, a team, with the help of one of their fathers, actually succeeded, but that had been a project of brute force, one that relied in no small measure on the muscles of a full grown man. It wasn't the first time, nor would be the last, that one of the adults in our cooperative school became so engaged in the play that they took it over.

In this case, the boys were working on two theories about why their lever wasn't flipping the boat. The first was that they simply needed more weight on the raised end. The second was that they needed a second lever to augment the first. I quoted Archimedes at them, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." They listened to me as if I was one of the mumbly adults in the old Peanuts cartoons, then went back to their deliberations.

One boy was weight enough to budge the boat a bit, so they added another on the end of the lever, then another, but without improving their results. After some discussion, and a brief argument about whether it was a leaver or a "diving board," they decided they simply needed more weight so they began collecting "heavy things" to balance on the lever in the hopes of finally making it heavy enough to lift the boat.

Meanwhile, one of the guys went to work on the plan to install a second lever. He determined that there was "too much sand" under the hull at the point he had selected so began excavating, starting with a block of wood as his tool, but after much frustration trading it out for a proper shovel. As he worked, other children began to take an interest in what he was doing, watched for a few minutes, then found their own shovels.

Back at the original lever, the team had balanced as much as they could fit to no avail. The boat still wouldn't budge, but by now the project had taken on a life of its own. No longer were they talking about using their lever to overturn the boat. The talk now centered around what else they could add to what was rapidly becoming a classic "learning pile," one of those mounds of moveable objects that periodically grow wherever children have access to junk, one another, and the freedom to play without adults hovering around commanding them to "be careful" or to otherwise "guide" or "teach" or in some other way interfere (the way the muscly father coaxed and cajoled a team to actually flip the boat those years ago). This was fully their project, one into which they had flowed in the great river of children playing together.

Likewise, the kids undermining the port side of the boat with their shovels were no longer seeking to set a second lever. Their project had turned into a kind of treasure hunt. They dug out chunks of wood (probably parts of the old wooden row boat that sunk beneath this same sand ages ago), plastic dinosaurs, florist marbles, and various other bits a bobs that had been lost for years. They collected their finds in a bucket, working together, not declaring any of it "mine," but rather calling all of it "ours." This was fully their project, one into which they had flowed, another tributary in the great river of children playing together.

In the end, the boat remained where it was, embedded in the sand, unflipped, but the kids' project was, as all preschool projects are when left to their natural flow, a success in that it was something they did together.

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