Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Crying Blocks

Before playing with them, I told the kids that I've nicknamed these blocks The Crying Blocks.


"Because every time we play with them, kids wind up crying. Usually, lots of kids."

"Well, I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks."

"Me too."

"I'm going to call them The Happy Blocks too."

We acquired these big, soft blocks years ago when a family made a generous donation coupled with a matching donation from their employer with the stipulation that Teacher Tom, and Teacher Tom alone, got to decide how to spend it. I'd been eyeballing these blocks for some time and spent the entire donation on the largest set, a decision I came to regret (at least partially) almost immediately. These blocks with their bright colors, soft corners, large size, and light weight speak to some children, saying, "Go crazy!" During their maiden voyage, several children were crying within minutes, having been bopped, squashed, trapped, and otherwise injured or frightened during what could only be described as a melee. Since that time, I've found it useful to preface the introduction of these blocks each year with a little discussion.

"Why do kids start crying?"

"Usually because they get hurt."

"How do they get hurt?"

"Sometimes they get trapped under blocks and other kids jump on them. Or sometimes someone starts throwing the blocks or hitting people with them. Or maybe two kids bash heads together."

"We won't do that, right?"

There was general agreement that they would take care of one another.

"The biggest problem," I said, "Is that it looks like there are a lot of blocks, but that's just because they're big. There actually aren't that many blocks. A lot of times kids start crying because they fight over blocks."

"We won't do that, will we?"

Again, general disagreement accompanied by a few comments that they were going to call them The Happy Blocks.

"I also call them The Crying Blocks," I continued, "because people knock over other people's buildings."

"We won't do that! We all agreed!" This was said while pointing to the list of agreements (sometimes called "rules") that the children have made with one another.

With that we started playing with the blocks. A handful of kids moved immediately to other activities, but most of them stayed to test themselves amongst The Crying Blocks. They began building in groups of two and three, quickly using up most of the blocks. It was generally peaceful for the first ten minutes or so. One of the girls asked me, "How many kids are usually crying by now?"

I replied, "Several."

She turned to her friend, "Teacher Tom says that usually several kids are crying by now, but none of us are crying."

Then things began to get a bit more tense. One boy straddled a block while holding two others protectively. I began to hear a lot of declarations like, "This is our building!" and "Hey! We were using that block!" and "She took our block!" I was sitting near the area on a bench, occasionally narrating what I saw, especially remarking upon any cooperation I witnessed. There were several appeals to me to help settle disputes, but I turned it back to them, saying things like, "I guess you two will have to talk. These blocks are hard to play with."

There was suddenly a flare up between a couple girls. One of them began to choke up, her tears of frustration or outrage right on the verge, then we made eye contact. I watched her fight down the emotion enough to say, "Let's play with it together!" and her friend replied, "Yeah! Let's play with it together!" 

Moments later two groups of builders began arguing about a tower that had been inadvertently knocked over. When they turned to me, I shrugged, saying, "Well, they're called The Crying Blocks for a reason."

"We're calling them The Happy Blocks, right guys?" And with both factions agreeing, they decided to "connect" their respective buildings.

"Teacher Tom, by now how many kids are usually crying?"

"Most of them."

"Well none of us are crying."

"I know! That's because you're all trying to work together."

Over the next several minutes there were more near tears as they worked things out, but it was mostly peaceful, cooperative play with lots and lots of talking. The boy who was hoarding his three blocks still sat among them, silent, scowling, experiencing the natural, miserable state of a hoarder. Then off to one side, in an otherwise unused area of the rug, two boys began to play more wildly, running and falling on the blocks while pretending to sneeze, "Achoo!" Impressively, they managed to control their bodies enough to not accidentally knock into anyone else's constructions. As they got louder and laughed harder, however, others began to like their idea. Soon the buildings had been abandoned in favor of the sneezing game, the only exception being our hoarder, who continued to sit silently in his self-imposed misery.

I said to him, striving to not betray any judgement in my tone, "You're hoarding three blocks. You don't look happy."

"Can we clean up now?"

"But the other kids are having so much fun," I answered. "I think we're going to keep playing for at least another half hour." He contemplated this information for a minute or two, then slowly stood, abandoning his blocks, and his misery, for a seat across the room at the play dough table.

The sneezing game reached a crescendo, then returned to groups of children building cooperatively, talking their way through it, self-regulating, no longer looking to me for anything. There had been a few tears, but they had been short-lived and readily wiped away with agreements. After we put the blocks away for the day, I said to the group, "You guys did it. You turned The Crying Blocks into The Happy Blocks."

"We told you, Teacher Tom."

"You sure did."

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