Monday, November 05, 2018

This Is The Way Democracy Is Supposed To Work

Like many preschools, we are always a little short on storage space. We do have a separate storage room and a couple of outdoor sheds, but our classroom walls are still lined with a hodge-podge of shelves and cabinets. A few of these pieces of furniture have doors, but most are open shelves which are covered with curtains of butter yellow fabric.

One of the first things children learn about our space is that when the curtain is in place, the items on those shelves are "closed," while when the curtain is removed, that means "open." Even the youngest children get the system within a couple weeks. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't peek, but by this time in the school year, it's exceedingly rare for a child, even a two-year-old, to take the next step of actually playing with what they find there.

I'm always impressed by this level of self-control. After all, they're only curtains, attached with velcro. The shelves are full of attractive items stored at eye-level. No one has ever threatened or scolded them about these shelves. During the first few weeks of school, as they are figuring out the boundaries, they are told, "That's closed" or "That's opened," statements of fact about our storage-challenged classroom, said in the way one might say, "That's a window" or "This is a chair." We help them re-hang any curtains that have been removed in the process. We might discuss when we should "open" the shelf in question (we usually agree on tomorrow). And after a couple weeks of experimentation, we all seem to more or less agree on the system.

There is one curtain, however, that needs new velcro. Indeed, it has needed new velcro for several years. Pretty much anytime someone brushes against it, it falls. It's located on a shelf adjacent to our checkerboard rug, an active place where we regularly engage in both circle time and a lot of large motor, dramatic, and constructive play. Needless to say, it falls open several times a day. A child could easily be excused for assuming that meant that those blocks are "open," yet they never do.

Almost every time the curtain is knocked down, a child will take it upon her or himself to re-attach the velcro. No one asks them to do it. No one even suggests it. Yet the moment the curtain falls, someone is on it, often more that one, and usually without saying a word. Over the years, parents have volunteered to repair it with new velcro, but I tend to decline the offer. There is something beautiful to me about how the children have taken responsibility for it year after year, often struggling with it, often needing help, but nevertheless making the effort, "closing" the inadvertently "open" shelf, not because it's a rule or because they've been told to do it by an authority figure, but simply because that's the way we do things here at Woodland Park.

Every time I see it happen it occurs to me that this is the way democracy is supposed to work.

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