Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Until It Becomes A Part Of Who We Are

As I mentioned earlier in the week, we held an open house for prospective families over the weekend. Unlike many events of this sort, we urged families to bring their children. It was a gorgeous mid-winter day, crisp and sunny, so I decided that I wouldn't bother preparing the classroom for children because I couldn't imagine them wanting to play anywhere other than our state-of-the-art junkyard playground.

Among the children attending were a couple dozen current students and their families. Many of them took a turn through the classroom, then finding nothing but bare table tops, an empty sensory table, and toys generally boxed away, they perceived that the room was "closed" and proceeded back outdoors where the action was. It's not that there weren't things to play with in the classroom: there were stuffed animals, a play kitchen, costumes, dolls, everyday cars, and a few other playthings, but the room nevertheless struck them as "closed."

What I'd neglected to consider was that this is not the message the room (also known as part of the "third teacher" in Reggio Emilia parlance) sends to those who are not regular members of our community. I've long bemoaned the fact that we are forced to use our classroom for storage. Our walls are lined with shelving upon which are bins and boxes of toys of all description, colorful things that were designed to attract and delight young children. A few of these shelves are covered with actual cabinet doors, but most are simply "closed" with sheets of butter yellow fabric, and many have no covering at all. To children who have not been there before, this "closed" room obviously appears as a sort of Willy Wonka's toy factory.

I suppose I should have anticipated that these children who are not yet members of our community, would want to play with the things they found tantalizingly within reach. After all, I spend the first couple weeks of every school year coaching our newly enrolled two-year-olds on the difference between "open" and "closed," a process that is based upon simply stating the facts, "That is closed today" and "This is open," rather than commanding or bossing. By this point in the school year, children might still investigate the shelves with their eyes, but it wouldn't cross their minds to unilaterally decide things are "open." They know to tell me, "I want to play with this tomorrow," and that they can rely on me to follow through. In other words, it has by now become one of the threads of agreement from which our community is woven.

The stereotype of young children is that they are impulsive and selfish, unable to delay gratification or understand the finer points of following the "rules," but as I observed the contrast between the children on Saturday, between those who are currently part of our community and those who are not, that being the only essential difference between them, I was impressed with how much the children I teach have already internalized what it means to be part of "us." Indeed, a couple of them even took it upon themselves to "close" shelves that had been opened by our visitors, re-hanging the curtains and closing the cabinet doors before I could even get to them.

This is what we are here for, to learn how to be part of a community, and we learn it not through direction or lecture, but by living it, together, until it becomes a part of who we are.

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