Wednesday, April 17, 2019

For Their Own, Better, Purposes

I recently visited a friend's school where he pointed out their purpose-built "mud kitchen." He noted that the kids had dumped all the moveable parts of the kitchen into the sand pit, where they were being used as sand toys, something they did on a daily basis. He said, "I don't think they've ever actually used the mud kitchen." That didn't surprise me: children always have better ideas than we adults about what to do with materials. I can't tell you how many schools I've toured that feature abandoned mud kitchens. And yes, there was a time when we attempted a mud kitchen at Woodland Park with similar results.

This doesn't mean the kids at our school don't sometimes pretend to be cooking up a pot of mud stew or mud cake or mud pasta. Just yesterday, one of our newly-minted three-year-olds set up a three-course dinner along a concrete ledge using containers she collected from around the playground. But what we've learned from experience is that you can't force, cajole, or lure children into a particular type of play without rendering it "not-play." The adults might set up what they think are cool provocations, but after that, it belongs to the children: that's what I've learned, often painstakingly, over the course of many, many "failures."

Over there in the right hand column of this blog, you'll see a header labeled "Teacher Tom's Topics" and under that you'll find a link to posts tagged with "Little World." There are 19 posts there, most of which are dated from 2010. The final post is entitled, "Little World is Still Dead". When I go back and re-read these posts from the beginning, I'm more than a little bit embarrassed by most of them, even to the point of being tempted to delete a few, but I've opted to leave them up as evidence of the journey that has brought our community from there to here when it comes to the introduction of what are commonly called "loose parts." In a nutshell, our journey began with "loose parts" that were not so loose and ended with the children having taught us how to let go to the point that we rarely use the term "loose parts" any longer, going instead with the more accurate moniker "junk."

Indeed, going back over the decade of writing on this blog, there are more than a few posts, especially from those early years, that today make me cringe. I don't go back and read them often, but every time I do I become aware of how much I've grown, both as a teacher and a human being and that's why I don't delete them. I fully expect that if I'm still writing here in 2029, I'll look back on some of what I'm writing today with the same sort of chagrin. If not, that would mean that I've not continued to grow and learn which would be a sign that it's time to move on to something else.

Often, children will begin by playing with our mud kitchens or Little World's in the way we envisioned, but they quickly learn, through their play, all they can from the artificial limitations we've set and must to move on, which is why they dismantle our creations for their own, better, purposes, the next steps in their own journeys.

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