Monday, September 30, 2019

"Hey, I know!"

The diving board game is one that has been around the school since 2014, when the kids first had the idea of putting a long plank of wood on the top of our three-step flight of stairs and anchoring one end under the playground gate, making a diving board off which they take turns jumping. The original version of the game was doing damage to the gate, wrenching and loosening the hinges, so we made a deal that an adult had to stand outside the gate on the short end of the plank to serve as "dead weight," which is not an entirely inappropriate role for an adult in a play-based environment.

We've been playing the game a lot lately and when the kids began arranging the game last week, I, quite frankly, didn't want to spend my afternoon standing outside the gate. I told them as much, there were no other adults available, and a few of them began to mope around in disappointment.

We have a half dozen shipping pallets around the place that have gone largely unused so far this year, maybe because they've been propped up against a wall domino style, one overlapping the other since the adults rallied at the end of summer to get the place spruced up for the new school year. A few days earlier, one child, testing his strength, had pulled a couple of them down where they had been left one layered awkwardly atop the other. The children had dropped their diving board plank and a few of them began to attempt to climb on the toppled shipping pallets which pitched and teetered with their shifting weight. This cheered them up a bit. Then one boy said, "Hey, I know!"

He ran to the plank, calling out, "I need help," then a pair of them dragged the plank to the pallets, sliding one end between the top and bottom pallet, the obvious idea being that the pallets would serve as their diving board's anchor and dead weight, just as the gate and adult body had in the regular game. The flaw in their plan became obvious as they learned that the top pallet, was not sufficiently heavy, especially as they moved their bodies out to the end of the lever they had created to discover that it pitched downward suddenly. This was not a concept they discussed amongst themselves, but rather experienced with their full bodies as they tried to walk out to the end of their diving board, as they climbed off and on the pallets, as they both individually and cooperatively experimented with the apparatus they had made.

Soon they discovered that if two of them stood on pallet, their combined weight, along with the weight of the pallet, was sufficient for a friend to walk out to the end of the diving board for a turn. But while it worked in practice (once) in reality it wasn't sustainable because young children are not reliable dead weight, what with their fidgeting and jumping off at just the wrong moment and whatnot. Then again, someone said, "Hey, I know!"

One by one, they worked together to tip the rest of propped up pallets onto the ones that had already fallen, one, two, three, adding more and more dead weight to the short end of the diving board. Now, to test it. One brave child inched his way along the plank until he was at the end. He gave it a couple tentative bounces. It worked! Then he jumped and his friends queued up for their turns.

There was obviously a lot going on in this game. Knowledge was clearly acquired. There was a time when I would have felt compelled to intrude with coaching and cautions, but instead all I did was remain near. I might have tried to "scaffold" their learning with physics vocabulary, the sort of nonsense babble that adults so often feel they must inflict upon children. But instead, I left them alone with the most important part of the process, the part they may go home to tell their parents at the end of the day, the story of how they were disappointed, then overcame that disappointment by working together to make something even better.

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