Thursday, September 12, 2019

I Hadn't Expected That


A while back, I met a well-known architect who designed a building for children that has received international acclaim. I've not seen the building in person, but judging from the videos and photos, it appears to be a beautiful, well thought out, special place for children. At one point, in private conversation, I praised the building, then asked what I thought was an interesting question, "What was your biggest surprise once children and teachers actually started using the space?" He replied, "Nothing. There were no surprises. The people used the building exactly as I expected."

I didn't believe him for a second. English isn't his native language, so I have to allow for something to have been lost in translation, but I've been around young children long enough to know that nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. I'm quite certain that there are aspects of his building that children have commandeered for their own purposes, that other aspects are entirely ignored, that things have already had to be changed or altered to allow for the advent of real children in a real space. And I also know that these unknown unknowns change from year to year as the mix of children change, and month to month as the children grow and develop, and week to week as the kids invent and collaborate. The only way for things to go even close to "exactly" as expected is for the adults to act as dictators, and even then, the kids will find a way to make it their own.

I've been writing on this blog almost every day for a decade now, sharing my best thinking on whatever it is that's on my mind. Occasionally, I go back and look at some of the things my younger, less wizened self thought to be true, but not too often because it can be painful. A great deal of it is cringe worthy, especially when it came to my expectations. A prime example is what I called "Little World." If you want to take a journey though this aspect of my personal journey, you can find those posts under the tag "Little World" located on over there on the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's Topics."

At the time, we had just begun our community's our attempt to transform outdoor space to better serve children, a process that has ultimately lead, a decade later, to our current state-of-the-art junkyard playground. Little World emerged from my nascent understanding to the theory of loose parts. My idea, which seemed somehow brave at the time, was to set aside a small patch of our playground for the building of fairy houses. For this purpose, I curated a collection of bits of bark, moss, pinecones, rocks and other natural items, along with figurines of trolls, unicorns, fairies and other such magical creatures. The idea was to have this place set aside for Little World play. At first, the children played with it exactly as I expected, but very soon began to transport my precious items outside of the Little World area, taking the figurines to the sandpit and the pinecones to the garden. I found myself constantly scolding, "No, that belongs in Little World." It took me a good month, to finally realize that this would never go exactly as I expected. Looking back it was the beginning of my understanding of the true nature and value of loose parts: they must be loose and the children must be permitted to make it their own.

A couple days ago, one of those original little fairies turned up on the playground. Not much bigger than a dime, it has somehow managed to move with us from our old building on the top of Phinney Ridge, to our current place in Fremont. It has remained missing for years at a time, but keeps turning up at the tips of little fingers. When I saw it, I enthused about it like one might upon bumping into a long lost friend. Children gathered around to look at it, taking turns handling it, treating it like something special because of my reaction. And then, as suddenly as she had re-appeared, she was lost again, amidst the debris of our junkyard playground. I've been thinking since then about my journey, one that has been paved with disappointed expectations.

When I got home from school, I was emptying my pockets, and there she was again, this fairy from the past. One of the children had apparently slipped it in there without my knowing. I hadn't expected that.

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