Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Parts To Be Used Again

When I arrived at the Woodland Park Cooperative School some 17 years ago, my predecessors, a cohort that stretches back for over 40 years, had amassed an impressive collection of table top toys, manipulatives and construction sets intended for children playing either alone or in small groups. A few of them are truly vintage items, things that I treasure because they were so well-made or are particularly beautiful. Many I've disposed of in one way or another, usually by either giving them away or tossing them into the glue gun box for children to re-purpose for sculptural creations. And then there some that live on simply because they won't die.

The plastic building set in these photo is such a set. The construction technique required is fiddly, the possibilities fairly limited, and the plastic brittle. Still, I've found, that if they are available, there are always one or two kids who will set themselves the challenge of playing with them.

I don't think anyone took note of them on Monday, other than to, perhaps, knock a few on the floor as they walked past. On Tuesday, one boy spent several minutes messing around with them, I think largely because he was seeking a place away from the hubbub. Then on Wednesday, he went straight to the table upon which I'd plunked them. After nearly a half hour of uninterrupted work, he had built a massive, random structure, using nearly all the available pieces. I had thought that I would just let him take it home with him and be done with the set forever, but when it came time to tidy up, he dismantled it as meticulously as he had built it.

On Thursday, I spied him at the table again, this time building with a purpose. When I stopped by to admire it, he explained it was a "vehicle," showing me how he had figured out to make it look as if it had wheels. I wasn't the only one attracted by his work. Soon a group of boys had gathered around, both admiring and seeking to imitate their classmate who they treated as an authority. Soon they all had vehicles of various sorts. "Mine's a zoom laser motorcycle!" one declared. "Mine's a speed mech!" "Mine's a vehicle . . . like his!"

People often accuse me, lovingly of course, of being a pack rat or middle class bag lady, due to my penchant for not wanting to let things go, but this is why I keep things like this around, even when they aren't always "popular." These moments are worth the storage space. As I watched the kids enthuse over their creations, cobbled together using unfamiliar materials, according to their own lights, inspired by a friend, I thought of those building sets sold in toy stores today. The ones with a picture on the box that children are expected to imitate, that rely on less fiddly building techniques, and that are inspired by television programs or movies. I've known too many children who build with these new sets once, then put them on a shelf as "finished" products, never to be dismantled because this, according to the instructions, is the only way to use them.

When it was time to tidy up, the children, like their friend who had inspired them through example, dismantled their creations as meticulously as they had built them, reducing them to parts to be used again.

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