Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The Common Struggle

It was born as a whicker picnic basket complete with plates, cups and cutlery, but was converted a decade ago into the container in which we store a collection of dolls along with their wardrobe. They aren't particularly popular dolls as playthings go, but I continue to trot them out a couple times a year because there is occasionally a kid or two who will drop everything else they're doing to engage in the challenge of dressing and undressing those dolls.

The basket is held closed by a pair of leather straps secured by metal clasps that operate in a manner that most preschoolers haven't before encountered. I had put the basket on a table with the straps fastened, which I intended as a sort of invitation, figuring that few kids would be able to walk past without wanting to solve the mystery of what was inside. And sure enough, as the kids began to arrive, my invitation was accepted as a cluster gathered around the table, asking, "What's in here?" their fingers prying at the edges of the lid, struggling to get it to open.

I was standing a distance away, watching, even a little excited to see how the children would solve the challenge of those clasps. That's when an adult stepped in and opened the clasps for them. The kids said, "Dolls," then stood looking at them unenthusiastically for a moment before moving on to something else. It's the sort of thing caring adults too often do: the kids were working together to solve a kind of puzzle, but they were robbed of an opportunity for independence, collaboration, and perhaps even epiphany by a well-intended adult. I was determined that the same thing wouldn't happen with the afternoon class.

This time, I gave specific instructions to the appropriate adult to not help. She asked, "What if they ask me?" I answered, "Play dumb."

Sure enough, a group of kids gathered around the basket as they had in the morning, asking the classroom at large, "What's inside?" The first attempts to open the box involved force, but soon they discovered the clasps. They tried pushing the mechanism; they tried sliding it. One boy thought that maybe the leather straps needed to be cut, but others were sure that the solution involved those clasps. After several minutes of hive minded teamwork, they managed it. As they opened the lid to reveal the dolls, they squealed, "Dolls!" "Cool!" "This one has a baseball hat!" Never before had this particular collection of dolls received so much enthusiastic attention.

It's quite possible that the kids would have responded this way even if one of us adults had "helped" them with the clasps, but I tend to believe that the dolls' newfound popularity, something that endured into mid-week, had a lot to do with the kids' common struggle with those clasps: it's the struggle, especially the common struggle, that makes the reward so sweet.

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