Monday, February 24, 2020

Isn't It Also Belittling To Children?

There was an old hamster wheel in our classroom. Most of the children had no idea what it was, but it was nevertheless an endlessly popular plaything. Someone was forever spinning it or turning it upside down to roll on the floor or otherwise employing it in their games. Over the years, I saw it used as a part of block castles, as a bulldozer in the sensory table, as a Ferris wheel for little people, as a play dough tool, and as a way to apply paint to paper. One boy spent weeks using it as a kind of impromptu puzzle, taking it apart, then putting it back together again.

Over the years, I watched hundreds of children play with it for the first time. They would mess with it for a few minutes, quickly figuring out that they could spin it, then take it from there, employing it in an endless variety of ways. In nearly two decades of playing with the hamster wheel, not a single child, ever, asked "What is this thing?" On occasion, however, a well-intended adult would take it upon themself to provide this information. "You know what that is?" they would ask, "It's a hamster wheel," and then proceed to go into detail about how and why. Time and again, I witnessed this and almost invariably the result was that the child quit playing with it. I'll never forget one girl in particular who had been using the hamster wheel as a kind of corral to hold her favorite little ponies. Upon receiving the "facts," she asked, "Do we have any hamsters here?" When she was told no, the girl expressed disappointment, saying, "Then why do we have this?" She then literally kicked the hamster wheel aside, collected her ponies, and took them elsewhere.

Maybe it's because we call ourselves teachers or educators (and all that implies) that we feel the need to do this to children. We spy them playing, engaged in a self-selected activity, and feel compelled to insert ourselves with our unsolicited information, advice, ideas, or jokes. Everyone is annoyed by "mansplaining," that phenomenon that causes some guys to feel that the rest of us, especially if we are women, are just waiting to be enlightened from their special store of wisdom and experience. Isn't that exactly what we're doing when we feel we must insert ourselves into children's play in the name of a "teachable moment" or "scaffolding" or "extending the play?" The children are already demonstrating their unique mastery of the moment, asking and answering their own questions, directing their own learning, not asking anyone for help. That should be enough, but too often we presume that it is our job to enlighten them from our special store of wisdom and experience. If it's belittling to do this to adults, isn't it also belittling to children?

The moment we interrupt to say, "This is a hamster wheel," we rob children of their game, converting it from a project of imagination into one of humdrum, diverting them from their creative exploration of the unknown into the well-trodden realm of the known. We reduce their world, in a second, from one of castles and corrals and bulldozers and Ferris wheels into a mere hamster wheel, a simple machine designed for rodents to run round and round without getting anywhere.

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