Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"I Wanted to See if I Could Break It": When Children are Free to Pursue Their Ideas

When we built our junkyard playground, the idea was to create a place where children could just be children. It was a place where things didn't need to be tidy, where children didn't need to be tidy, and where tidiness was in no way part of the equation.

Among the junk we collected were some traffic cylinders, tall plastic pipe with a weighted base like you might see instead of traffic cones at a highway construction site. The kids used them for all sorts of things, from cannons to stanchions to levers, and even sometimes to indicate the need for caution. One boy took a fancy to carrying them. He had a big strapping father and I presume he was instinctively preparing himself for his future as a big strapping young man by hoisting, heaving, pushing, and carrying any heavy object upon which he could lay his hands. These cylinders were particular favorites. He would lift one of the cylinders onto one shoulder and march about the place, stopping periodically to switch sides so as to create a kind of balanced work out.

One day I was watching this boy from across the junkyard playground as he carried a cylinder. He stopped and placed it on the ground, on its side, taking care to arrange it in a particular way. Finally satisfied, he climbed onto a large wooden crate. He then jumped onto the cylinder, splintering it with a loud crack.

I called out, "Henry, why'd you do that?"

He replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it."

Of course. At the time I scolded him a bit about intentionally destroying community property, but I regret that today. After all, we had set up a junkyard for him in which to play. A junkyard, which by definition means a place full of stuff no one but the children could possibly care about. In fact, most of the junk in our junkyard playground is already broken.

For most of human existence, children spent most of their days outdoors, playing the in the woods, the fields, and the streams. Adult supervision was minimal. No one stopped them from breaking up rotting logs, throwing rocks, gathering fists full of leaves from the shrubbery, or picking all the flowers then tossing them into a mud puddle. That's the beauty of a junkyard playground: it's that sort of place for urban kids.

We've all known children who must take things apart, driven to find out what's inside, to understand how it works. You usually can't do that stuff at home or school without catching hell. I imagine you couldn't even do that when families lived in caves. Yet, part of our human urge to understand our world is to develop theories (or wonderful ideas, as I wrote yesterday) then test them out. Sometimes, perhaps often, part of that process requires yanking up grasses by the roots, dismantling toy robots, or smashing a traffic cylinder.

We don't provide many places like that for children these days. Even forest and nature schools tend to enforce the ethic of respect for natural things, which generally forbids the sort of "destructive" experimentation children need if they are going truly test their theories about the world, which is to say, fully develop their intelligence.

Most children, most of the time, don't intentionally destroy things, although we've all known some who do. No, more often than not the destruction comes as a sort of surprise, an unexpected consequence of testing their theory, like an explosion in a chemistry lab. Sometimes the children are even reduced to tears by it, shocked that their plaything (that is to say, the object of their wonderful idea) is gone, another lesson learned.

We need more junkyard playgrounds in the world: places where children can pursue their ideas without adults hovering and hampering.


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach:

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!

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