Monday, March 27, 2023

All It Ever Needed To Be

We once had this little platform built from a pair of shipping pallets and some discarded fencing slats that resided just behind the windmill. They were products of our very first summer session, and we've been using them as outdoor "floors" ever since.

It's in the nature of loose parts to go wherever the children take them, but when I was tidying up the place, when I came across interesting toys and tidbits like seashells or baskets or cow bells or knots of root or other junk, I would toss them into the area of these platforms behind the windmill.

In all honesty, I did it mostly so that I would later have a collection of objects at hand for playing stories. Sometimes when a kid got upset or was missing mommy, after we'd spent some time hanging out with the emotion, I would walk them to these platforms. It was a great place to reconnect that child with what was going on at school, especially the other children, who usually then gathered round, finding their own loose part props or sets or characters to take part in the game.

But I certainly didn't have to wait until a child was upset to play there, nor did the kids. 

For a long time, I kept getting the urge to do something "more" with that space in the bullseye of our outdoor classroom: maybe build it out a bit more, frame in a wall or two, create more opportunities for making cubbies or forts or whatever. I once saw a photograph from the 1920's of a giant outdoor doll house, which was really just a set of irregular, head-high shelves accessible from both sides. I also thought it might be cool to inset colored plastic windows in the windmill so when the sun shined through it would create patches of color on the platforms and nearby ground. And I often considered adding some sort of mechanism to make it a little easier for the kids to turn the windmill's vanes -- as it was, only the oldest, strongest kids could manage it.

But then again, as much as I was in love with my ideas, I always came around to preferring the ideas that were already emerging in this platform space, a simply defined area in which I tossed junk as I tidied.

The whole point of our school, and the reason that what we were doing was important, is that it was a place where children got to practice playing with the other people. It really doesn't matter how much you know, how many facts you can recite, how high you can climb, or how talented you are. If you don't learn how to play with the other people, it makes everything else a little empty. It's the other people, your friends and family, your relationships with classmates and teachers, your connections with co-workers, bosses, and customers: it's what happens there that at the end of the day makes for a happy life.

So when they connect, like this group of our younger children did over a simple game of "feeding the pony" using the small pile of straw that remained from the big one we once had there, a game that started in earnest, then evolved into silliness, a game that erupted spontaneously as a result of several independent suns revolving around the floor behind the windmill, then suddenly syncing up, they were doing the most important work there is.

I would start thinking about what we adults could do with this space behind the windmill whenever it sat fallow for weeks on end, as it did sometimes, being used primarily as a pass-through on the way to somewhere else. However, after watching how this area was used for 12 months, studying the ebb and flow of how the children played there, I had the data I needed to discard more concrete concepts like building a full-on play house. It needed to remain much more flexible than that if it was going to fully support this kind of open-ended, freeform cooperative play. 

I'm glad we adults went slowly here, that we didn't give in to the urge to colonize it with our adultishness. We were wise to go on letting the children show us how they wanted to use this space without a name, this space behind the windmill where I tossed the loose parts. This was all it ever needed to be.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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