Monday, April 01, 2024

A Natural Learning Habitat for These Urban Kids is a Junkyard

She hadn't come looking for me, but when I passed where she played with a friend, she said, "Teacher Tom, look at our play area." They then gave me a tour of junk they had purposefully arranged, explaining to me how everything worked. There was a slide and a merry-go-round and several other things that adult play area designers haven't yet, and probably never will, invent.

After admiring their project for a bit, a project that was still in process, I made my way up the hill to where the "bad guy" trap had taken up residence. This was a well-established project undertaken mostly by a partnership of two boys that was months in the making. 

I kept expecting them to lose interest, but they persisted. It was regularly disassembled, partially and totally, by other children several times, but they rebuilt it again and again, bigger and better than before. Every single item had a purpose and they happily explained it to anyone who showed an interest. I won't pretend to tell you everything they included in their bad guy trap, but there was radar.

Not far from the bad buy trap some girls were playing "birds." It's a game that one of them had been playing at least the prior year, but lately her passion for playing birds had inspired her playmates. Normally, their game involved chirping, flapping, and jumping off of things to simulate flying, but today they had built something from the junk at hand.

They had arranged orange traffic cones atop a small hill, surrounding what's left of an old shipping crate. "It's our nest, Teacher Tom." There was a kind of gangway, so I asked, "Is this how you get in?"

"No, this is the kid's nest. The trampoline is where the adults sleep. The wood is how we get to each other's rooms. Tweet tweet tweet tweet." They then went on to explain the purpose of everything in their nest.

Then down at the work bench I found a pair of brothers using PVC pipe to build a "machine" that performed such miraculous feats that they couldn't even explain it.

Our junkyard playground was in full swing, with every corner being used for purposeful collaboration, deep meaningful play that no adult could have imagined, although some might find echoes in their childhood memories.


A junkyard playground is not right for everyone, but it is ideal for the Woodland Park community. My 6-week course, Creating a Natural Habitat for Learning, is designed to help you figure out how to transform your classroom, home, or playground into the kind of open-ended, child-led environment that puts curiosity, self-motivation, and teamwork at the center of learning. In my decades as an early childhood educator, I've found that nothing improves my teaching and the children's learning experience more than a supportive classroom, both indoors and out. This course is for educators, parents, and directors. Group discounts are available. You don't want to miss this chance to make your "third teacher" (the learning environment) the best it can be. Registration is closing tomorrow (April 2). I hope you join us! To learn more and register, click here.

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