Thursday, July 24, 2014

Because It's Hard

Play is the highest form of research. ~Albert Einstein

There are easier ways of getting from here to there, but all day long children choose to cross this narrow, springy plank they've set between a pair of stumps.

Why do they do this? It requires more focus than merely walking across the ground. There is a heightened risk of injury, something even the 2-year-olds know going in: you can tell by the caution with which they approach it. There are easier, safer ways, so why do they consistently choose the way that is hard?

One of the arguments used against a play-based curriculum is that it doesn't teach children rigor, that there is no incentive to tackle things that are difficult, but every day, all day long I see evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's often hard to find a child who is not applying herself, rigorously, to her play.

In every corner of the classroom, at any given moment, we find children striving in their play to do things that are hard: making the scissors cut the paper, shaping the play dough into a sphere, negotiating over a toy with a classmate, balancing across a narrow plank. When we think of play we usually think of smiles and laughter, but look around and you'll find brows wrinkled in concentration, jaws clenched in effort, bodies tense in anger, and eyes filled with the tears of frustration. This is also true of a rote-based curriculum, the difference being the smiles and laughter.

If it were true that children are inherently lazy, that without the firm hand of teachers executing standardized lesson plans filled with things a committee has determined they ought to know, and by when they ought to know it, that they will only play and never learn to apply themselves -- if this were true then there is no explaining this plank between two stumps. No, what those who doubt play fail to realize is that what they see as laziness is really boredom. If a child appears lazy, it's because you're doing it wrong.

When we understand that play is, indeed, research, then it all makes sense. They see the smiles and laughter as evidence of sloth and distraction, whereas in a play-based curriculum we know it as evidence of Eureka! 

Children are not lazy. They are also not empty vessels that now need to be tediously crammed full of things that others believe they ought to know. No, more often than not, when left to their own devices, children chose what is hard over what is easy. Why? Because humans are flames to be ignited: we are born to research, born to explore, born to cross that plank even when it is the way that is hard. 

A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard. ~Dr. Benjamin Spock

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Turning My Project Into Their Project

A couple weeks ago, a reader sent me photos of her class' version of "paint skiing." I'm glad she did because I'd forgotten about that particular project. Maybe that's because in my mind it wasn't paint skiing at all, but rather "super-dooper sized marble painting." You see, the whole idea evolved from a game of intercontinental one-upsmanship between the children of Woodland Park and Jenny's (of Let the Children Play fame) kids Down Under. It had gone back and forth from "marble painting" to "giant marble painting" to "super sized marble painting" and this, what became "paint skiing," was my idea for taking it one step beyond: we were going to make a painting by kicking balls through paint on a tarp. The kids gave it a go, but then dispensed with the balls in short order, turning my project into their project which was to make it a sort of paint wallow.

So, grateful for the inspiration, last week we broke out the tarp and paint again, although this time, instead of attempting to paint with balls, we used brooms, my assumption being that it really didn't matter because it would just turn into "paint skiing" or "paint wallowing" anyway. I was wrong again, of course. This group of kids really enjoyed pushing black and purple paint around with brooms. I even removed my own shoes to demonstrate proper paint skiing. They watched politely, moving out of my way as I skated past, then returned to sweeping. Lukas even said, somewhat humiliatingly, "Good job, Teacher Tom!"

I've tried labeling what I do when I set up activities like this as "invitations" and "provocations," and they are, by turns, both of those things, but neither term really fits for me. They're really just things that seem like they'll be fun, so we break out the materials, perhaps make a suggestion or two, then try to keep up with the kids as they make it their own. It was a challenge as a new teacher to watch my best laid plans run away from me, but I've now come to see the beauty in the unexpected ways the collective creativity of the children will take materials when presented in the context of free play. It's all part of setting my agenda aside in favor of the children's better one. Sometimes I think that's the most important, and most difficult to learn, teaching skill of all.

Now there are some activities, like the balloon cage, that always work exactly as I envision. Of course, we've been doing it for a lot of year with a lot of kids, so we've figured some things out, but I knew I wanted to try it from the day I was hired at Woodland Park. It had been one of my childhood fantasies to get to play in a padded room with hundreds of balloons, so one of my first acts as teacher was to install hooks in our ceiling to hang the cage.

Of course, it's exceptional when my agenda meshes so perfectly with that of the kids. More often than not, like with the "grid table," the kids never find my idea as fun as it seems in my head. In fact, for the first time in several years, I didn't even bother setting up a grid table at all after years of trotting it out in the hope that this year, this time, this group of kids will make it their own. And, in a way, I guess they always do, by ignoring it altogether. And that's always one of the options in a play-based school: the freedom to shrug your shoulders and find something better to do.

Although, I've found, it's important that I not give up on things too quickly. Sometimes it takes years of "failure" before one kid, perhaps only one time, sees the beauty that I see in my mind's eye, making it all worthwhile. I'm thinking in particular of a collection of dolls that I purchased for the school because I preferred them over Barbies. You see, I was working on the mistaken assumption that the fun part of Barbies was dressing and undressing them and these dolls had great wardrobes without being so stereotypically sexualized. They lay largely abandoned for years until Sasha made them her own, which is why those damned dolls come out year-after-year in the anticipation of one more kid like her. Maybe I should do the same with the grid table.

As I watched the kids joyfully sweep the paint last week, I wondered how things would have been different had we offered balls instead of brooms. Would it have turned into paint skiing again or would this particular group of kids have brought in the brooms all on their own? A few of them imitated me by removing their shoes, but most kept their feet covered, not wanting to get paint on their toes. In fact, after a time, I began to hear the children's conversation turn increasingly on the idea of "cleaning" the tarp, as if the project, in their minds, was to sweep the paint off the tarp. Taking on that challenge, one of the boys had the idea of using gutters and pipes to direct water from the nearby cast iron water pump onto the tarp, based upon the theory that running water could do in this case what brooms could not.

This is the dance we perform every day at Woodland Park between the teachers and the children. The adults invite or provoke with things that seem like they might be fun, be they ideas from Australia, childhood dreams, or the children themselves, then, when we're doing it right, we get out of the way as the children make it their own, or not, as the case may be.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wanted: Kindergarten Teacher

I've mentioned here before that Woodland Park is working toward creating a kindergarten for the 2015-2016 school year. We feel confident that we have a space, the enthusiasm, and a vibrant community ready and able to support a play-base kindergarten. So now we're looking for a teacher and we've decided to cast a wide net. I've posted our job description below. If you or someone you know is interested in working with us, please send a resume and any questions to Beth at with "Kindergarten teacher resume" in the subject line.

We're hoping to have a commitment from the right teacher by November 1, 2014, although the actual job won't start until September, 2015. That's because we need to start enrolling this coming Fall and it will make a huge difference to have our teacher in place to help us "sell" the program. We will be collecting resumes through the end of August and intend to begin contacting candidates sometime during September.

I will be traveling for the month of August, but will try to get to any questions as promptly as I can. I'd love to build our school with you!

Here are the details:

Job title: Kindergarten Teacher

Compensation: Depending upon experience

Hours: Approximately 30 hours per week

The school: The Woodland Park Cooperative is adding a kindergarten class to its current four-year preschool program beginning in the Fall of the 2015-16 school year. A thriving early childhood learning community since 1977, the school is currently housed in (although no affiliated with) the Fremont Baptist Church, a facility that is home to utilitarian indoor spaces and a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom in the heart of the funky, progressive Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. The preschool currently enrolls approximately 65 students, aged 2-5. The kindergarten is a result of a widespread parent desire for children to continue the sort of cooperative, play-based education for which Woodland Park has become known under its teacher Tom Hobson who has been with the school for the past 13 years. We are planning an enrollment of 15-18 students for this first year, and if all goes well hope to add a first grade class for the following year.

The job/The teacher: We are looking for an experienced teacher who either has a background in cooperative schools, progressive play-based education and/or who has worked in a more traditional setting and has come to recognize that there has to be a better way. We are a cooperative school, which means Woodland Park is owned and operated by the parents who enroll their children. Our kindergarten teacher will be working on a day-to-day basis with parents both inside and outside the classroom. We are looking for a self-starter, and by that we mean we will be counting on the person we hire to work with Teacher Tom and the parent community to develop and implement a play-based curriculum that fits her or his unique teaching style and our community's expectations. In addition to preparation and classroom time, the teacher will attend monthly parent and board meetings in the evenings.

If this sounds like you, or someone you know, we'd love to hear from you!

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Monday, July 21, 2014

What Color They Chose To Paint It

"The third teacher" is an expression that comes from the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning and is generally used to refer to a school's physical environment. I find it a useful way to think about our space and my relationship to it as a colleague, although the more I work with her, the more I come to understand that she is more than just design and layout -- she is that, plus the entire organization and culture of our school.

If you've been reading here for awhile, you've probably seen our old play house turn up in the photos. This is what it looked like when it was relatively new, but it was staring to fall apart.

Being a cooperative, I think, is just as much a part of who our third teacher is as the concrete slide, the cast iron water pump, the sandpit boat, our incredible sensory table, and the walls that surround us when we're indoors. Thinking of it that way, thinking of our third teacher as being a product of this community, lets us see how it perpetuates itself, evolving just as the other two teachers do: parents and the classroom teacher. 

This shelf had recently given way from the weight of all the kids who had climbed on it while using the window as an entrance and exit, exposing a number of sharp screws.

Our entire outdoor classroom is an example of this institutional evolution, starting as a smaller community experiment in our former location, then coming to fruition in our present space where it has continued to change and grow as our cooperative changes and grows.

We had the roof off before I knew what was happening.

We've discovered that Allen wrenches, sometimes called "hex" wrenches due to their hexagonal shape, are the sort of "just right" tool for preschoolers. They're fairly simple to use, which is probably why Ikea and others use them for their self-assembly furniture.

As everyone discovers about screws, at some point it's just easier to twist them with your fingers.

One big-ish change came a couple Autumns ago, when Finn and Gray's family donated a small playhouse they no longer wanted. It was in good shape since one of the reasons it became ours was that "the boys don't play with it at home." We set it up behind the windmill where we had kept the drum kit until it was, after we'd managed to break all the drum heads by hitting it so hard, conveniently "nicked" to leave an empty space. I'd always envisioned a playhouse extending from the back of the windmill and while this one was smaller and more conventional than the one in my mind's eye, it had the virtues of being free and on the back of a truck ready for delivery.

This is another project created for us by a grandpa. In this case, Ella and Audrey's grandpa made this crazy "mailbox" for us. It's a sculpture of found wood, rebar, brass, lucite, glass, and miscellaneous random parts.

It was a little tippy, so I'd used nails and wire to secure it to the pallet platform under the old play house.

It had to be moved for this project, so we broke out the wire cutters.

Finn and Gray's playhouse served us well, but it simply wasn't designed for the rigors of a preschool. The walls were wobbly, the plastic roof was cracked, and entire sections had begun to pull away from the larger structure leaving exposed screws. One of the more fun administrative tasks at Woodland Park is, at the end of each school year, deciding what to do with any surpluses we happen to generate, and this year we cut free $300 to "build a new playhouse," a project that Audrey and Titus' grandpa Jim took on. We met once at the school where I gave him my basic ideas, which were "a simple frame," preferably "two stories," and with the flexibility for children to "change" and "build" to suit their purposes, "like big Lincoln Logs or something." If that sounds vague, it's because I was thinking about how I wanted kids to be able to play with it rather than the engineering details, which I left up to Jim. One of the ethics that come directly from the influence of our third teacher is: "He who picks up the paint brush chooses the color," and in this case he held the hammer and seemed comfortable with it.

Sometimes two hands just aren't enough.

We've saved all the parts, leaning them against the fence behind the work bench. Some of us think we might like to try putting it back together again sometime in the future.

A couple weeks ago, we got word that the new play house was finished and we arranged to get it delivered and installed on Saturday. A call went out for adult help to make it happen, a project we figured would involve lots of heavy lifting as well as demolition to remove the old structure. Last week, however, I discovered a collection of Allen wrenches that I'd saved when we built our new outdoor furniture last summer, something the third teacher had been holding for me, and not only that, but they fit the screws on the old play house. I figured we'd help out the weekend work team by letting the kids take a stab at dismantlement.

The underside of the pallet foundation was both a treasure hunt (we found lots of old toys under there) and a scientific exploration.

By using a measuring tape, we figured out we would have to move a few of the tree rounds to make room for the new play house, but we ran out time, so that job was left to the adults.

I had no idea what to expect. I was prepared for the kids to not be physically capable of handling the project. I was prepared for strong emotions as their beloved play house was torn asunder. I had back-up plans and alternatives in mind. 

The kids, working in a swarm, had that thing completely down in 45 minutes. In fact, the process was going so fast that I scolded the adults, "Hey, this is the kids' project. We have plenty of time. Don't help them," only to learn that the only help the adults had provided was to hold onto the larger parts as they came loose so as to prevent them from falling on someone.

The adults were calling the top part, "The Kid Cage." The kids were calling the whole structure "The Tower."

And when they were done removing the playhouse, they got to work prying boards from the shipping pallets we'd used for a foundation, boards that children who are now in 3rd and 4th grade had hammered on five years ago. I would have been happy to let this happen, but it soon became apparent that we couldn't count on the kids to keep track of all the rusty nails they were removing, plus I'd forgotten that those pallets were part of the way we had weighted the heavy metal windmill so it didn't topple over when kids clambered on it. If it had been up to the children, they would have kept working until there was nothing left, but the adults decided that safety was at stake.

I'm sure I've told the story of our windmill before, but the short version is that it's a heavy metal prop left over from a now defunct local circus called Cirque de flambé. It was part of a bit based upon Don Quixote that involved a fully enflamed dragon (the wire frame of which you can see in this picture if you look carefully) emerging from behind the windmill to represent the don's enflamed imagination.

Jim had told us that the footprint of the new playhouse was 4' X 8', so we put away the hammers and wrenches and pulled out the measuring tape to figure out exactly where the new structure would sit.

This was the genius part as far as I'm concerned. Jim had taken my vague "Lincoln Log" description and actually devised a real world system. The down stairs walls can be constructed using these pieces of wood, which can be slid into place. The idea is to be able to create doors and windows wherever the kids choose.

Friday night, I lay abed thinking about our new playhouse, fretting about all the challenges ahead, about the new agreements we would have to make, about the hazards we would have to mitigate, and about the learning this new aspect of the third teacher would necessitate and stimulate for all of us.

The kids onsite were given the job of installing the walls. Jim had made them to slide in horizontally.

The kids almost immediately figured out how to use them vertically to create windows and "kids only" doors.

The children decided we needed a collection of toys on the top.

On Saturday then, a group of adults, mostly dads with more arms and legs than we really needed, showed up at Jim's house where, after donuts and coffee, we loaded the trailer before reconvening at the school. It was quick work, made quicker by the children's contributions from the day before. Audrey, Titus, and Henry (who had really taken the lead on the dismantling) were part of our work crew, and as we put the finishing touches on installing the play house, Isaac, Miles, and Ernesto also dropped by to test it out.

This hole through which the ladder is installed was a great size for kids, but we were worried it was too small for adults. A few of us tested it out. It's a tight fit, but several grown men were able to manage it. That said, I discovered that the quickest way to the top should an emergency arise, is to simply scale the outside of the structure and step over the railing.

No one needed to tell the kids to take turns using the ladder. The advantage of the small aperture is that it discourages more than one child at a time.

Another feature of the ladder is that the bottom rung is higher than the rest. We figured that if a child isn't able to manage that first step on his own, then he's probably not ready to climb into the "kid cage."

Our third teacher casts everything in a whole new light, opening perspectives we've never seen before.

I needn't have fretted. Not only did the kids' sense of self-preservation, as it usually does, prevent them from doing anything crazy, but they, on their own, suggested a few rules such as "No dropping heavy things from the top," "No pushing people on the ladder," and "No climbing on the railing," a good start.

Today, we're not in session, so tomorrow will be the first official day for our newly made-over third teacher. I'm already imagining pulley systems connecting the playhouse to the top of the concrete slide, moving furniture into the downstairs to turn it into a bus or a train, and how we will chose to decorate it, but that's no different than my Friday night fretting, something that will likely resolve into nothing. That's because the children now hold the paint brushes, so we'll just have to wait and see what color they chose to paint it.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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