Posted by: jwhiff | October 2, 2011

Play, Wonder and Herding Cats

Well, I finally set up that aquarium like I was hoping to.  The way things were going, I didn’t think I’d ever get to this point, although it ended up being such a simple and obvious activity to do with my young wards.

For these first weeks of school, I have been completely preoccupied with establishing thoughtful routines, respectful relationships, and a general sense of calm and order.  You can’t know how utterly essential this is unless, of course, you have taught this level before.  Over and over again, I have experienced the sobering realization that, without me investing all of my brainpower, knowledge and experience into managing these little people, this classroom experience could be disastrous for everyone.  Bullying, anxiety, stubborn defiance, temper tantrums, peed pants, fighting, running away….herding cats is an understatement, I assure you.

I make it sound terrible.  It isn’t.  It is just very challenging.  I have experienced highs of relief, wonder and elation when I calmly danced my way through the times of craziness, calming and shaping our odd little community without yelling, shaking, crying, threatening or bribing.  Sweating, yes, but not losing control.  And strangely, I like the challenge.  I just wish someone were around to watch!  It’s unbelievable, really.

Then comes play time.  My little students know just how to do this and they do it very well.  They are imagination maestros.  Wooden blocks are expertly transformed into zoos, tall buildings, balancing wonders, and car jumps.  Primary colours are mixed with increasing expertise and used for the pure enjoyment of applying colour to paper.  The house is a doctors office with an emergency delivery being carefully executed.  Picture books are created.  Young scientists hold jars of food colouring up to the window to watch colours slowly transform.  I end up with a chance to teach the language of interaction in real time.  The biggest challenge is reeling them back in.

I want so badly to merge the natural play aptitude of my students with their growing understanding of how to listen, respond and respect others.  On Friday, I decided to take them out for their first listening walk.  I based it on a book of the same title by Paul Showers.  I wasn’t sure if they were ready for such a thing, but I was hoping that their curiosity about sounds they might hear, coupled with their enjoyment of the outside and their growing ability to focus on a specific task might equal some success.

Amazingly, 19 K’s and 1’s made their way around our field and through our forest without running off, without being silly or arguing and without jumping on one another.  I kept completely quiet, modelling my commitment to hearing the smallest sounds without my voice getting in the way.  I felt the attention and focus of some children really straining against the structure of the task, but many were completely engaged and all were quiet for the longest time that I have ever experienced with them.  They then enthusiastically shared the sounds they heard as I recorded them on a chart paper.  I was so thrilled, that I felt we should venture out again, this time taking the aquarium with us.

We now have an aquarium filled with rocks, dirts, leaves and rotting wood.  Our first visitors to this habitat are a darkling beetle and a small ant.  The kids are thrilled.  Four kindergarten girls spent their entire afternoon play time misting the habitat, adding elements such as a wet sponge and grass, and gently handing the beetle.  It was so easy and I feel like I have taken a step in that happy direction that I was so hoping to take.

All in all, I feel good.

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