As I walk from one classroom into the adjoining room, I can’t help but let out a sigh. Before me lies what appears to be a mess. Boxes are stacked up, covered with blankets falling off here and there in what appears, to my eyes, to be a haphazard order. Really, it is a miracle that gravity hasn’t brought them down to the ground. Scattered about are food items from the kitchen, Duplo people from our home area and little plastic animals (or say, little plastic dogs and dinosaurs) we use as manipulatives. At least six children are crammed into the area, raising the noise levels. And then I see the piece de resistance: Christmas lights, dangling here and there, decorating the “chaos.”
In my head I think, “Are they really going to clean all of this up?” And then a small voice interrupts my doubts and negativism and brings me back into the moment.
“Teacher, do you want to see our fort?” Gigi asked me.
“Sure. What all have you done?” Suddenly the chaos and the mess became ordered as Gigi and Bill took me by the hand and led me through their fort. It really was an ingenious piece of architecture. It starts with a tunnel, or a box the children had opened at both ends. Once you go through a small box, a taller box served as the kitchen area where two students could eat. The kitchen led into an opening which was bordered by stacking pillows, chairs and other objects. This opening was the main gathering area, which was where several students were now working, trying to put the finishing touches on their grand fort. As I looked closer, I could see that the blankets were not held on by a miracle, but by heavier items a student had stacked on top of them. At the end of the tour, Bill handed me a sketch of the fort that he had made beforehand. It was his blueprint.
On any given work day, I prepare for my students by setting up a provocation or two, double-checking that yesterday’s remnants of play and food are properly cleaned and put away, and making sure that there are enough supplies for all my students to enjoy and create.
Throughout the day I am busy as mediator, facilitator, and even housekeeper. I watch them go through the materials I had carefully selected and turn them into something completely unexpected. Half the time, I find discarded costumes and art supplies lying abandoned on the floor. Objects that are housed in one room often end up in the next room. Anyone observing the classroom for the first time would see chaos. However, in that perceived chaos there is a gift for both students and teachers. For in this chaos there is collaboration, communication, and creativity that joins the class together and creates great learning opportunities.
In the book, “The Play’s the Thing,” by Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds, the authors state that when children mess up the order adults have created they are “transform[ing] it into their own.” The authors state that the classroom is “their place, not ours. Our job is to make it work for them. When it ends up looking messy, that’s usually a sign that we’ve succeeded – that the children are using the materials abundantly to support their own wonderful ideas” (p. 49-51).
It may be difficult to decide when to let creativity reign free and when to put it back on the leash, especially when it comes to the classroom. As teachers, we have specific objectives in mind for our provocations, art projects, and circle lessons. We also have general, life-skill objectives we would like students to learn, such as independence and how to clean up after oneself. Oftentimes, we fear that if we don’t teach them our lesson plan, they will not learn. But when we step back and examine children’s independent choices during play, we clearly see learning in action.
In the beginning story, when I first looked at the children’s work, my adult eyes only took in the chaos. However, when I went through the fort with my students and saw it through their eyes, I was able to see the order they had carefully and thoughtfully created. There was a clear path, from one end to the other. They had all of the elements of family life, from food to gathering spaces. Children problem-solved on how to best hold up the blankets, trying out different options, and in the process learning about weight and gravity. Throughout the fort-building, there were at least nine children involved in the planning, and they had broken themselves into their own hierarchy with leaders and planners and manual laborers and designers.
As I teach, I like to keep in mind a quote from an article by Parker Palmer in which he states, “This voice urges me to do what I was trained to do: fully occupy the space with my knowledge, even if doing so squeezes my students out.” This mantra reminds me that yes, objectives are important, but there are other ways of meeting them when we open the space up for our students and learn to start seeing things from their eyes, their interests and their needs, rather than squeezing them out through our own order.
Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (2011). New York City, New York: Teacher's College Press.
Palmer, P. (1997). Teaching & Learning in Community. About Campus: Enriching the Student Learning Experience,2(5), 4-13.