Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Monument to Risky Play

Last week my family visited The City Museum
in St. Louis, Missouri. The City Museum isn’t so much a museum in the traditional sense (although they have a great display of architectural artifacts). In the words of its website, the City Museum is “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” From a child’s perspective, it’s a huge, challenging playground made out of really cool stuff.

The cool stuff is salvaged and “found” materials, welded together to make extraordinary climbing apparatus. Indoors, there are multiple levels of artificial caves including child size tunnels to disappear into out of adult reach. Outdoors there are spiral cage like tunnels and slides connecting junked airplanes, cranes, and buses, all dozens of feet in the air. On the roof, ten stories up, are even more of these spiral tunnels and huge slides, suspending you literally a hundred feet over the city.

On first look, this seems like the very definition of risky play, as children explore, discover, and push themselves to figure out ways to complete physical challenges of their own making. But as I watched children wind through the tunnels, it occurred to me that much of the risk is perceived risk not actual risk. Much like an amusement park, it’s thrilling to be a hundred feet off the ground. But completely surrounded by a steel cage, there isn’t any actual risk or danger. The environment is created to challenge children physically and imaginatively, while protecting them from getting hurt.

Not that no one will get hurt. I saw children spill over and bump heads and elbows coming down the slide, or scratch a knee on the edge of a ladder, or get hit in the face by a rubber ball in the ball pit. But part of the nature of risky play is learning to distinguish between levels of risk. Physical challenges involve the risk of a scrape or a bruise, but to raise resilient, competent children, we need to teach them the difference between a puncture wound and a bruise. We need to teach children that exploring challenges and new situations is worth the risk of a minor hurt, whether physical or emotional. And we need to teach children how to respond appropriately to that hurt. A bumped knee, a scratched elbow are something we can recover from, and the play is often worth the risk.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

To Smock or Not To Smock

This week I presented a workshop called “Planning Purposeful Play”, all about how to set up classroom environments and present materials in ways that encourage children's engagement in intentional, purposeful activities. My presentation included a slide show of different materials and play scenes from my classroom, and in both sessions, participants mentioned that they noticed that most of the children in the photos weren’t wearing smocks.

I hadn’t really thought about this until they pointed it out. I’ve worked at programs that require smocks and ones that don’t. I’ve worked with teachers who require smocks for any art or sensory activity, and ones who only require smocks for things that can wet or stain clothing. I’ve visited schools where there are no smocks at all, so whether or not to wear them isn’t even an option. In my own classroom, I’ve tended to lean toward encouraging smocks but not requiring them. So, what do I say to workshop participants who want to know my view on smocks?

It depends.

It depends on your own personal comfort level as a teacher. It depends on the policy of your school, and your relationship with parents. It depends on the culture of the classroom and of the communities you serve. It depends on the children – not everyone wants to wear a smock, and not everyone is willing to get messy.

But, since “it depends” doesn’t sound like a satisfying answer, I’m trying to flesh out what that actually means in practice. Whether or not to require/encourage/provide smocks is as important a planning decision as how to choose materials or how to set up an area of the room. Here are some things I consider when making the smock decision:

1) What are the expectations of the parents? In most schools where I’ve taught, parents are told that their children will get messy and stained, and to send them in clothes that can get dirty. However, not all parents are comfortable with this. Schedule and transportation routines after school, access to laundry facilities, and personal preference all play a role in parents’ attitudes. I wouldn’t say that all children must wear smocks just in case some parents don’t want mess, but if a parent requests I put a smock on their child, I will try to.

2) What is the child’s comfort level of wearing/not wearing a smock? One of my basic beliefs in planning is to set up an environment where children can be successful doing the play based learning that I want them to do. A child who doesn’t want to get wet or messy might feel more comfortable wearing a smock. A child who doesn’t want to wear a smock might avoid wet or messy activities to avoid wearing a smock. In the end, my goal is for the child to be able to play where they want to – if a smock is helping them or keeping them from playing, I’m going to make the decision that best helps the child engage in play.

3) How messy is the activity? Looking at my photos, I saw the children were wearing smocks while playing with shaving cream and tempera painting, but weren’t while playing with water, sand, or watercolor paints. If a material is likely to get all over clothing, I’m more likely to encourage smocks. And if a material is more likely to stain, I’m more likely to encourage smocks. Wet clothes will dry, painted clothes will need to be washed. But still, if having to wear a smock means a child will refuse to paint, I’d rather see the child painting.

4) Can they wear the smocks comfortably and do the activity? Do smocks impact classroom management issues? I realized I’m less likely to require twos to wear smocks than older preschoolers. It’s very hard to find smocks small enough to fit toddlers and twos, and many of those small smocks are designed in ways the younger children find uncomfortable or hard to put on – they have sleeves or snap closures, or other features they can’t do by themselves. Which creates a classroom management issue. If they can’t put them on or take them off by themselves, a teacher needs to help. Or, if they do take them off themselves, whatever paint is on the smock is likely to get all over their clothes anyway.

That last statement is probably the biggest reason I don’t worry much about smocks, because no matter what I do, the paint or water will get on their clothes anyway. We’ve all seen kids reach under their smocks to wipe their hands on their clothes, or pour a bucket of water on their pants and shoes. We can do the best we can, and we can tell the parents we’re doing the best we can, but in the end, play can be messy. Smocks or no smocks.