Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How To Make Your Own State-Of-The-Art Backyard Playground

Not long ago, a reader asked, "If I have $200 to make my backyard look a little more like your school, what should I get?"

First off, $200 is a pretty good budget for a project like that, mainly because most of the coolest stuff we have in our outdoor classroom we acquired at little or no cost. 

So here are some suggestions:

Sand or at least someplace for digging. Backyard sandboxes are great, but they're often really too small and too shallow for growing kids. When our community has created playgrounds, we always talk about "full body" sand pits. Sand, while not terribly expensive (around here we get about 60 lbs. for $3), could eat up that whole budget, however, but setting aside a digging area involving just regular dirt is an acceptable alternative.

And, of course, you'll need shovels, pails, and other tools. We use cheap plastic ones. We've tried metal, but galvanized steel buckets are heavier when full and tend to get bent out of shape quite easily in our rough and tumble environment. We do own some metal shovels, rakes, and hoes, but they aren't for day-to-day use even though they would probably make the work go easier. The reason is that our shovels are as often used as "weapons" as for digging, and while they both hurt, getting accidentally brained by a plastic shovel is generally preferred over being brained by a metal one.

Our two-level sandpit wouldn't be itself without a cast iron water pump. You can get a new one for under $50. Our's is mounted on a board that rests atop an inexpensive 30-gallon plastic tub that serves as our cistern. We drilled holes in the lid for the uptake pipe and for a hose to refill it when it's empty.

A natural extension of the pump, of course, are lengths of guttering. Ours are cut into 6-foot sections although we have a couple 10-footers stashed away for special uses. If you spend more than $200 on a pump set up, you've spent too much.

Using the gutters as loose parts is much preferred over a permanent installation. Not only does that allow kids to change the direction and flow of water as their needs demand, but we can use the gutters for other purposes, like down at the art station where we employ them in painting on adding machine tape with balls, mini-pumpkins, and/or toy cars and trucks.

Much of the stuff that makes our space "look" the way it does are things on which you really shouldn't have to spend anything. You can usually pick up logs and tree rounds, for instance, from a neighbor who has recently removed a tree or done some major pruning. Tree services will often give you some if they know its for kids.

Our two boats have both been donations. You just have to get the word out and wait.

It's important to remember, I think, that nothing lasts forever. It's good for kids to spend time playing on, with, and around things that are in various stages of deterioration. So when we got our new metal boat, we simply left the old, rotting, wooden one in place, where it is slowly "sinking" into the sand.

And speaking of loose parts, you shouldn't have to spend a penny on those.

Most of the toys, broken things, cartons, containers, boxes, and whatnot that we're ready to toss out, spend at least a little time in the outdoor classroom before reaching their final resting place in the dumpster.

"Loose parts" is just another name for junk.

Counted among our favorite loose parts are those larger bits that can be hoisted about by teams of kids.

Planks are incredibly versatile.

Ours range in length from 4-8 feet. These have all been donated by families and others looking to make space in their garages.

It's best if you can get new wood without a lot of knots in it: kids really like to experiment with the springy nature of the planks. Some of these have lasted us 3+ years being outdoors year round.

Shipping pallets are a great addition to planks. Ours were all acquired for free. We used to just grab them from the side of the road, but since learning that there can be some chemical and biological hazards associated with pallets, we've started making sure to only use those that are stamped with "HT," which stands for "heat treated." You don't want the chemically treated pallets around kids. We also avoid pallets that have been used to transport food products.

Old car tires are also staples around our place.

And we have a couple of galvanized steel garbage cans. They not only make great, loud, "thunder drums" and hidey-holes, but we often commander them as impromptu table tops.

Other free and inexpensive things we like to have around include brooms . . .

. . . ropes . . .

. . . pulleys . . .

. . . chains . . .

. . . roles of plastic fencing . . .

. . . pvc pipe . . .

. . . old bicycle inner tubes (in this case, we used them to make a sort of catapult) . . .

. . . pipe insulation . . .

. . . cardboard boxes . . .

. . . hoops . . .

. . . stick ponies . . .

. . . chalk . . .

. . . and lots of stuff to just bang on.

As far as more permanent things, I think it's nice to have some sort of playhouse. Again, ours was a donation from a family whose kids had outgrown it, although one of our grandfathers is building us a new one as we speak. A playhouse can be as simple as a cardboard box, however.

It's also nice to have some sturdy tables and chairs. We've purchased ours and they were quite a bit outside the $200 price range, but that's because we're a preschool with over 65 kids playing out there every day. Cheaper stuff, and even cast-off items with the legs cut down will work for backyard purposes. You can often find workable stuff at Goodwill.

And our space simply would not be what it is without a garden. Ours is just a collection of raised beds, but you don't even need that. 

Pots, soil and few seeds will suffice.

We've also re-puposed an old sensory table as a compost/worm bin. 

None of these things are expensive and that's how a child's play space should be. If there is any great truth about an outdoor classroom it's that it should be continually evolving and adapting, a hodge podge of old and new and everything in between. I am not exaggerating when I say that we acquired everything discussed in these photos for not a lot more than $200, other than the furniture and the sand, although there are work-arounds for both of those. If you're just outfitting a backyard, you can probably do it all for less.

That said, it's a backyard, which implies neighbors. As educational as these kinds of spaces are for children, these wonderlands of loose parts, dirt, rocks and compost, these bastions of junkyard chic, they are often perceived as eyesores by the uninitiated. Before going too far, you might want to save up to build a fence.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Children See More Clearly Than Adults

I love living in Seattle, especially this time of year when the sun shines, the temperatures are mild, there are no flying insects to speak of, the foliage is lush, and the mountains are out. My wife and I have lived a lot of places, visited even more, and we've concluded together that this is the place for us. We aren't the only ones who like it here. The city has once again topped the list of fastest growing US cities, which doesn't surprise me given all the construction taking place here in my downtown neighborhood and elsewhere.

Of course, no place is paradise. One of the first things visitors ask me about are the sheer number of apparently homeless people they see on our streets, sleeping doorways, camping under bridges, and and panhandling for pennies. Our homeless population is increasing right along with our overall population, which is tragic given that homelessness has been on the decline nationwide, even statewide, for a number of years. 

Our school is located in the Fremont Baptist Church where Pastor Gay and her congregation do what they can to serve our local population of chronically homeless folks, "Pastor Gay's men," many of whom are either mentally ill, addicted, or both. I've gotten to know many of them over the years and while we tend to keep a cautious distance from some of them, we consider them to be part of our community. Which explains why the children and I have regular conversation about homelessness.

Twelve years ago, the Bush administration challenged states to come up with 10 year plans to end chronic homelessness. Judging by the nationwide decline, it looks like the initiative was effective, even as it seems few of the plans attained their loftiest goals. Yet while Seattle and King County, which has taken a more "conventional" approach to the problem, stands as a failure (and I mean that statistically, not as a dig at dedicated homeless advocates), the state of Utah has reduced its number of chronically homeless by 91 percent in the same timeframe.

Why has Utah succeeded so spectacularly while others have failed? Because they started by simply giving homes to the homeless, no strings attached. That's right, they don't have to be "clean and sober" and they don't have to prove they are looking for gainful employment: the state is simply giving them homes. This is the exact solution proposed, year in and year out, by the children I teach.

"Give them a home."

"Give them a toilet."

"Give them a place to keep their stuff."

In fact, the kids have offered to give up their play house, their playground, even their classroom, to provide homes for the homeless people they see every day. And as Utah is proving, it is that simple.

I don't want to pretend that all is perfect in Utah. The chronically homeless (most of whom are mentally ill or addicted) only make up about 22 percent of the overall homeless population at any given moment, but the state has reduced that number to about six percent, a significant success. But more importantly, they are showing us that the children are right: you solve homelessness by giving people homes. It is the moral thing to do. It is far less expensive than the so-called Continuum of Care model that unnecessarily complicates things without showing results. And for many people it gives them the opportunity to turn their own lives around.

As Sam Tsemberis says, the man described as the "godfather" of Utah's Housing First movement, "There is no empirical support for the practice of requiring individuals to participate in psychiatric treatment or attain sobriety before being housed." Indeed, those are are the failed policies of ideological adults, whereas the simple, straight-forward, non-ideological solution always suggested by the children I've taught for nearly two decades turns out to be the one that has evidence to support it.

When it comes to compassion, when it comes to helping the poor, the disenfranchised, the wretched, it seems that children see more clearly than adults. If we had been listening to them all along, I expect our nation's shameful tragedy of homelessness would have been solved long ago.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Without Labels

I recently told a story here about a child whose friends were calling him "bad guy," then running away. He wanted them to stop doing it and when they stopped he insisted on getting an apology, which he received by taking the bold move of going and asking for it.

The three children involved in the story had been playing together almost every day for the entire school year, their games were typically some sort of engineering project in the sand pit involving water. They called themselves the Octograbbers or Super Sharks. On the day of the story, however, two of them had chosen to play a running game, while their friend opted for the swings. As they ran, they attempted to re-engage with their buddy, trying to goad him into running with him by calling him "bad guy" and running away. At least that's what I saw. It was an experiment in friendship. That one child was hurt enough to demand an apology was simply an accident, not much different than one child getting sand inadvertently tossed on him as another digs.

Several readers wrote to me about that post describing typical preschooler interactions, both casually and urgently insisting that this was an example of "bullying" and that I'd either handled it well or didn't handle it well at all.

Let me assure you there was no bullying involved. Indeed, in my nearly two decades of coming to preschool classes I can count on one hand the number of instances of actual bullying I've witnessed. Bullying requires an intent to hurt another person and in this case, as in nearly every case, there was no intent on the part of one child to either physically or emotionally injure another. Certainly, some preschoolers get so angry or possessive or overwhelmed that they lash out at other children, but I hope we all can understand that this is simply what some children must go through on the way to learning to manage those big feelings. But instances in which one child sets out to intentionally hurt another are so rare in our preschool that they are hardly worth mentioning, especially since, as a cooperative with an abundance of caring adults on hand, little of this nature escapes our notice.

I suppose there may be preschools where bullying is more common. I expect those are schools serving populations in which children are more likely to be subjected to, or witnesses to, bullying in their home lives because that's where bullying mostly comes from: dysfunctional families. There are few things that cause me more sadness than hearing stories about young children who are so damaged that they take it out on the humans who should be their friends, their Octograbber buddies. Of course, I feel bad for their victims, but my heart really goes out to those young children who have been taught such awful things. By the same token, there are few things that make me more angry than adults who are too ready to slap the label "bully" on a preschooler.

I can only speak for my school, but ninety-nine percent of the time, not only are they wrong, but they are, in fact, the ones engaged in the bullying. It's a horrible label to hang on a kid who is, in all likelihood, just experimenting, exploring the possibilities of relationships, testing out what is acceptable and unacceptable, which comprises much of the work of human childhood. Harsh judgments like "bully" are the worst kind of name-calling: a bigger, stronger person calling a smaller, weaker person a "bad guy," knowing that the slur will sting.

I know that bullying is a significant concern as kids get older, but not in preschool, not in our preschool. I guess I'm writing this to remind adults to be careful of the words they use. Words like "bully" are super-charged, especially among adults, and imply a whole host of negatives, most of which simply can't be applied to preschoolers. It's always best to try to deal with any situation without labels.

(If you are interested in pre-ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Dance Party

I'm looking forward to my brief summer break for many reasons, but most of all is that I'm hoping it will give me a chance to forget the songs that are stuck in my head. Several weeks ago I wrote about our new outdoor stage, which has continued to be a popular addition to our junkyard playground. I figured the kids would like it, although I had imagined them mounting impromptu dramatic productions, whereas the kids prefer using it for dance parties.

In the beginning, I was selecting the music from my own personal collection, but when I started getting requests, I had to open an Apple Music account (which I'm loving). The big Disney songs are much in demand: Let It Go (from the movie Frozen) remains huge, but How Far I'll Go (Moana) is equally in demand. I'm not surprised that the fans of these songs know all the lyrics, right down to nailing the phrasing, because when our daughter was a preschooler she had likewise mastered the nuances of her favorite songs. These are apparently great songs for emotive expressions, emphatic stamping of feet, and swaying, ballet-like body movements.

The Paw Patrol Theme Song, however, is a pop rocker, and when it comes up, the Disney singers make way for the hip shakers, not too different from the moves invoked by Ghostbusters. Then there is the frenetic Everything is Awesome!!!!!!! (The Lego Movie), with its 120 beats per minute (or whatever) which tends to encourage a silly, convulsive dance style. There is a crew who loves nothing more than to march around to The Imperial March (Star Wars), while engaging in slow motion light saber battles. And there are few things more delightful to me than watching four and five year olds reenacting Step in Time from Mary Poppins.

One boy has attempted to break the pattern, introducing his friends to his personal favorites from the 1980's (Eye of the Tiger, Danger ZoneBad), but we've more or less settled on our limited playlist. I try to introduce new music, but when I do the kids go off to other things until I return to what has become our canon.

When we play Let It Go, I can now predict exactly which kids will drop what they are doing to take the stage. The same goes for the other songs on the playlist: they drop their playthings and converge on the stage from all corners of the playground. There is some crossover, of course, but the kids seem to be using their common love for this or that song as a sort of cultural connector, a way to find others like them.

Particularly fascinating has been the dynamic amongst a group of boys in our 4-5's class. A kind of tension has arisen between the Star Wars and Paw Patrol factions, with one group abandoning the stage when the "rival" song is played and vice versa. Sometimes they even hurl insults about one another's preferred music ("Paw Patrol/Star Wars is stupid"). It's an extension of the games they've been playing all year, wherein one group always seems to be vying against the other. There's a temptation to scuttle this sort of play, especially when it threatens to evoke real emotions of anger (instead of the faux anger that is a key element of their dramatic play) or real fighting (instead of the faux fighting they all enjoy), but for the most part we've let it take its course since the "sides" are ever-changing and they generally tend to maintain a kind of balance of power. Most of all, however, everyone seems to be having fun, even when things get tense. The other day I intervened in what looked like an altercation. The boys maintained their angry expressions until I said, "I don't want you guys to be enemies," to which they both laughed, "We're not enemies, Teacher Tom. We're friends, right?" They then went right back to their "conflict." As I watch this dynamic play out on the stage, I see that they are re-inventing the competitive dance off, something I'd never really understood until now.

Of course, most of the time, the kids who take the stage together are doing it as an act of community, of bonding, which could be said even of the rival factions. They leap onto the stage wth joy at the first few strains of "their song," identify one another as fellow travelers, look into one another's faces as they sing, and imitate one another's moves. I would have never guessed that our outdoor dance parties would become an important part of our outdoor play, but it's obviously here to stay.

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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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