This week was the first opportunity I had to work closely with Peckie, my liaison teacher, as we both supervised the patio area. This situation was helpful in gaining insight into the design of the activities, the background of individual children, techniques for interacting with children, and other perspectives on observed behavior.
Peckie pointed out that the workbench area was unique to our classroom in being a regular activity. When I first came to the classroom, I was surprised that it was there since it seems like a particularly dangerous activity. Helping several children make things, however, I was surprised how deliberate their work was. For all of them, they looked to me to hold nails with pliers. I’m not certain where this behavior comes from: it’s possible that the teachers have, until then, always watched closely and insisted that the children have a teacher help them. A more generous possibility is that the children are aware of their own motor control limitations and can’t go forward without it. In either case, the workbench doesn’t seem like the right place to necessarily push them to become more independent.
Woodworking as an activity has several qualities that make it similar to other activities in the classroom but unique as well. Like blockbuilding, woodworking is the composition of bigger things from basic shapes, though the purpose seems to be somewhat different. A strength of blockbuilding is that it provides “…an excellent open-ended medium for communicating and playing out their ideas for developing cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically” (130). Although I haven’t yet been able to interact with children playing with blocks, the readings suggest that the play aspect is central to blockbuilding: the blocks become symbols for other objects, and children can engage with others around these manifestations of their imagination. Woodworking, however, seems to be a largely solitary activity (except for the assistance from teachers), and the real education comes from learning how to use the medium. That quality seems closer to playing with clay, where the manipulation of the material is the main limit instead of imagination. When I was helping one of the boys put together a box, he clearly knew what he wanted but had difficulty getting there. First, the nail split the wood we were working with. He quickly realized he could use another piece to connect the wood instead, though hammering those pieces together without support was more difficult. Throughout this work, I remained relatively passive, helping him when he needed another pair of hands but otherwise allowing him to explore the properties of the materials and develop solutions on his own. I was surprised at his persistence in not being dissuaded by the failures and difficulties.
Another activity on the patio was at a table with trays of water and vials. A particularly interesting situation Peckie setup involved packing peanuts. Earlier in the week, the children had discovered that one type of peanuts dissolved in the water. That day, those were available in one bowl, and in another bowl were peanuts that didn’t dissolve in water. A. came to the table first and knew that the Styrofoam was supposed to “melt” and pointed this out to me. He took several pieces from the bowl with non-dissolving peanuts, placed them into vials with water, and jammed them to the bottom. Over time, he seemed to notice that they weren’t dissolving and used tongs to continue to jam the peanuts further into the bottom of the vials. When I asked him, he confirmed that the peanuts were melting, but he was clearly dismayed that it wasn’t happening. Although his behavior seems paradoxical, it really isn’t so surprising that he could maintain a belief clearly inconsistent with reality; that mistake doesn’t disappear with maturity. In this case, however, it strikes me as inflexibility in his representation of possible objects. To me, it seems obvious that the different packing peanuts were different, but to A., all of them were the same and had the same properties.
O. (I think) came to the table next, and she reached for the peanuts that melted first. She mentions how much she likes to get the peanuts “soft” and dissolves around 10 of them in vials by submerging the peanuts and shaking it up. She then does this to a few in her tray, which has accumulated some amount of water. At this point, I reach for the other packing peanut, give it to her, and ask her if it will melt as well. She drops it into her tray where it stays intact. She first dumps a lot more water into the tray, then tries to place a piece of partially dissolved Styrofoam into it, which I thought was amazingly creative and am still impressed at. Finally, she breaks it into smaller pieces, which she seems satisfied with.
Clearly, O. was more creative and persistent in trying to make the Styrofoam melt; I’m uncertain, however, whether she truly had a better understanding of the peanuts than A. did. O. seemed to resolve her problem by breaking it into smaller pieces, which is qualitatively different but does reduce the peanuts to some degree. I regret not discussing with her more directly whether she understood the difference between the peanuts. Her choice of multiple interventions suggests that she knew that there was some difference in the process: placing dissolved Styrofoam in the other specifically seems like a way of inducing properties in one object from another. However, her ultimate belief and goal to dissolve the peanut remained the same, and I’m uncertain whether her resolution of breaking up the peanut physically was truly sastifying to her.