This week, I stayed mostly in the sand area with Seyon, where the big activity for the day was a volcano. That morning, Seyon had snaked the hose through the sand with the end in the middle of a packed pile of sand, and slowly trickling water through the hose caused water to slowly seep up to the top. When Seyon left to greet students and build the same setup in another room, I was left to watch over and organize this activity on my own, which was quite difficult because I didn’t know what the volcano was supposed to do.
Before most of the children arrived, I had some difficulty dealing with K., who insisted that the hose be at much higher pressure than the millimeter turn at the faucet that Seyon had instructed me to put it at. I had to watch him closely to prevent him from running past me to the faucet, and we ended up in a silly battle where he would turn the pressure up, and I would turn it back down. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any particular authority over K. in this situation, which was probably fair. He had done the volcano before, whereas I knew nothing about it other than Seyon’s instruction. His awareness of that fact made it difficult for me to forbid his behavior, and it persisted even after he went in to speak to Seyon about it. Ultimately, Nandini and Jasmine put an end to it by pointing out that children weren’t allowed to use the faucet: only teachers could.
A more central issue that came out of that conflict and the activity over the day was how exactly to regulate unstructured activities in a structured environment. We intend to provide opportunities for children to explore different activities, and often, that requires some design from our side. When these activities become more complex, however, it seems reasonable for children to lack the patience or trust to see everything through. Griffith points out, “Activities that require teacher assistance and supervision have in common the problem that a child cannot invest enough of himself into them independently so that they become creative” (137). I think this idea extends beyond creative activities into play. Although I would want to encourage them to follow through with an activity, children need to explore on their own, and they often seem to gain more through their own tangents.
In the case of the volcano, it took some for the water to reach a point where it would be active. Meanwhile, the children were getting impatient as the volcano remained dormant. Several wanted to increase the water pressure, again bringing me back to the issue of how much to control their play. When the volcano was finally active, many children had passed through and lost interest. Although it was a shame to lose them, those who remained had quite a bit of fun with it. Uncertain about what was supposed to happen still, I mainly observed as Seyon covered the top of the volcano with sand, causing various leaks to appear. This quickly turned into an activity of covering up the leaks, which the children became very engaged with. This particular approach seemed effective in helping to direct unstructured play: Seyon primed the environment in some small way, attracted the children’s attention with some observation, and allowed them to engage with it as they wished. I imagine that had they wanted to see the volcano explode, that would have also been a viable progression in their play.
This bubbling was the first part of the volcano, but when the water became to overflow, a stream formed from the top as water ran down the side of the volcano, causing the sand to erode and cave in. Seyon pointed out that this was “stage 2” of the volcano to the children, but when the children decided to stop the stream, we didn’t intercede and insist that they see it through. Although it was heart-breaking to me because I wanted to see what would happen, the children had managed to develop it into their own activity, such as catching the water at the bottom and pouring it through the top of the volcano again.
This week provided my first opportunity for conflict resolution when B. and R. both saw a treasure bubble out of the volcano at the same time and insist that they each deserved it for seeing it “first.” The first thing I did was to take the treasure out of their hands and hang onto myself so that they could focus on the situation and not having the treasure itself. Squatting down to their level, we discussed various options for solving this problem, such as allowing one of them to have it and then working together next time to find another treasure for the other. R. pointed out 2 more treasures that appeared in the volcano and cleverly proposed that B. could have those because “two is more than one.” Although the self-interest here was obvious, I was still impressed when B. refused. In the end, I asked Seyon to join and help, and he proposed first that they break it in half with a hammer. That didn’t immediately get traction, but he then proposed that they throw the treasure back in for someone else to find next time. I was shocked when they accepted.
Seyon dug the hole, I threw the treasure in, and the children enthusiastically covered it back up, talking about how they would remember where it was to find it next time (by the way, did they remember to look for it?). Thinking about it now, I still don’t really understand what they really wanted, though hindsight has given me a few ideas. First, I think they were overly optimistic and excited to find it again. In that case, perhaps their goal all along was simply the process of finding the treasures and not the treasures themselves. That is somewhat supported by their greater enthusiasm for this idea rather than splitting it with a hammer. Second, they seemed to have some concept of fairness, though perhaps bordering on spitefulness. Throwing it back in seems equivalent to being the child that didn’t receive it in a deal, but they also didn’t want the other to receive it, which makes sense. In any case, I was surprised that the conflict ended up not being centered around the treasure at all, since they both happily went away empty-handed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to observe any block building this past week since I’m only in the classroom once a week and was mostly in the sand area. Even so, I have had a chance to observe the children on the hollow blocks outside on the patio previously. As blocks, they have similar properties of composition and creativity as unit blocks do, though the scale makes them appropriate for different types of activities. Particularly, I think the larger scale allows them to interact with the blocks as structures for themselves. Instead of having miniatures, the children are capable of building obstacles, structures, and scenes that they can inhabit.
For example, last week, there was a popup cylinder on the patio that the children were playing with. This was combined with the hollow blocks, used to stabilize it from rolling, which the children crawled through. Although these types of structures require the same knowledge of balance and construction that unit blocks do, they deemphasize the finer motor control to perfectly balance two pieces in exchange for ability to create their own playground of sorts. Another child ended up building an entire fort with a roof and space to crawl through.
My limited observation also suggests that the hollow blocks are also used in a more directed manner than the unit blocks. Whereas the unit blocks can be used to progress through carrying, building, enclosures, and other stages, play with the hollow blocks always seems intentional, whether using them as a dock to fish from (2 children from the first week) or objects of their play. In these cases, the learning with and use of the hollow blocks is intended to support other behavior instead of building for its own sake.