This week, I was out on the back 40 where I saw both a mix of typical outdoor play and another more structured activity. For the morning, Peckie setup a station on the picnic bench where the children could squeeze oranges to make juice using a large juice squeezer. With the somewhat finicky cone, a separate cup to catch the juice, and a mechanical handle, the squeezer was a good activity to understand the mechanics of the device and develop the appropriate motor skills to operate it.
When multiple children were sitting around to operate it, they invariably managed to organize themselves into taking turns without any prompting from any teachers. The closest to a slip-up that I saw was when S., who had previously gotten accustomed to doing many in a row when he was squeezing by himself, squeezed two oranges in a row, but when A. caught this, she insisted that they all do 2 at a time, restoring balance there. An even more surprising act was when N. was helping another child use the squeezer. Noticing that the other child was having difficulty, N. helped to push down the lever, doing most of the work. After that orange was done, N. gave another orange to the child, saying, “It’s your turn because I did yours.”
Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember once playing a computer game at school with 2 friends where we took turns on levels. Since I had played it before, I “demonstrated” by playing the first level, then played the second level as well, since the other one was just to show them how it was done. In that instance when I was 5 or 6, I only demonstrated selfishness that I didn’t see at all with the squeezer. Overall, I needed to do little to oversee the activity. Other than offering baby wipes to children as they came up and cutting more oranges for them to squeeze, I could be passive through most of the activity.
A major part of this activity was the children teaching each other how to use the squeezer. As the Tudge and Caruso suggests, “Teachers should avoid suggesting solutions to children” (214). Not only does this suggestion prevent me from intervening incorrectly, it allowed for them to work together to make juice. “When children try to achieve a shared objective… they must … try to adopt an agreed-upon strategy for realizing the goal” (213). In this case, it was turn-taking and juice-squeezing skills that needed to be organized. Overall, my role was largely in support to make sure that the materials were always available and appropriately used. Although juice-squeezing isn’t really conducive to elaborate structure or creativity, it does set forth a clear objective for them to work together on.
During my time outside, I witnessed two extended periods of dramatic play. The first was between two girls in the kitchen area outside. The main focus was around a pot, which had mostly red water, sand, and flowers and was being stirred. The first quote that caught my attention was when one said, “Here’s some sand” and proceeded to dump it into the pot. Although perfectly accurately, this struck me as strange because it showed how fluid reality and fiction were to them. Unless they truly wanted to cook with sand, I would imagine that the conversation would also maintain the fiction of what the sand represented, such as cinnamon or flour. Were they not so engaged in their play, I might have asked them what the sand was as I suspect that the fictional nature of the sand was never precisely determined. That hypothesis, however, comes only from my realization that children’s fiction often isn’t as complete as I would consider to be substantial otherwise.
Another interesting moment arose when they had a minor conflict about who got to use the wooden spoon. Until then, the wooden spoon had been used for stirring, but the girl who was stirring wanted to take it away to get dirt while the other took over stirring. The details of the conversation are lost to me now, but it came together after a slight pause, and one proposed, “How about whenever you go away, I get to use it, and whenever I go away, you get to use it?” “Okay, this spoon is for dirt,” the other said, offering a plastic spoon for her to go foraging with. Having seen and experience instances where children want to keep items for themselves simply for the sake of having them, I was again surprised by this deal, which engaged real conflict resolution and reimagined the purpose of objects in their fictional play.
After snack time, I stood by a tree where C. and J. had climbed up and were playing “clones.” Although most of the play was focused on shooting the other team from their vantage point, there were some notable distractions, such as when C. randomly offered J., “Take a soda. It’s a clone soda.” Curious why he had qualified it, I asked C., “Is a clone soda different than other soda?” He hesitated, then said, “No it’s sweeter.” Satisfied, he continued his distractions by proposing that the tree had “clone berries” that he began handing out for us to eat. The interesting twist came when the other team came close, and C. realized that it was no longer time for dining in the tree; the same berries became “clone grenades,” which he began throwing down onto the ground. The final transformation came when O. joined their play, and the “clone grenades” went back to berries (I think) that C. passed to her to gather in her satchel.
The big lesson for me from these examples is simply how fluid dramatic play can be. When I think of fiction, I imagine a fixed setting where a plot is played out. For the children, however, objects can constantly change identities and other children can come and go, and these modifications always happen in a way to continue the play in an engaging, if unexpected, direction.