Changeling Children

“In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road ~

Have you read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy?

I read it when I was on maternity leave.  I read most of it in the middle of the night, balancing a tiny screen while nursing a tiny baby, riveted awake by McCarthy’s prose and my own terror.  It is a terrifying, post-apocalyptic read – not usually my thing, really.  I’m not even sure why I started reading it but it was so good, so absurdly well-written, and so compelling that once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

I find myself coming back to The Road again and again, it’s become one of those touchstone books for me.

I think of it especially when I find myself somewhere desolate: a big city in November, an empty field in the middle of winter, early spring when the snow is half-melted and dirty.

This afternoon I had a Road moment.

The greenspace at the back of our school, which I’ve been writing about all year, has been devoured.  We went back there this afternoon and it was clear that some giant piece of machinery had eaten it.  All that was left were mounds of snow and dirty dead grass, topped with broken tree limbs and masses of pointy twigs.  It was sad and frustrating and ugly and bleak.  I was devastated.

piles of snow and sticks, grey sky

But then I noticed the kids.  They climbed over the mounds of snow, they pulled out the sticks and carried the broken branches.  They lay down in the snow and looked at the sky.  They didn’t say anything.

kneeling girl holding a branch next to a pile of snow

They didn’t seem at all phased by the change in the landscape; they just accepted it and moved on.  Not a single child asked what had happened.  Maybe they figured it out because of the tracks in the snow.  Maybe they assumed that their green space was still intact, hidden under the snow.  I was so awed by their silence that I didn’t feel right asking them; it felt intrusive.  It had become a formless space, somewhere that they could approach as though new.  While I was busy grieving, they were exploring – venturing bravely into a new world.

boy kneeling on snow pile, girl walking away from camera

Ice Fishing and Footprints

I think I need to rename this blog… maybe it should be called “teaching on the verge… outside” because it seems that this year, especially, so much of what I’m noticing is happening outside.  I think that this has a lot to do with the greenbelt strip we have at the edge of our playground which offers so many more possibilities for learning than a traditional playground ever could.

We recently had a day of heavy rain which melted all of our snow.  This was followed by a drop in temperatures and a good dump of snow.  The snow stuck to the ice which had formed on all of the branches, creating a beautiful effect that puts every branch into stark relief against the blue sky.  The denuded trees looked sparkly and crisp and the evergreens were heavy with layers of snow and ice.  FI asked if the trees had grown; everything looked fuller and more substantial.  According to the calendar it’s still fall… maybe we need a new calendar!

snow covered trees seen from below

It is like walking into a winter wonderland.

snow covered branch, sun and clouds

LH was very interested in the way her feet crunched through the snow and the frozen slush underneath, leaving very defined footprints.  She took me to see a large footprint that she thought belonged to a monster.

footprint in snow

Then she created a footprint of her own which she told me came from a big dog.

a child-created footprint in the snow.

LH has an amazing imagination so this discussion of footprints quickly swerved in a different direction as a group of students came to tell us about the chipmunk they had just seen.  In response, LH said: “At my grandma’s I saw 18 chipmunks, 18 dancing chipmunks, and they did cartwheels and skated on the ice.”  She then decided that she should camouflage herself, like animals do.

child hiding in/camouflaged by cedar trees

As LH was hiding in the branches, I noticed two boys playing on the ice in a nearby ditch. I was concerned because the ice had weakened during the rain so I went over to show them that it wasn’t safe to stand on.  I cracked a hole in the ice with my boots and the children moved back on to the bank.  They were undeterred, however, and changed their game.  Now, they were ice fishers!  They found sticks and vines on the ground and began using them as fishing rods.  One of the boys, BH, often engages in fishing-play.  He rallied the others to fish through the hole in the ice.  He told them: “You have to be quiet so the fish don’t get scared.”  LH joined them and told us: “I ate fish last night and it was real: I put ketchup on it.” Clearly, only the realest fish needs ketchup!

children pretending to ice fish

Into the Woods

I must be easily amazed, credulous, or naive because things happen in the classroom all the time that leave me gobsmacked.  Children are an endless source of surprise and amazement and, while there are themes and strands of inquiry that come up over and over again, the children’s focus, insight, and intelligence continue to astonish me.

We are still visiting the green space every day during our outdoor inquiry time.  As soon as my feet hit the gravel, children run up and ask me if they can go in the forest.  The space probably measures 4 metres deep by 60 metres wide; it’s a long narrow strip.  You wouldn’t think that there would be enough in there to sustain their attention over the course of weeks but there is no sign of them becoming bored.  They are eager to explore it every single day and pay close attention to how it changes.  Their engagement is, for me, in stark contrast to how children behave around traditional play structures.  There is always a lot of behaviour management in the playground.

  • Don’t climb on the outside of the structure.
  • Don’t climb up the slide.
  • You can’t do that in rubber boots.
  • Slide down feet first.
  • Stay out of the mud.
  • Don’t play in the puddles.

It often feels that we spend most of our time on the playground saying no.

In the bush, it’s very different.

child exploring in the snow
Walking in the snow

FI says he likes the bush area “because all my friends are there and I like to play there because it’s mushy and there’s berries. It feels good to go there. Cause I didn’t get to go there last year.  I wasn’t allowed – only the big kids could go there – now I can.”

MK says “Cause there’s lots of sticks. You can break them off their tree. You can pick up leaves. Play in the puddles and with the leaves.”

BI says “Cause it’s fun – I like to go back and forth. I feel fun.”

TB says “Because I like where the corn grows in the field.”

Some of the most interesting comments were about the kind of play the children engage in outside.

XC says “we can play any way we want.”

LH says “It’s fun because there’s nothing there.”

ON says “Because there’s a pole and a slide.”

DSCF4713 DSCF4714

It’s not that we’re specifically instructing them on how to play in the playground area (although we are telling them what not to do) but somehow they perceive that there’s an agenda.  They understand that their play is being managed in ways that detract from their enjoyment and they’d prefer to be somewhere freer. I wonder about how much money we’re spending on playground equipment and whether we’d be better off just letting the grass grow high and the trees grow back.  What would change about the quality of children’s play and social interaction if all of the “don’ts” were taken away?

For instance, our children have spent an enormous amount of time carrying a huge tree branch around the schoolyard.   It’s a challenge that doesn’t loose its appeal.  How do you balance the branch?  How many children do you need to carry it?  Do we stand on both sides or all on the same side?  Endless fascination, endless engagement, endless amusement.

children carrying a branch
Heave ho!

They recently found a log in the green space.  It may have been part of someone’s retaining wall at one point.  Now it’s a teeter totter.

using a log as a teeter totter balanced on a rock

Another day it’s a bridge…

walking across a puddle using a log

All of this fascinating play happens outside the realm of adults, in kid land.  I’d like to see what would happen if we allowed kid land to expand a little, if we gave it more space, permission and time.  In her 2008 paper “Meddler In the Middle” published in the journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Erica McWilliams proposes “less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter and risktaker” (vol 45, no 3, p.265).  I think that this idea is particularly applicable to the outdoor context and I wonder what it’s going to take to get us there.