Last spring, when we broke ground for Tower’s new Backyard, I mentioned our outdoor “waffle” blocks as an example of the way children’s play evolves as they explore the capabilities of their surroundings and materials. When we first acquired the blocks, the kids made 12" x 12" cubes for about a year. Then they moved on to making chairs, which occupied them for a season. Over time, the kids have learned from each other and they now combine them in an infinite variety of ways. My personal favorite was last winter’s snowplows, which were fun and highly effective. This month, the first grade made an 8-foot long bench with a canopy. There wasn’t room for all the friends working on the project to fit, so they took it apart and rebuilt it.
I was sure when we began the Backyard Project that our students would find ways to use our new backyard that we hadn’t predicted in all of our planning and prioritizing. A few weeks ago, after a delayed start, due to a storm, it happened. The first grade was staying out beyond the bell for “extra” recess, so the children were relaxed and happy after a confusing morning of power outages and schedule changes. The leaves had begun to change for the season, and—thanks to the wind—many had accumulated against the fence of our new turf field. That’s when we noticed the nets, meant to keep wayward shots on the soccer goals from going too far astray, were catching leaves. Beautiful leaf collages came and went with each gust; like a giant, colorful Etch-a-Sketch.
As soon as the first graders saw this, they began tossing armfuls of autumn leaves up into the wind, constructing amazing, short-lived, collages of color. Shrieking loudly only enhanced the exciting effect. Leaf tossing became a cooperative group effort that could only have been invented during “extra” recess, when the first grade has the field mostly to ourselves, the corners where leaves pile up are easily accessible, and wayward soccer shots are few.
So, is it truly “extra”, then? Is the undirected time we give children to play, a frill? We say it is fundamental. Without time to make decisions, there is no discovery. The longer I teach, the more I find myself trying to stay out of the students' way. Nobody pointed out the net and leaf phenomenon to the first graders. They noticed it because they had the time and space to figure it out, and they had a great time. Everyone was included in the fun.
At Tower, children are given time to notice, experiment, revise, discuss, and discover for themselves. We, as educators, have the autonomy to decide to stay out longer, let a class of tired kids stretch out on the rug and hear a story, or follow a class interest rather than state dictated standards. Right now, my class is on a mission to figure out how many different routes we could take from our classroom to the library. It takes a little longer, but that is alright. We don’t always have to follow the same path.
Extra is essential, and we are fortunate to have it.