Chalk and Crates

I am running an afternoon drop-off program at Play Lab this month - an afternoon extension of a local morning forest preschool.  I meet the class at the end of their outdoor morning and we travel downtown by bus to spend the afternoon exploring materials.

 The Play Lab classroom.

The Play Lab classroom.

The classroom is set up to be modular: the tables are light and movable, and the primary home for all of the materials is in storage.  This allows the children a certain freedom: I am not attached to the small animal figurines staying in one place or enforcing something as arbitrary as “legos stay on this table”.  The materials are on shelves, allowing kids the flexibility to use the materials how and where they want; when we tidy up, we bring things back to where we found them.  The battery powered tea lights (my personal favorite new material) travel around the room, from birthday party to dark pirate ship.

On the very first day of this program, we dug right into finding a balance of safety and risk with materials.  I had planned to observe the kids, interacting as they explored the materials and the environment.  I saw a story of exploration unfold, and I owe that story to a flexibility with materials, allowing children the space to show me what is possible, rather than me telling them.

One of the most flexible choices I made was to use milk crates for seating in the main space.  These milk crates can be filled with things and dumped; I can use them to pack up and transport items to community play installations; they become part of construction projects, holding up ramps and tubes.  They are also our chairs.


These crates also afford standing on - just right for getting a three-year-old to a height where their perspective - and their literal reach - offers more opportunities to manipulate their environment.  The chalk wall became that place of opportunity on Tuesday, and an opportunity for me, as a teacher, to trust, understand, and support.

R, age 3, was drawing on the chalk wall, and running his hands over the chalk lines to make smudges.  He seemed really satisfied with the action, or the visual maybe: he kept making marks and smudging them.  D, also age 3, joined him, making short, sharp marks on the wall.  D began to jump to make marks on the untouched part of the wall that was a bit out of reach, and R followed his lead, jumping and making marks.

D saw a milk crate nearby, and brought it over to the wall, and stood on it to reach the blank part, making marks.  I said, “you’re higher up now, does your body feel safe?” and he answered “yes”.  This was our first day together, so we had not broached any conversations about safety or risk.  This, though, is the most natural way to start a dialogue about it - while kids are taking risks.  My priority was in them seeing Play Lab as a place to explore and experiment, where they can feel "safe to risk" (hat tip Susan Harris Mackay).  R saw how D had solved the problem of not being tall enough, and he got his own milk crate, and brought it to the chalk wall.

After some time, they had exhausted the part of the wall they could now reach with that one milk crate, and the top of the chalk wall was still unmarked.  D got a second crate and put it on top of his first, and began to scramble up.  This was where I decided to support them with some decision making around safety.

This is an example of my philosophy of education with kids:  its okay to give them advice and support, but we should be selective and patient with it.  The first time we want to say something is likely a time where we are squelching exploration.   With D’s scramble up the double crate stack, I saw the hazard of one crate falling, becoming unsettled in that little crevice that makes the crates feel stable as a stack.  I asked him again - do you feel safe?  As he hoisted himself up, the crates wobbled a bit, and I thought out loud: “How might we make it safer to get on the top crate?”  I imagined that he might ask me to pick him up and put him on top, but he had a different solution: he got a nearby crate and pushed it tight to the crate stack, acting as a bottom step, a gradual way to get to the second crate.  He stepped up to the first, and then the second crate, and was able to get up and down safely.  Again, R followed his lead.


With kids this age - young threes - there is a certain amount of miscalculation of their physical movements, and I believe that is where some of the perceived danger for accidents comes in.  The very next day, for example, R stacked two crates in front of the clay bar, and the top one came down as he was beginning to climb up.  There were some very different factors that I helped him identify that made that situation different:  at the chalk wall, the crates were right against the wall, and they had the wall to use for their own physical stability.  A stack of two crates in the middle of the room is a bit different.  These aren't commands: these are thinking out loud and offering a conversation.  There is not a "only stand on the crates with the support of a wall" rule, and there will not be.  There is documentation of their experience, and we can use this experience as a jumping off point for getting deeper into the topic as the weeks go by.

These are appropriate risks for kids to take: they can explore their bodies and space in a safe environment.  If every time a child begins to do something that is perceived by an adult as risky, they are swept away without explanation, they will probably keep putting themselves in a risky situation.  In Early Childhood settings, this requires us, as teachers, to be vigilant but patient.  We need to know when to let kids explore and do a few seconds longer.  When we ask them to stop or modify their behavior, they deserve to know why: they can understand.  Short, fear-filled yelps of “Stop that!” or “Be careful” make us feel like we are changing a child’s behavior, and sometimes we do just have to jump in.  But most of the time, it is simply a stack of milk crates that are being climbed, a slide being climbed up while someone is on their way down.  We want to protect children all of the time, but they will learn so much more about their bodies and risk if they have the autonomy to explore for a few more seconds.

Next time you are working with children and you want to step in, try this:  count to 5 in your head.  Watch the kids while you count.  Maybe one is not sharing a toy and another child is pulling on it; maybe they are trying to climb a ladder on the playground; maybe they have a marble in their hand and they look like they are about to throw it at the window.  There is something common about all of these situations: we immediately expect the worst, and we let that guide our decision making.  But we are in this for the education of young children, not a badge.  Children will get bumps and scratches and hurt feelings; toys will break and paint will get on the carpet.  Parents will worry that their child might get sand thrown in their face:  yes, your child might get sand thrown in their face.  We might get sand in our faces, too.

As you jump into this school year, I encourage you to explore your limits, and the space that young children need.  I’m not telling you to be dangerous.  I’m just advising that you to be a touch more flexible, and make decisions that support children’s learning and development - don’t let your own fear direct your teaching.