Our Blue House Forest Site (a place we visit in the forest which features a blue tarp shelter) has had visitors. Human visitors. I know this because when we return with a class, there are play messages. Of course when our children leave their own, like the miniature Christmas tree we dragged from the neighborhood along with sticks leaning against the "spy fort" which is built from five pallets lashed together in an open-faced cube. We don't know who "they" are, and "they" really don't know who we are.
Then B-I-G news! This weekend I attended a neighborhood party and there I met some new neighbors. We shared why we chose to move to this neighborhood perched above Sligo Creek. They told me that they wanted to be close to the city, but also close to nature, that being close to work was important for them, but being close to nature was important to their sons. They then told me -- get ready -- that their sons have "stolen someone's fort" in the woods! Their sons, eight and eleven, are using our "spy fort" on weekends. They have gotten our children's message! Are they the ones who left the rake? Did they move the great branches off the roof of the spy fort to make a wall around it? I wouldn't know and don't need to know. The message is not for me!
Play arcs and play destination messages are passed from older children to younger. Recently, we held a parent training our parent educator called, When Nothing is Everything - the Value of Free Time, and during the discussion period I asked the parents how many of them played in free-ranging groups of mixed ages where the oldest child was 8, 10, or older? Almost all of them raised their hands. When I talk about how play is passed from one child to another, I am talking about older children, 7 through 10 teaching younger children what to play.
I often describe the scaffolding we provide at our school as playing the role of that older child in the neighborhood. As adults, we are aware of the role we are playing, and must be ready to remove ourselves from the play. Essentially, we are able to pass on and carefully place play messages. While mixed-age groupings of 2 through 5, etc. will get you a lot of social interactions, what we should be aiming for is including much older children in the mix.
It is with this in mind, that I introduced a play arc to the children that I call "Guys" because that is what my nephew called it. It can be played with collections of anything really, like pebbles, corks, wooden pegs, or what might be most familiar small action figures. In this case, we used Star Wars "Guys."
It is not an unusual play arc. You will find something like it going on during what is called "small world play." What separates it is that there will be more action and "power-up" in it. This is an important distinction because, we as teachers, must think about what kind of play we will accept and make room for in our environments. So for instance, are flower fairies playing in a fountain surrounded by garden stones an acceptable play arc while warring factions of flower-winged dragons in a lava lake surrounded by stone cannon deathpowerballs unacceptable? Welcome to "Guys."
I formally introduce it, but do not shape the play itself. I tell the children they must start with a landscape and use items that suggest water and quicksand (quicksand is always good), towers, bridges, etc. They must decide on the "who" and what those "who" are -- I want to make sure to suggest materials they can easily find on any playground. Then they must get to the "agree to agree." They must formally name the trouble and the solutions -- what is the objective? -- to not get trapped in the quicksand? To get to the other side of the river? To take over the fort of the other people?