Building Play

The bird mothers couldn't find a perch for their nests. The blocks shifted, their bird feet slipped and they kept falling. There was a big pile-up of nest materials made up of hollow blocks, cardboard tubes, carpet squares, and spool reels. The "builder knight" picked these up to stack, throw, and toss them on top of each other in great heaps. The heaps would shift as he picked up another block to move it which then caused the bird mothers to slip and fall, over and over, on top of this or that bit of stacked nest debris.

Meanwhile, a "just-regular-knight" could not find his wooden fork sword and therefore could no longer commit to guard duty for the bird mothers. He was wandering about the room, adrift. Another bird mother couldn't be bothered to help his friend look for his sword OR nest with the other bird mothers. He sat on a chair, sorting the contents of his two purses, too busy to notice the constant struggle of the other bird mothers as the blocks kept moving. He said that the chair was his "temple."

Inspired by this idea, the guard knight turned his attention to building his own temple. It would be a temple for jumping. At first, his "Temple of Death" as he called it, was just the table. Then he realized that with a few of the hollow blocks, he could jump even higher. He negotiated with the builder knight and was able to convince him to hand over enough blocks to make the temple of death just right.

This was our three/four-year-old class. They were in our dramatic play space on Monday morning. When they walked in, the room was a blank slate in terms of play messages because we had to clear out the room for a Saturday meeting. As the morning wore on, the children were playing with those loose agreements that are hallmark features of parallel play...for instance, "I am a bird mother. I perch." and "I am a builder knight. I stack blocks." Their abilities to create complex structures using blocks or layered, nuanced ideas are only now beginning to soar like the knight launching himself from his tabletop temple. These skills will most certainly "become" over time and more importantly, with time, devoted specifically to play. 

The older children used the room later that afternoon during their school day. We hold a meeting before our dramatic play sessions. As a cooperative school, meetings are simply a given, but before dramatic play sessions we use the meetings so the children can begin to talk about story and to build upon the play that went "before."

The play messages left by the younger class were in the environment everywhere you turned. The meeting was short, I simply told the story of the bird mothers and pointed out the names of the destinations the younger ones indicated including the "Temple of Death" and piled up blocks as bird nests. The children nodded. They see what they see. Sharing the names of the destinations is not about locking these new players into some kind of play, it is about building a community of players. In our current space, the different age groups are not in the school at the same time. We intentionally make connections between these children by not putting away their play messages and by sharing their stories.

The idea of the temple appealed immensely. So much so that the unicorns and mermaids moved right in, but not for long. The mermaids heard the "temple of death" and in short order turned into vampires. Then "knight builders" was so compelling that several of the children set out to untangle the bird mothers' nests to build a proper temple, but their temple absolutely had to have a cannon. The "bird mother" play arc did have appeal, but not in terms of building. They found and created their own nests in another part of the room using piled up pillows.

As the cannon temple took shape and the builder knights experimented with launching pine cones, the mermaids-turned-vampires began to store their food from the rafters of their house. Interestingly, this very house had been off limits for the younger class because the older children had blocked it off with a sign marked with a red "x" inside a circle. Everyone knows what that means, "Do not enter. Ever." This particular sign, according to the writer, told us that there was quicksand inside the house. It was discarded because quicksand now had nothing to do with a vampire house. No further explanation is needed, the sign was removed.


The play builds.

Just like blocks on top of blocks. The children take the play messages left by the group before and move easily into their own play arcs.

With this older group, we see the complex planning and negotiation of ideas, space, and materials that spring from cooperative play. They work through conflicts, disagreements, and agreements independently. These are the very things that are scaffolded during our meetings -- they have checked in with each other, they have checked in with the environment, and they have imagined the possibilities. These older children used the play messages left by the younger group as departure points and yet it is easy to see the connective threads and inspiration that is passed between these children who share the same space but not the same time. This is just how strong the messages of play are for them.

How does this end? It doesn't. When the littles (the two/three-year-olds) came into the dramatic play space at the end of the week, they would not and could not tolerate the babies and bunnies being strung up from the rafters. They untied and scooped up all the babies, hiding them -- often in plain sight as little ones will often do -- so that they would be safe from all the absurdities imagined by that oldest class. How could they do that to the bunnies? Not to mention the babies! Poor babies! Poor bunnies!

The play goes on. And on. And on.