This past spring when we finally escaped the deep freeze of our long winter, my class had much welcome time exploring outside. This unstructured time was such a welcome and refreshing change from the cramped, stale classroom.
A particularly resourceful, and extremely cute little boy in my class discovered some rocks, sticks, leaves, and other natural materials and he got down to work creating a campfire.
He carefully put each of the rocks around in a symmetrical pattern and added little twigs and grass in the middle and even pretended to roast marshmallows with otherl materials. A child who could easily be described as hyper-active and excessively energetic inside the classroom, he was focused and calm as he worked diligently and deliberately on this project.
After watching him for a while and admiring his hard work, I mentioned to him that the school garden was starting to produce some amazing fruits and vegetables. Knowing how excited he had been to plant the seeds, I asked him if he wanted to check it out with me. He enthusiastically joined me, leaving his campfire behind. We spent a little time picking and eating strawberries and examining the lettuce, and then he went back to his campfire.
Unfortunately, when he returned, someone else had come along and taken all of the campfire materials to make a bug playground – and a pretty amazing one at that. The leaves and twigs of the campfire had been transformed into swings and slides for bugs. The rocks had once methodically encircled the campfire in a careful pattern were being used for a bug climbing structure.
I took a moment to appreciate just how cool this new creation was and marveled at the ingenuity behind it. Then I saw my campfire friend starting to come, full-on with arms swinging to attack the bug playground kid.
I physically put my body in between the kids while the first one protested that the rocks and sticks and leaves were HIS. Then he looked at me, infuriated, pointed his finger and said: “It’s YOUR fault! You made me go look at the garden!”
This was, in fact, true and I felt a horrible pang of guilt. By this time, the bug playground creator was standing in front of his project with his legs spread and his arms out wide.
“I didn’t know if was yours. Don’t’ wreck my bug playground!” he said in a panic.
Boy number one was on the verge of a full-out attack and I had to physically remove him, kicking and screaming, from the playground for fear he would hurt the other kid. He cried and he yelled at me and he protested how unfair this was. And he wept about his campfire. I did not let him go back to it. I let the bug playground continue.
I look back on this now and I am conflicted, as I often am as these problems unexpectedly come up throughout the year. I want to be fair. That is really important to me in the way I teach. And I want to teach fairness –to model it for the kids and let them practice it on their own. But often in the classroom, as in life, it’s just not all that clear. And you’ve got to make an instant decision.
Sometimes when I think back on certain situations, I wish I could either apologize or do it all over. This was one of those times. It’s not that I regret taking this boy to see the garden – he was fascinated by our harvest and I knew it would be enriching for him. I regret that I somehow lost his trust and betrayed him when I handed over his creation to another child.
There is, of course, no easy solution to this kind of thing. You can’t own rocks and sticks from the playground; and when you walk away, someone’s bound to pick them up. And when tempers are escalating too quickly to have a productive discussion, you have to react.
The frustration my first little friend must have felt is still palpable to me. It’s one of the hard things about teaching young children, and one of the ways teachers must keep learning all the time. Sometimes the solutions are not all that clear but experiences like this one help inform the next time it happens.
Maybe next time, the bugs could go camping after they play on the playground?