Berkeley Forest School | Play is Work
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A. D. McCormick





Izzy wants to build a bed for his doll. Izzy is four; he regularly comes to school wearing a certain sparkly dress, because he is Wendy. Other times he comes in a full-on pirate outfit: he is Captain Hook. Absent from the narrative is any mention of Peter Pan. He does not exist in Izzy’s Neverland. I never asked why.

Izzy is wearing his dress today, and he wants to make a bed for his doll. He and I have already used the saw together for various other projects, and he has long since mastered the hammer and nails. Like the other children at Berkeley Forest School, he knows these tools are available for use, with some level of adult support, in the Tinkering House. So he tells me about his idea, and shows me a plan he’s drawn with markers on paper, and we get to work.

There is no one right way to build a bed. At the time of this story, I’ve been working at the school for over two years, but I still find myself inserting my ideas here and there. We encountered this trouble with the train engine we built, too. He picks seemingly random pieces of wood and jams them together and looks at me, saying: “Like this.” I explain that we don’t have any nails that are long enough to attach those two pieces, but perhaps if we... But no, he doesn’t like my idea.

Fortunately, I have accrued enough experience in the child-led preschool method to remember, a little belatedly, that this is not my project. There is no one right way to do it, but more than that, there is no wrong way. I ask how big the bed should be and he shows me with his hands, and then I ask if he can find pieces of wood that will make that size. Then, incrementally, we start putting the pieces together with nails. Some bits stick out, so we get the saw and trim them. He is skilled and does most of the work himself: He holds the saw with two hands and I hold the work, and carefully we cut. Suddenly, there’s a bed. He plops in his doll and its little lamb rattle companion.

I ask, “What do you think?” He says, “It’s great. But they need blankets!” And he flies out of the Tinkering House to raid the fabric in the Studio. I snap a quick picture with the camera I’ve learned to keep with me always. Seconds later, he’s back, with fabric and friends, and I realize that I am no longer needed.

Nobody told Izzy to make a bed, he just did it. Not only that, but he knew how he wanted it done, what materials were required, and what tools would be needed.

 

He knew to get me, the unofficial-official tool adult, for help, and that help would come more readily if he showed me his idea via a drawn plan. Nobody taught him any of this, at least not directly. Occasionally I would take out a saw or a hammer and nails and play with them and some of the kids would gather and participate if they wanted to. And Izzy had surely seen someone else make a plan before him.But not once in this entire experience did a single adult tell him to do anything: He just did it. He wanted to, and he knew how, and he was empowered to act.

Not all children are Captain Hook one day and Wendy the next, and not all children want to make beds for their dolls, but all children are in a very essential way just like Izzy. They have everything they need to create their own education. They naturally seek out risks and challenges, just as they naturally act out those behaviors in careful stages to keep the risk at an acceptable level.

Often, we adults are most helpful as un-teachers: to help a child un-learn acquired behaviors that are detrimental to his or her development or safety. The child who spent his first three years in a play pen is the child most likely to suddenly dash into the traffic-filled street, because he spent his whole life up to that point living with a false promise, that there is no danger in the world. Much has been written in recent years about the connection between a lack of perceived risk in play during childhood and an inability to navigate challenges as an adult. Watch a child as I have, who is trusted to make his or her own decisions. You will find that this child is pragmatic, cautious, bold, bright, focused, imaginative, empathic, and interested.

The photographs here represent approximately a year of intermittent documentation, primarily in the Berkeley Forest School outdoor preschool program but also, such as the girl with the knife, the older summer camp program.