A. D. McCormick

Play Is Work

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.

You can contact me at andrew at admccormick dot com.