Tuesday, September 9, 2008

a wonderful idea at the fountain

In 2007, camp was in Harvard Square, and pretty close to Memorial Drive. There was a park there at JFK with a fountain in it. I remember going there with a group of 5 kids on the first day of the second week. It was the beginning of a new week and so we had a fair number of new kids (that year we had about 50% or so of our campers come for just one week and we thus had lots of new faces every Monday.) It was a fun, small trip and I thought it was a neat way for me to get to know a small group of kids amidst the larger mass of 30 campers.

The park had a fountain in it, and the kids started asking if they could go in it. As camp only has 3 simple rules (1. Don't hurt anybody. 2. If you make a mess, clean it up. 3. Don't go where you're not supposed to go.), lots and lots is left open to what the adult feels is reasonable. Questions come up -- like "Can we go in the fountain" -- which will raise a general feeling of "no, it seems like we shouldn't" but leaves the question hanging in the air (what's the real reason: merely because it's conventional, or because there is indeed a reason why we shouldn't do that.)

For example. two kids once asked me to let them take a marker apart. They were trying to replicate a water gun they'd seen, and needed a small, plastic tube to use. The body of the marker was the best tube they'd been able to find. While normally I wouldn't ordinarily want markers getting cut up, this was a clear example where I was fine with it -- it seemed like a really clever solution to their problem.

So there's an openness to considering each of these unusual situations that I find fantastic. It either leads to a rare, wonderful possibility, or it gets the adult and child on a clear page of why we can't do something (providing an explanation rather than only saying no.) The tricky part with this is the cases where it just doesn't seem obvious what to do -- there's a vague feeling in your gut about the situation, but perhaps you're the only adult around, and no words are coming to mind to articulate that feeling.

That's how it was with the fountain. It felt strange to let kids go into it, but I couldn't figure out why. Eventually, I decided it was ok for them to put their feet in ... and then to stand it in ... and then to swim and play in it ... and then I joined them in there. At the time, I could see no other reason beyond our social norms that people don't go into fountains. (A few weeks later many people pointed out to me that the water's not the cleanest, and now I'd be unlikely to let that go. A year ago though, I was blissfully ignorant. edit! 10/22/08 I just re-read that and don't think that would be my honest reaction. I think my reaction, as with most things, would to be really blunt about it with the kids, and tell them that the cleaning crew at the park had told us that people pee in the fountain at night, I'd explain that it's possible that this is just a story from the cleaning crew to get us not to do weird stuff, and mention that the pee may or may not be washed out by daytime -- you certainly couldn't see any -- and then let the group deliberate. I would listen, I would have some glee while listening, and I'd support what they chose. done editing.)

The kids were thrilled to be in an unusual space, and it's a pretty good fountain for playing. It had two tiers and a series of 12 pipes spurting water at an even height. For the first half hour or so, the kids played and played. Something really interesting happened around then. The kids started playing with the pipes, and began to notice a relationship between them: when you covered up some pipes, the other pipes shot water even higher!

The kids got really into this. I remember joining them in finding a way to cover up all the pipes -- a contortion of hands and feet that resembled a game of Twister. Lots of relationships about the pipes became clear: the more that were covered, the higher the uncovered pipes shot water out. Once a pipe was uncovered, it would first shoot out water much higher at first and then stabilize to the same height as all the other uncovered pipes (if I'm remembering correctly.) Playing with these relationships fascinated the kids, and they proceeded to do this for the next half an hour.

I was reminded of several similar exhibits I've seen at museums -- traditionally with some white PVC pipe and with air instead of water. Often these exhibits have a ping-pong that you can send flying with the pressurized air-flow. I've seen kids tinker with those exhibits for a few minutes, but never this full-on (and full-bodied) half-hour long engagement as it were at the fountain.

The discovery of an idea or a phemonenon -- rather than the direct presentation of it -- seems to have such an excitement and electricity to it that the engagement (and I'm sure the retention of it) are phenomenal. I think this is a crucial piece of an effective educational environment: creating a space where discoveries are possible, rather than exhibited (or of course, some things are displayed as inspiration and some things are left to be explored.)

I've held this memory with me for a while -- why was it so much more exciting for the children to play with this scientific phenomena through their own discovery in the fountain then when I've seen kids see this exhibit in a museum. The fountain itself -- the excitement of being somewhere you don't normally get to go to, and of course somewhere wet -- is a big influence. The experience has often been a guide to me -- how can I provide as little direct guidance as possible so that a child will find something amazing, but still be fully curious about it. I was recently reminded of this experience after reading Eleanor Duckworth's "The Having of Wonderful Ideas."

In this essay, Duckworth describes the feeling of seeing a set of materials, lighting up and going "yes! I've got a great idea" as the having of a wonderful idea. She describes it in the example of conducting a Piaget-style interview, and giving a child a collection of straws of different lengths. The interview is to have the child order the straws by length. One of the children she interviews comes to this idea all on his own, before Duckworth has said anything. Duckworth characterizes his excitement by articulating what she feels the boy is experience: "I have a wonderful idea. You'll be surprised by my wonderful idea."

I was excited to read Duckworth's essay, having words put to an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a year now. While it's perhaps wrong to frame the idea that knowledge should never be direct transmission, the sheer amount of interest that comes with the having of a wonderful idea makes it a powerful one to me. I want to think more about how camp as a whole directly fosters this, and identify the features of camp which used to feel 'intuitively correct' and I can now link to this idea.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great article! I was starting to get worried you had stopped the blog. I check your blog every day for new entries and today you don't disappoint. Thank you for the insight. From all the camps I have worked with, the theme has always been go go go. Decompression is just something I've never thought about with regards to camp.

Thanks again and I look forward to your next post!