Children know it’s play. They know what play is, even if they typically can’t define it with anything other than anecdotes, usually about whatever it is they’re doing at the time. Play is swinging! Play is making trains! Play is trying to make a sand catapult!
I could regale you with a longwinded definition of play, one I’ve been honing in my public speaking appearances for the past three years, but at bottom, when it comes down to it, the core of play is experimentation. Perhaps not the rational, step-over-step experimentation of the scientific method, but an individualized approach unfettered by the strict rules of peer reviewable science.
In a very real sense, almost everything we do in our school is an experiment of some sort: physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, artistic, or even spiritual. And I’m not just talking about the children. This goes for me, the teacher, as well.
For instance, some months ago I came across the term “pallet swing” and immediately envisioned the device you see in these pictures. I had just acquired a new pallet, smaller and with wider slats than is typical, which seemed like a good candidate to hang from the spot where we had previously hung other experimental swings (rope, tire, ladder, etc.). I used rope I had at hand: 150 lb. test, cotton wrapped in a colored nylon. I tied it through a pair of metal loops that had, years before my time, been used for the chains of a more traditional swing. The children’s experiments with this original design resulted in a broken rope by the end of the first day.
By now, most children, of all ages, have tested the pallet swing, the youngest often just pushing and twirling it while remaining firmly planted on the ground, but the older kids, especially a group of girls, have made a concentrated study of it.
One of the reasons it had struck me as such a good idea, was that with only two traditional swings and one trapeze bar, our limited resources had made the swing set a focal point of regular conflict and this innovation seemed like it could offer four new seats in one go, which is why I’ve attempted to label it “the sharing swing,” implying that it’s suitable for more than one kid at a time.
In the beginning, however, the individual members of our team of girl scientists stared at me blankly when I used the term, waiting for me to stop talking before going back to their solitary experiments, each of them exploring the possibilities of sitting, standing, and asking for others to push them while others awaited their turn. It frustrated me, but now that a couple months have passed, I can now see that this was a necessary process, as the girls needed to acquire knowledge in order to share it with one another as they have now begun play together. This sharing is crucial to children’s experiments, just as it is with real scientists who are always building upon the work of colleagues.
The girls have discovered, for instance, that while they can cram as many as a half dozen bodies onto the “sharing swing” at once, four seems to be the correct number. This number was arrived at over a period of experimentation and negotiation. They have also discovered that while any of them can set the swing into motion on their own by standing, it’s virtually impossible to sit and swing without help. Since we discourage adults from pushing the children on any of our swings, that means that one of them must take the role pusher.
Here’s the problem, however: resting, the swing hangs about chest high on most of them, which means that when it is freely swinging the arc carries it through the same altitude that is most often occupied by their heads presenting a hazard what with it being made of wood with sharp corners and all. No one wants to take that to the head. It has taken some time, but to solve this problem, a problem they would not have had to solve had adults been doing the pushing, they have devised a method whereby the pusher never actually releases the swing, but rather keeps two hands on it as it moves through its back-and-forth arc. (Sadly, my pictures here only reveal the feet of the pusher as she does her job.) They have developed their own method of turn-taking, the intricacies of which are a mystery to me.
A second avenue of experimental exploration with the pallet swing by this team of scientists has been what they call “spinning.” As the name implies, this involves one or more children sitting in the pallet, while someone turns the apparatus around and around, twisting my four lengths of 450lb. test rope together, then releasing it, giving the passengers a wild, spinning ride. They have now been engaged in these experiments for a couple months, growing increasing knowledgeable, both as individuals and as a group, and as their knowledge has grown, so has their courage.
As the adult responsible for creating the pallet swing in the first place and, more importantly, as an adult responsible for the children’s safety, I’ve been watching carefully. In the beginning I tried to always stay nearby. I noted that there is a point, just as the ropes fully release their twisted embrace that the entire thing lurches suddenly. I worried that if a child was not prepared she might lose her grip and fly off, so I took to giving a verbal warning just before it happened, “Aaaaand whomp!” I still do it for the younger children who are not as far along in their experiments, but for these girls, the need for it, if there ever was one, is long past.
Lately, they have been twisting themselves up so high that the passengers must lie almost perfectly flat in order to fit under the ropes. They’ve determined that it takes two of them to wind the thing up that high and they have, importantly, also learned to be wary of the pallet as it spins, saying, “Ready? Let go!” before ducking out of the way. These were mental experiments they performed to figure this out: no child has been injured in the process.
Seeing the stresses they are putting on my ropes and pallet, I’ve been checking everything two or three times a day, often retying my knots when they look like they’ve slipped a bit. It’s become a kind of experimental dance we are doing together, all of us learning to do things that have never been done before on the face of the Earth.
The children just call it play.