How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Couch

I pushed the new couch into the nook with a feeling of satisfaction. It was supposed to fit with an inch to spare, but after spending a few hundred dollars, I didn’t relax until it was put in. It was just the right size for an odd indentation in my dramatic play area. I had a carpet that fit the rectangle of the space, leaving a two foot bald spot on one side. I was more than thrilled to find this couch that not only provided a cozy play space, but it also covered up the floor.

The couch becomes a canoe.
The couch becomes a canoe.

 

The first few weeks, the kids used the couch as a crib, a car, a couch, and a hospital bed. I had found a perfect solution to my problem. But then something happened. One of the kids figured out that if you pulled the couch out from the wall, it created the perfect hideout. The hideout also became a tree house, a tent, a bedroom. Every day it was something new. And every day, as the couch was pushed forward, the rug would scrunch up until it was getting ruined. And if that wasn’t enough the arm of the couch was chipping the paint a bit.

 

 

I tried to stop the kids from pulling the couch out. That didn’t work of course. I tried to be there when they moved the couch, but every time I walked over, the couch was moved and the rug was bunched up.

A hideout is discovered
A hideout is discovered

I tried to show them how to lift it on top of the rug. That wasn’t any more successful. I was getting quite frustrated. I could only flatten the rug back so many times before it was ruined. I could stay late and paint the wall, but how long would that last?

When I finally stepped back, I saw a different picture. The kids were showing me they wanted a small space to play in. They also seemed to take satisfaction in being the creators of this space. The stumbling block was the carpet, which was made up of smaller square tiles. I decided to remove one more row to see what would happen. It left a bigger bald spot, which bothered me, but I’ve lived with bald spots before.

 

The next day the kids pulled the couch out until it touched the rug. A father who worked as a contractor asked if I needed anything done and I showed him the chipped paint. He brought in a few scraps of wainscoting and covered the walls. Suddenly, the area looked inviting again. And the kids continued to use the space behind the couch.

 

The couch becomes a spaceship
The couch becomes a spaceship (with real wood wainscoting)

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter how many years I have been doing this, I still find myself taking on battles that I can’t win. When I focus on the needs of the kids, I can usually find a way where we both win.

Catching Up with Duke

flying
flying
hanging upside down
hanging upside down

000041251I am currently working on a book called Teaching with the Body In Mind. It is a book aimed at teachers and caregivers of young children. The book addresses the need for more rough-and-tumble play and Big Body Play for young children. My blog will be focusing on some of the same topic for the next few months.
I want to start with a story from early in my teaching career (about 23 years ago). It’s about a man named Duke. I haven’t thought about Duke in a while, but I was speaking at the MN Fatherhood and Family Services Summit and the story came to me.
Duke was one of the Dad’s at the childcare center I worked at in the early 90s. Duke was unemployed at the time when our cook left. Our director offered him the job. Duke gladly accepted and we were soon enjoying the lunches he cooked as well as his visits to the classrooms. The kids loved having him visit, and Duke clearly loved being there.
After a few weeks, the director asked if he wanted to substitute for one of the aides in the afternoon. Soon he was subbing a few times a week in one of the classrooms. Our classrooms were fairly typical of the time. There was a block area with plenty of blocks, a dress up area with lots of costumes, several choices of toys and lots of art supplies. But when Duke was in the classroom, most kids forgot about all our precious materials. They wanted to play with Duke.
Duke offered the children something me and the other teachers did not. Duke loved to roughhouse. If he was in the room, he usually had one kid in his arms (often upside down) with two or three kids grabbing his legs, everyone shrieking in delight.
I hate to admit it, but we other teachers often asked Duke to tone it down. At best we tolerated Duke’s roughhousing, but we certainly didn’t try to emulate or even learn from him. Looking back, I can see that Duke was giving children something they desperately need.
Research now shows what Duke instinctively knew. Rough-and-tumble play is good for children and it is a great way for an adult to connect with children. It only took me 20 years to catch up with Duke.

The Whole Child, The Whole Day

We were moving. I was an enlightened teacher. I knew children need to move as part of their healthy development. It was morning group time and I was having the children move to music, creating a story that matched the mood of the music. We were lions waking up and then running and leaping. All of the children were moving and contributing ideas. Well, almost everyone.

Greg had ducked behind a shelf. I tried to get him involved, but he said he was tired. I gently tried a few more times, but didn’t want to pressure him. Maybe next time I can get him moving, I thought.

Soon I had the lions wash their paws for snack. Greg waited until the others were done and washed his own hands. As we finished snack and got ready for freeplay, Greg told me he was going to “attack the bad guys.”

Suddenly, this quiet child put on a mask and pretended to shoot at all the bad guys. He leaped to his right, ducked behind the couch, rolled on the ground and stuck his wand out again. Soon a few other boys joined him.

Greg added a police hat and a tool belt, and he was ready for round two. Sometimes they attacked the bad guys. Sometimes they jumped and rolled on each other. It was as if something inside Greg had woken up. Something I was unable to do with my planned activities. I thought I was an enlightened teacher, but I realized I knew nothing.

I am exaggerating, of course, but the thing about teaching is that just when you think you know what you are doing, you realize there is more to learn. I knew children need to move, but I didn’t always reOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ready for the bad guys
Ready for the bad guys

cognize it. The truth is, a few years ago, I would have told Greg and the other boys to calm down when they started roughhousing. The very thing that got them moving, for Greg the only thing.

Planning movement activities is not enough. Getting children outside for long periods of time is not enough. Having a mat set aside for boisterous rough-and-tumble play is not enough. Children need a sense of power, a chance to take risks, and a choice in how they move their bodies throughout the day.

Greg, and many others like him do need to move their bodies, but they might not do it when the teacher plans it. We can’t address a child’s physical development for fifteen minutes and then move on to the child’s literacy skills the next fifteen minutes. We need to be aware of the whole child the whole day.