Navigating Through The Complex Maze Of A Kindergarten Classroom: Why Does This Work?

When educators from our school walk into our room, they expect to find a maze of sorts. It’s always a bit of an obstacle course to get from one side of the room to the other. This has probably been more true this year than any other. The kids 100% own this space. They feel very comfortable pulling paint where they need it, self-serving everything from glue to paint to staples, cutting sheets from huge rolls of paper, relocating giant logs so that they can work better, and even taking safe climbing items over to the wall or to the sink, so that they can add items to a bulletin board or wash items in the sink. I have no doubt that many people walk into our room and need to take a deep breath as they observe the buzzing hive of activity, kids, and mess, but there’s actually something incredibly calming about all three. For this is not just a case of us seeing the students as “competent and capable,” but them viewing themselves and each other as the same.

There are so many blog posts that I could write, and maybe have already written on this amazing type of free play, but this post focuses on just one aspect of it: the respect that kids have for each other and their work. In both our outdoor space and indoor space, our kids regularly show how they can work around others. I often stand up on the hill outside shocked and awed by a group of children playing a soccer game around another group of children camping right in the middle of the soccer field. How are they not hit by the ball? How does nobody run into them? But they don’t! They go around them, they pass behind or in front of them, but not once, will they go through them. In the past, I would be shouting for these “campers” to relocate, but now I don’t worry, for not only do they not run into them, but I am certain that they won’t. Absolutely. Positively. Certain.

The same thing happens with the structures that they build. One would think that someone would walk into the wood islands, knock down the fortress, or collapse the bridge, but nobody ever does. Even when kids leave these areas to go build somewhere else, the items still stay in tact. There’s this quiet understanding that they need to be aware and respectful of what others have made, even if they want to use the same items for something else. If it’s anyone who’s going to walk into or through a creation, it’s going to be an adult. Every. Single. Time.

I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised then when a group of boys created this massive comic/drawing/story on the floor the other day. They kept expanding on the ideas, and adding more sheets of long brown paper to their work. At one point, the story went almost under the LEGO table. Here they were behind the eating table — in one of the busiest areas of our classroom — gluing papers together and adding to their amazing story.

What really struck me about this though was when a child from another class came to visit. Over the months, my teaching partner, Paula, and I have gotten to know this child a lot better, and he’s gotten to know our class much more. My first experience with him was out during recess time, and I used to see him push his way through groups of people and in the midst of different creative experiences, not with an intent to destroy but instead with his own agenda. I think he still has his own agenda when he comes to our classroom. Many of our children also have theirs. What I noticed immediately on this particular day though is that as soon as he came into the classroom, he stopped, he noticed the work down on the floor, and he found a way to get around it. He still made it over to us, got what he needed, and left again: all without touching this massive drawing. 

This got me thinking: when children are at a developmental level where they tend to think of themselves first (which is often very true in kindergarten), what changes things so that they can still see, understand, and respect the work of others? For I love that in a hive of learning, where floor space or field space might be at a premium, all students can rest assured that their work will not be ruined. I thought about this even more on Thursday, when I started my day falling over the tire table that’s been sitting in the middle of our floor space since September. It’s my own fault, as I was walking around trying to do attendance before heading off to the Peter Pan Play, and I was too focused on my iPad and not enough on the ground. Thankfully it was only the drying rack table top and our poor alphabet chart that got crushed, but I remained intact. 🙂 The kids kept going back to this experience throughout the day, so much so, that one child offered me some walking advice on Thursday afternoon.

Could the same thinking that leads us to putting the tire tables and other running interruptions in the middle of our floor space be what helps create this respect for students and student work? Just like with the tire table, when kids see the group of children in the middle of the field, the paper on the floor, or the artwork on the carpet, this slows them down. It makes them stop, look, and consider another route. Instead of being fearful of how they will navigate their way around these obstacles, maybe instead we need to trust that with some modelling, some experience, and the belief that they can do it, a little tire table will not stop a group of four-, five-, and six-year-olds (although I may need some more practice with it 🙂 ). And if kids this young can do it, shouldn’t older students be able to? If we want kids to own their space, how are we letting them do so and trusting them with this responsibility? A special “thank you” to Paula for making me realize that a picture like this one is not as scary as it once might have seemed.


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