“There May Be More Wood Chips, But The Pebbles Have More Brains.”

May 17, 2012

Yesterday, between 12:15 and 1:30 p.m., was one of the greatest hours in all of my time at Walden.  That’s not hyperbole, and I’m not trying to stretch a point.  You know how baseball players and golfers talk about hitting a “sweet spot” in the sport.  It’s when the baseball or golf ball is perfectly struck.  It’s rare but it does happen and it’s unmistakable.  And, it happened yesterday.
It wasn’t about getting a strategic plan approved.  It wasn’t about a 6th grader getting into her choice of middle schools.  It wasn’t about seeing the professional transformation of a writing teacher who has attended the Reading and Writing Workshop at Columbia.  It wasn’t about a 1st grader learning to read, or a 5th grade snorkeling for the first time, or a 3rdgrader reading poetry at assembly.
It was about a group of 4th graders—Tobias, Dax, Cruz, Shane, and Gabe—reminding me that pebbles and wood chips are as important as Singapore Math and state capitals.
It started about 10:15 a.m. as a prelude, when I was walking by the pond in the North Yard, and Gabe asked me if I had noticed his “stealth boat.”  I told him I didn’t and he showed me a boat fashioned out of what looked like a plastic sushi tray.  In the quarter inch tray, Gabe had arranged a bed of pebbles, and they sank the boat a few inches to the bottom of the pond.  It was stealth, indeed.  Kind of like a ray that hides in the sand.  Beyond the 20-second exchange, I didn’t give much thought about Gabe’s stealth boat.
Then, about 12:15 p.m. and as I was walking through the North Yard again, Tobias jumped up from his lunch table and asked if he could have a meeting with me sometime.  Although he was relaxed in his approach to me, Tobias doesn’t always volunteer himself for meetings, and I thought maybe he had something on his mind.  I asked him if he had time right now.   He did and we met in my office.
Tobias went on to tell me he needed a box.  He needed a box to store the boats and other materials the 4th and 5th graders were using for the Wood Chips versus Pebbles games.  It seems this game has gone on all year in the North Yard pond, and the boats and materials were going missing from the remote spot in the North Yard where they were hidden.  Tobias thought if he secured a proper box, the boats and equipment wouldn’t be mistaken for trash.
It was sort of coming together.  I vaguely remembered Gabe’s stealth boat with pebbles.  Tobias has mentioned the wood chips.  I asked Tobias more about this game.  Tobias was serious.  Tobias was intent.  Tobias told me he, Gabe, Cruz, Dax, and Shane play the Wood Chips versus Pebbles game almost every day.
Now, I was intrigued.
I walked Tobias back to his lunch table and asked if I could meet with Shane, Dax, Cruz, Gabe, and Tobias in a few minutes—after they had finished their lunch.  They accepted the invitation, and at 12:45 p.m., I had the 5 students in my office.
It seems for the entire year that Tobias, Cruz, Gabe, Dax, and Shane have been playing Wood Chips versus Pebbles.  Well, Cruz just recently joined in the game. They play in the pond in the North Yard.
I’d try to explain the game, but I took notes at the meeting and will quote the students.  Here’s what they said:
“The pond wants to reclaim the playground as its own.  It was rightfully the pond’s yard, but the wood chips overwhelmed the playground.  The pebbles are hopelessly outnumbered.” (Dax)
“The object of the game is to defeat the wood chips.  It’s basically an imagination game.”  (Cruz)
“The wood chips aren’t allowed to go in the pond, so we have to float them on leaves.”  (Dax)
“The pebbles are always trying to push the wood chips out of the pond and to reclaim the playground.” (Shane)
“We find plastic containers and sail them across the pond and pretend they’re boats.” (Cruz)
“Containers are made out of boxes that had seaweed snacks, sushi, and yogurt drinks.” (Shane)
“We make holes in the walls so the current can flow through them.”  (Tobias)
“My specialties are building the secret bases and finding pebble troops.”  (Dax)
“My specialty is making spies out of tiny pencils and sinking them to the bottom of the waterfall.  They monitor what kinds of ships are above.”  (Cruz)
“My specialty is stealth boats, and I sent them right under the current.” (Gabe)
“Shane is the wall genius.”  (Gabe)
“Some people get mad at us because they don’t like the game, because they think it’s not nice to the fish.”  (Shane)
“But, we wash out all containers before putting them in the pond.”  (Tobias)
“It’s like capture the flag, but the pebbles are always on defense.  Look how many wood chips there are in the North Yard.”  (Gabe)
“There may be more wood chips, but the pebbles have more brains.”  (Tobias)
There you have it.  The sweet spot.  Here are 5 children, building, thinking, talking, debating, creating, organizing, and articulating.
Next time you walk into the North Yard, take a good look at the wood chips.  They’re everywhere.  Then, look at the pebbles in the pond.  As Dax said, they’re hopelessly outnumbered.  Then, imagine being a 4th or 5th grader and trying to help the pond reclaim the playground.
We do teach math, reading, science, writing, social studies, Spanish, physical education, art, storytelling, and music.  Yet, we’ve also set up an environment where the learning doesn’t have to occur in the 700 square foot classroom, preadolescent children can save the pond of the North Yard, and imagination can fill their minds.
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