Together on the Square
Many years ago now I started a project called "Together on the Square".
The aim was to "teach" empathy by exposing the children to reflecting about others, developing their theory of mind and making plans to include others.
Outside the preschool was a big square that was not trafficked. It was pretty empty except for a telephone kiosk/box a fruit stand that was there a large part of the year (but not during the winter months) the entrance to some shops, the library, the swimming pool and a retirement home, there was artwork on one wall, and for a few months of the year there was a big christmas tree.
The idea was to challenge the children to design a square that everyone on the area would enjoy spending time together on.
The project started with providing time for the children to develop the skills they would need to make such designs. So we started with map making. Each child, together with their parents made a map of their route to preschool from home. This drawn 2D map was then used to create a 3D map with loose parts and string to show the route.
When thinking about setting up a parent/child activity it is important to be prepared that not all children have parents that engage with them to complete these tasks, so it is a good idea to have a back-up plan for those children who do not bring a map either because their parents did not, would not, or simply repeatedly forgot. We had a plan to sit down with those children, but luckily it did not come to that, as the only child who did not have a map lived in the same building as another child who brought one, and this child felt perfectly happy to use that map together and did not want to sit down and draw a map together. (these conversations were not made in front of the other children to ensure that the child was not ever made uncomfortable).
We then walked, and/or took public transport to each of the homes, to help children connect the drawn representations and the 3D representations to reality.
This took many weeks to do, as at the same time we were also exploring what they would like have on their dream square, drawing their ideas, measuring the square etc.
There was a week or so when I started to feel frustrated and whether it was all worth while with the maps, it felt like we were never getting going with the actual designing of the square, when suddenly the children started, on their own, recreating the square with loose-parts using the ideas from our philosophy sessions... it was a massive reminder that going slow empowered the children, it gave them the time to acquire the skills they needed to be able to have control over the process. We were now two months into the project.
I took photos of the construction of the square that they had made, and then used those photographs to fill a photo of the square with their ideas, which we then presented to the children. They were thrilled.
Then after a week or so they decided it did not look very real, so we started to look for ideas on the internet... choosing images that they liked. (As I am wary of the internet, it is both fabulous and fickle... I usually select a whole load of images based on the children's descriptions, images I think they will like, images I think they won't like and things in between, to not only give them choice but also to see a wide variety of possibilities - this means I am not exposing the children to images out of my control that might be inappropriate)
The children also had photos of te square that they drew their ideas on, and we also painted directly onto the windows that faced the square to pretend that square was full of flowers.
We measured the square in different ways the children could think of, feet, body lengths, strides etc... We also drew all the things directly onto the square, so they could feel how they all worked, was there room? How big are things in reality...? etc
We played a LOT of the square. This is a way for the children to really get a sense of belonging, and a connection to the square so that they could make the designs.
The design with all the images we found (we also printed them out, cut them and made collages with them) then became a stimulus for a philosophical dialogue, where we created a story about how people could no longer get across te square because it was too full of things, and they could not reach the shops or the underground station...
Here is the story and the words of the children... (blue adult voice)
"There was once 11 children. Every day they used to play on the square together. The square was big and many people lived around it. Close by there was an ICA supermarket. One day one of the children said
- I wish it was summer on the square
-I wish I could swim
- and I wish that there were flowers
- and a castle, said a fourth
- I wish there was a big cake, said a fifth.
They sat in a ring in the middle of the square and began to think. After a while they got an idea: we can re-build the square so that everything we wished for was here. And the children began to build. The Castle became bigger and bigger. Around the castle they planted rose bushes, just like Sleeping Beauty's castle. Round the bushes they dug a lake. Inside the castle they baked a huge cake.
When everything was finished the children were satisfied. Wow, what a square they had built!
Suddenly someone screamed
- Help! Help me! Heeelp meeee!
The children ran out to see what it was. On one side of the castle was an old man. he had fallen into the lake and couldn't get up. Now he was screaming for help.
- Ow! OOOWWW! burst someone else
The children ran further and saw an old woman stuck in the rosebushes. She had sratches on her arms. Now she was crying for help.
- Hello! HELLLOOO! shouted another, I am not going to get to the train on time
The children ran there and saw another old man that looked at his watch. he looked angry when he looked at the new square. He wondered what had happened.
Then the children sat in their castle and began to think. How were they going to solve this?"
The children had some thinking time and then were given the chance to suggest some ideas for a solution...
maybe they could build another square
what if there are old people there too?
they have to go to a square without people.
do such squares exist?
yes, for I have seen them before
they have to go to the dentist they can get a plaster.
they need to find another square
if you get a splinter in your finger you have to get tweezers to remove it... they could come to the square when they are ready
the old ones need to go to the doctor
should all the old people go to the doctor... is that a solution?
If one build a castle who is allowed in?
it should be in the corner
so that the old ones can get by... do you think that is a good idea?
its a strange idea, we should have the castle behind the roses
but they hurt themselves on the roses...
they can go to the doctor
you have to take care or have a rope so she can go to the doctor. A rope that you can sit on.
is that a good idea?
I have many questions. he can help of a horse. One can borrow a horse and ride it so that you come to the doctor
is that a good idea?
where should the horses be?
in the corner
in the stables
who will take care of the horses
I ride horses
But when we sleep who will take care of the horses?
when we sleep we can put the horses in the stable, they sleep
they cannot come out, we lock the door
if I think about old people, some have difficulty walking and use a rullator, they cannot ride
then they can have a sled to go on and hold onto the tail
is that a good idea?
no, they can have a lot of plasters and then they can go
they cannot walk so they can lie in bed, then they can walk again
if they go into the castle, there is a woman and a crown.
one can get a bandage on the foot and remove the thorns
but if there is a castle on the square how will wheelchairs get across?
they get carried..
who will carry them
others who live in the castle
There is something beautiful about the young child's belief that plasters and medicine will mean a person will get better so that there is no need to redesign the square. This dialogue had not gone as we expected (this was only part of the group) but it did teach us a lot about how children think.
The children also interviewed people on the street about how they would like the square to be designed, and what should be on there, as well as their parents and siblings and we also visited the retirement home to get their opinion...
Images were created for each of the designs so that similarities and differences could more easily be seen. We played more and more on the square - taking out materials, tables, paints and also doing experiments there. It stopped being just a space and became place of many possibilities.
Even after the project came to a conclusion with the summer break, it never truly stopped. The square continued to be a place the children chose to play in, it continued to be a place where we met others, It continued to be a place where we did various activities and people from the neighbourhood would come and talk to us to find out what we were up to.
Not behind the walls of the early years setting. A part of the community.