of Corner Co-op perched on teacher Beth’s shoulder:
Beth has previously prepared some of the ingredients for making playdough: mixing together the oil and water in the kitchen. She was told that a child wanted green playdough, so she also added green paint to the mixture.
As Beth brings a large spoon and a large bowl (filled with the above ingredients) to the yellow table, she asks the children: “Who would like to make playdough?” A number of children follow her to the table which has six stools. Beth also brings some other chairs over, knowing that there may be many who want to participate.
Before she places the bowl on the table she asks: “What are the rules about making playdough?” She acknowledges each response and repeats it, while adding more information that has been volunteered or she thinks will be helpful in explaining why things are done a certain way: “Stir slowly, so the mixture won’t splash in anyone’s eyes.” “Don’t eat the playdough. It has paint in it.” “Take turns. Everyone will get a turn. We’ll go around in a circle.” Then Beth asks: “Are you feeling strong? The playdough gets harder and harder to stir as we go on.” Many children show Beth their muscles and say how strong they are.
Many children call out that they want to be first. Beth says that she had already told a particular child that he will be first. (This was the first child that had told Beth that he wanted to make playdough.) Beth moves the bowl in front of this child and gives him the spoon. She reminds him to stir slowly, and gives him a scoop of salt to pour into the bowl and mix in. She holds onto the bowl, and the child mixes. When it is dissolved, she says that it is now the next child on the left, and the child who has been stirring gives the spoon to Beth and she moves the bowl in front of the next child and hands her the spoon. Then Beth scoops some salt out of the bin on the shelf and gives it to this child to pour and mix in, while reminding her to stir slowly. The other children lean in to see how the playdough looks. A child from across the table (not next in line) says: “It’s my turn.” Beth says: “Not yet. We are taking turns going around the table. Your turn will be after so-and-so and so-and-so.” So now the next child in turn adds flour and mixes it in. The children notice how the salt dissolves more easily than the flour. The flour is lumpy and doesn’t completely mix in. A child says: “I’m not going to get a turn.” Beth says: “We add a lot of flour. Everyone will get a turn, and probably more than one turn.” (Beth has estimated how much flour will eventually be needed and gives out portions so that there will be plenty of turns.)
As the bowl is passed around the table, the children notice how it does get harder to stir. Beth says that they can hold onto the edge of the bowl so that the child stirring can use two hands to stir with. A child reaches a hand into the bowl to feel it: “Ooh, it’s sticky.” Beth says: “Then it’s not quite done. We need to add more flour.” When it becomes difficult to stir, Beth says: “Let me see how it is,” and she stirs it around, scraping the sides. She says: “We’ll add a bit more flour. Remember that we don’t want it to be too sticky, but we also don’t want it to be too hard, which would happen if we add too much flour.” After more flour is added, Beth says that she’ll give each person some playdough to play with and add some flour to each of their piles of playdough to mix in. Some want the flour poured directly on. Others want it poured next to it, so that they can add it in gradually. Beth says: “I love how fresh playdough feels. It’s so soft and squishy.” The children begin to talk about what they will make with the playdough: muffins, pizza, rocket ships, dog bones….
As the whole process had been taking place, there are some children who leave and some new children who join in. When the playdough has been divided up and the children are each kneading it, another child comes over and wants some playdough. Beth says: “Let’s each give some to so-and-so.” Not everyone does, but there is some for the new child to use, too. (Beth gives all of hers.)
Beth asks: “Who would like to feed the worms?” Beth is carrying a yogurt container filled with vegetable scraps. A number of children join her as she goes to where the worms are kept: in a bin on top of a cabinet. Beth brings the bin down to the floor and opens the lid. The children peer inside, but don’t see any worms. “Remember,” Beth says, “the worms like the dark. They are sensitive to the light, so they are buried down in the dirt or compost.” Beth pulls away some of the top compost and exposes many wiggly red worms: “aaah….there they are,” the children say. “Can I feed them? Can I hold them?” Beth opens up the yogurt container and the children reach in and pull out the vegetable scraps. One child takes the container and pours in the remaining pieces.
Beth starts to stir the compost, food and worms with her hands, saying: “Now we just need to add strips of newspaper, so that the compost isn’t too wet.” Beth hands out newspaper to be torn into strips. Some of the children tear it into strips and put it in the bin, while Beth keeps stirring. Then the children say: “I want to hold one.” “I want to touch one.” “I want a big one.” “I want a baby.” Beth tells the children to be gentle with the worms and reminds them that the worms like to be in the dark and in a moist place, as she places worms in the children’s hands. Some children reach in to take a worm. Some want to hold the worm on a piece of newspaper. Some children just want to watch. Some children say: “Yucky” and run away. Another child says that the dirt is “worm poop.” “You’re right,” says Beth, “the worms’ poop is compost. We can put it on plants to help them grow.” The children who are holding the worms say: “Look how it wiggles.” “It’s dancing.” “It wants to go up my sleeve.” Beth tells the children that the worms are looking for a dark, moist place to go to. Beth points out the egg sacs that Rosie had pointed out to her. They look like teeny, brown footballs. Beth says: “This is where the baby worms are before they are born.” A child holding a baby worm says: “I think this worm was just born.” Another child collects a handful of worms. Another child puts some lettuce next to the worm for it to eat.
A child asks: “Will the worm bite me?” Beth says: “No, they don’t have any teeth. It helps them when we break the food up into small pieces for them.” Beth begins to do this. Some of the children break up the food. Others point out to Beth which pieces need breaking up. Carlyn, who gave the Co-op the worms, also gave the Co-op some laminated cards showing what is good and not good for worms to eat. There is a picture on one side showing a piece of food and on the other side is either a worm with a smiley face or a sad face, indicating if it is okay (or not) to feed it to the worms. Some of the children go through the cards testing each other. Beth says: “These are great reminders of what to feed the worms. I know that onions and oranges are not good for the worms.” When the children are done holding the worms they either ask Beth to put them back in the bin or do it themselves. When everyone is done, Beth puts the lid back on the bin and puts the bin back on the shelf. “Good bye, worms.”
Corner Co-op has an outdoor space enclosed by three walls of the church and a fence with a gate. This is accessed from inside the Co-op, near the red table. There is a stoop up and then one step down to grade. Temporarily, while the adjoining public park is under reconstruction, the Co-op also has a fenced in area which is entered from the gate in the courtyard. The courtyard has in it a sailboat base, a sand table, a plastic kitchen, a water table, four tree stumps, and four child-size chairs, plus sand toys, balls, chalk. The fenced-in area, or field, has a large oak tree (right outside the gate,) wheeled toys (salvaged from the old park playground,) two sleds, and a plastic inner tube. The courtyard surface is dirt and wood chips. The field surface is dirt, tufts of grass, and leaves. When there is adult supervision, the courtyard door is left open and children can freely go in and out. Depending upon the number of children outside, there are 1-3 adults (staff and parents.) Beth often volunteers to supervise outdoors.
“I’m opening up the courtyard,” Beth says, as she walks through the Co-op towards the door. “I’m going out, too,” many children reply. “Put shoes on,” Beth and other teachers say, “Do you need any help?” The door to the courtyard is large and heavy: “Don’t open the door until Beth gets there.” Beth says: “Thank you for waiting, and thank you for your help in opening it.” The children pour out: some to the sand table, some to the boat, some to open the gate to the field. “We need water to make yucky stew.” “Okay, I’ll ask another grown-up to get some,” Beth replies, “I need to stay out here.” The water is fetched and children pour it from one container to another, adding sand and dirt and leaves and chalk, stirring and mixing. “Mmmmm, what’s in your stew?” Beth asks. “Tomatoes, blueberries, quinoa….” “Here, Beth, have some yucky stew.” “Do you have a spoon that I can use?” Beth asks. A spoon and bowl of stew is offered. “Does it have any cinnamon in it?” Beth asks. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Beth takes a pretend sip. “It’s poison! It’s poison!” The children shout. “Aiyiyi,” Beth replies, “my kitty told me not to have any poison today. It gives me a stomach ache. Do you have any without poison?” Sometimes yes and sometimes no.
“We’re going on a boat trip to get some treasure. Beth, you can come, too.” “Thank you, I love to go on boat trips.” Beth replies. “Where should I sit?” A seat is pointed out. Sometimes there is a dispute as to who will be captain. “Is it possible to have two captains?” Sometimes yes and sometimes no. “Do I need a ticket?” “Do we get refreshments?” A leaf works fine for a ticket. Sand muffins are a tasty treat. “We’re here.” “Thank you, that was a very smooth ride,” Beth says.
Out in the field a child calls: “I’ve found a bug.” Many children come to inspect it. “Where is it?” “It’s moving.” “Where does it live?” “Don’t hurt it,” many children say. “What’s this red on the ground?” Beth and many of the children go to inspect it. “Hmm,” says Beth, “I think it’s an acorn sprouting. See part of the acorn is in the ground and this is a red shoot growing from it. If you gently tug at the acorn, you can feel how the roots are holding it in the ground. I’ve never seen this before.”
“Beth, we’re fairies, try to catch us.” “Oh, where could the fairies be? I hear them, but I don’t see them,” says Beth, “could they be up in the tree?” The fairies run quickly by, while Beth is looking up. “Oh, those fairies are very fast. Where are they now?” The fairies call from the other end of the field: “We’re over here.” Beth says: “I’ll go over here,”and just misses the fairies as they run by. The fairies giggle and call out again. Others join in.
Children push each other on the long-handled tricycle, pull each other on the sleds, run after each other and tussle. Beth watches to make sure that those who are tussling are playing safely. “Do you want to play this way?” she asks. The children tell her if someone is pushing too hard. Beth listens to both sides. “He pushed me first.” “He took my toy.” “Oh,” Beth says, “so-and-so pushed you because you took his toy. It’s not okay to push, but it’s also not okay to grab something that someone is playing with.” It seems that the children want their side acknowledged and hurt feelings pass as they start playing together again. Now it’s time to go in for snack. “Good bye, tree. We’ll be outside again later.”
The block room feels like the oldest part of Corner Co-op. The blocks, resting in their designated places on the two cases of shelves, must have been touched tens of thousands of times over the years. Their patina is a shiny dark brown. Some have faces drawn on them, or names. Coming across them feels like unearthing ancient artifacts: remember when Rose was at the Co-op….The shapes range in size from a half stick of butter to the length of a baseball bat. There are rectangles, squares, triangles, arches, curves, cylinders, Xs…. In the block room there are also bins of train tracks; low shelves with bins of cars, trucks, animals, people, robots; a long red wooden truck; a wooden boat that can be converted into steps by turning it over; a large cube with child-size round openings; a table with a bin of colorful cardboard blocks under it; a long window sill with plants. But what solidly dominates the room are the cases of blocks. They wait calmly to be used and created with. Like Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” they are there to serve.
Singly or in pairs, trios, multiples, the children take out the blocks and build: “It’s a castle.” “It’s a home for the octopus.” “It’s a fort.” “It’s a hospital for animals.” “It’s a race course.” “This is ice cream.” “This is dog food.” “This is my shield.” “These are my crutches.” “These are my skates.” “We live here.” “This is our wedding cake.”
There are reminders not to hit with the blocks or throw them. Children request that their creations not be knocked over. Sometimes pictures are taken so the creation is preserved as an image before clean-up. Sometimes signs are placed around them to warn others not to break them. Children build structures on top of the cases, but mostly build at its base on the floor. Sometimes creations occur within the cases, with animals inhabiting caves, or cars waiting to descend via a block ramp from a shelf to the floor.
At the Co-op, the block room is always open. It is the other choice: “meeting or block room,” “story or block room,” “singing or block room.” It is a haven and a destination.
In creating larger structures to occupy, the children pull the lower shelves of bins to the big cube, along with the table and the boat. The cases of blocks solemnly watch. “We need food, too,” the children shout, and hands reach for the blocks and bring them into their structure.
At the end of the playing, the blocks are guided back into the cases. Worn images of each shape indicate where each block belongs. Some visit with different shapes for awhile. They are well loved, wherever they end up. “Good night, blocks. See you tomorrow.”
“I want to be a super hero.” “I want to be a princess.” “I’m a ghost.” “I’m a monster.” “I’m a baby pony.” “I’m going to dance class.” “I’m searching for buried treasure.” “I’m fighting a fire.” “Meow” “Roarrr” “Boo!”
At Corner Co-op there are cloaks, hats, shoes, dresses, uniforms, sheets, blankets, and lots of imagination. “Don’t be frightened, Beth, I’m only pretending.” “Are you sure? That sounded like a real monster.” “See, it’s only me.”
“We’re going to be mummies. Wrap us up in this sheet.” The child lies down on the sheet and Beth carefully wraps them up, rolling them gently side to side to tuck in their body, and folding up the ends to tuck in their feet. “Do you want your arms wrapped inside?” “Yes!” “Oh my, what will I tell your parents and caregivers about what happened to their children? I better write a letter. What should I say?” “Dear Mommy, I turned into a mummy. I love you.” Beth writes this down, and places it next to the child. “Uh oh, you turned the key to the glass case. Now we’ll become zombies. Arrrr!” “Ay yi yi. Why did I turn the key?” “Woooo….Mmmmm….we’re going to eat you!” “Ay yi yi. Did anyone bring zombie cookies? No one? Oh, I seem to have some in my pocket. Here, zombies.” “We don’t eat cookies. We just eat humans.” “Ay yi yi…..”
Shown a sheet of paper with a swirly line on it: “Do you want to help me find the buried treasure? This is my treasure map.” “Will we go by any dragons?” “Yes!” “Can I hold your hand? I’m scared of dragons.” “I’m not.”
“Fire! Fire!” “Thank you for letting us know. I was wondering why it was getting so hot in here.” “We can move the burning wall, because we have special gloves on.” “Oh, good.” “Here’s some fire!” “What?!” “Tricked you. We’re the mean fire department.”
“I broke my leg.” “Oh, is there a doctor here? No? I can try to be the doctor. Here’s the hospital. What is your name? My name is Beth. How did you get hurt?” “I fell off a rocket ship.” “I’ll have to do x-rays,” guiding a block over the leg and then looking at it: “hmmm, I think you’ll need some ice cream lotion. Does anyone have ice cream lotion? Thank you. (Beth is handed a cardboard block and she rubs it over the leg.) How does that feel?” “I think I’ll need to use crutches.” “Good idea.”
“Do you want to come to our dance show? Here’s a ticket.” “What time does it start?” “In five minutes.” “I have to stay in here now. Can I come to the next show?” “The next show is in 900 hours.” “Can you do a traveling show here? I really would like to see it.” “Okay.”
“We’re super heroes.” “Oh, good, we may need some help. What’s your phone number?” “2-7-6-2” “Okay, 2-7-6-2, ding-a-ling-a-ling.” “Hello.” “We need help.” “Okay, we’ll be coming over.” “Thank you, super heroes. You saved the day.”
These are some views of the vast array of imaginative play that happens every day at Corner Co-op.