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The Jungle Gym

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Returning to the playground this September after a 20-year hiatus, I got a chance to watch the lives of children through the bars of the jungle gym. I have lunch and recess duty with the 1st and 2nd graders one day a week. This playground duty gives me an opportunity to meet students who do not fall into my basic job as part-time 10th grade English teacher and assistant teacher for students with learning differences.

Jungle gym. The name is so fitting: a gymnasium where humans get to access their more primate instincts. Or at least, young humans get to. The kids who play on jungle gyms are always creating--games, stories, excuses--to harmonize with their actions. Physical movement for these students is fun but frustrating; the motor skills of young children are not sufficiently developed for graceful movement. But who needs graceful movement on a jungle gym?

Playground monitors are asked to wear any number of hats--shuttle diplomat, shoe-tier, and home base, to name but a few. In exchange for this service, we get an unfiltered view of the inner workings of the young. Aggression and arbitration, distress and reconciliation--a range of human emotions is on display. I can almost see the roles these children will one day play when they negotiate proposals--either in business or their personal relationships--rather than a tangle of aluminum bars.

I expected this insight. It seemed only logical that young kids would display their most honest tendencies in an unself-conscious environment. I did not, however, expect to get a better view of my teaching from this once-a-week post on the playground. But English teachers often look for, and occasionally find, meaning in the world around us, even if that world is inhabited by shrieking youngsters.

As I glanced around the playground, I saw a metaphor for something bigger--nothing less than the purpose of the whole school. Teachers often talk of providing "structure" for their students. And, within a few weeks of arriving at Wheeler, I, too, was dropping the "S" word with abandon. I cannot claim, however, that I was entirely sure of what I meant. I knew the word connoted organization, rules, a schedule. Beyond that, all I knew was that this structure was a vital component of any successful class.

Recess duty filled in the gaps in my definition. I saw for the first time that the playground could actually serve as a model for an ideal classroom. Like the playground, classrooms should provide room for children to grow and play within certain boundaries. Both should stress the creative, giving kids the space they need to make things without placing too many demands on those creations. Both should encourage experimentation, while allowing for mistakes. On the playground, this safety net takes the form of the soft, spongy surface under the jungle gym. In the classroom, it should be the reassuring words and touch of a teacher.

Finally, the structures--both physical and emotional--in the classroom and on the playground should be sturdy to the point that they can take abuse. These structures must be able to withstand the pounding that comes with the one question that crosses every child's mind: "Can I break this?"

The answer, of course, is no. They can jump all over the jungle gym, and it will remain sturdy. They can challenge their teachers' authority, and it too will prevail. That knowledge--that the structures we lean on will support us, even in trying circumstances--is the lasting legacy of the jungle gym.

As these students mature, they will come to rely on other structures: a profession, a relationship, a family. Through each of these, I think, they are hoping to find both the freedom and security afforded by the giant structures that helped create their happiest childhood memories.

--Mark Bemesderfer

The author is a first-year teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence, R.I.

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