"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lessons at the Water Table

“Get your boats ready! Does everyone have their boats?” A mom has commandeered the water table. Her long straggly blonde hair and brown corduroy skirt flap in the morning breeze.

“Boat!” Toddler shouts, scrambling around to where the mom is handing out pieces of playground bark. The cement water table is in the shape of a mountain. A twist of a knob on the side releases a bubble of water through the top. Channels guide the water around and down the mountain, alternately into pools and over precipices.

“Here’s a nice one” the mom says bending down and offering Toddler a piece of bark. He grabs it, pulling it in to his chest.

The mom points to where a piece of bark is stuck in an eddy near the top of the mountain. “See? This other’s one’s too long. It’s gotten stuck.”

“Stuck!” Toddler repeats, crestfallen.

The children watch transfixed as the mom dislodges the troubling piece of bark sending it lobbing down the mountain buoyed by the current.

Despite its appealing shape and the opportunity to get refreshingly wet from the overflow of water, the water table doesn’t usually hold kids’ attention long. It’s an activity requiring parent involvement. Anxious to promote conservation the parks department engineered the faucet so that it must be held down to keep water flowing. The average preschooler isn’t strong enough to hold it down for long. The average parent isn't patient enough.

Today children are drawn to the table like magnets though. The loud blonde mom is holding down the knob ensuring a continued flow of water down the table. She has violated the normal rule of instructing only her own toddler. She has taken it upon herself to give any child within earshot a lesson in boating.

“Ready with your boats? Okay! On your marks, get set, go!” The children release their boats near the top of the mountain with anticipation. At first their eyes are glued to their individual boats, but they soon begin to experiment. They watch the fate of other children’s boats. Some are trying to make rocks float – to no avail.

Sand accumulated into a pile stops the course of Toddler’s boat.

“Leaf!” he demands. Has he figured out that a leaf might not have gotten stuck like a piece of bark? I grab him a leaf. We used leaves as boats once before at the water table. (I didn’t have the presence of mind to call them “boats,” though.) Other children quickly notice the leaf boat and begin testing the floating properties of leaves themselves.

At first, we playground moms had deferred to the blonde woman who was managing the activity. We enjoyed watching our kids enjoying themselves. We contentedly nursed our Starbucks, glad to be relieved of the burden of parenting for a moment.

Then our best parent selves took over. We began testing boats alongside our kids and soon everyone was wet, talking with each other and the children. Previously all strangers, we became community.

The children eventually disperse. It has become hot in the noonday sun and they instinctively have drifted toward the canopied playground structure. I spy the blonde mom there.

“You must be a teacher.” I mean to compliment her.

“Nope. Just too much coffee this morning.” She grins.

“Come on Caden! Let’s check out the tunnel!” Her son, toddling a bit aimlessly now, trots over to his mom. She excitedly leads him off to the next adventure.