Children’s play is not escapist. It confronts the problems of the human condition head-on….Children’s pretend play is clearly about many things: mommies and babies, monsters and heroes, spaceships and unicorns. And it is also about only one thing: trouble. Sometimes the trouble is routine, as when, playing ‘house,’ the howling baby won’t take her bottle and the father can’t find his good watch. But often the trouble is existential.
— The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
Over the first few days of school in the Purple Room, it’s become clear that the children are thinking about nature’s wrath as stories of hurricanes and floods have woven into lunchtime conversations and pretend play. During Work Time, a child remarked, “A number five hurricane is coming. I saw it on my dad’s phone. Some buildings are going to break and I don’t know how to fix it!”
The “problem” of hurricanes needed a way to be worked out, and Purple Roomers have been working on solutions while building with lego bricks and unit blocks. First, the children acted out weather’s destructive power by constructing grids of tall block buildings, then knocking them over with the swipe of a hand, shrieking, “The storm is coming!” Taking plastic snakes from the animal bin to knock down the buildings, they said, “I think the snakes made the storm! Yeah, the snakes did it.” A child explained, “The storm breaks the home by blowing the wind. It brings water. The water goes onto the land and that’s a flood. The flood is super powerful. When a flood comes, you have to get out.”
Next, the children began looking for ways to fix the problem of hurricanes. They added pieces to their brick cities and shared, “So this is the storm destroyer. It shoots cannonballs. It destroys all of the storms.” A few moments later another idea arose, “There’s this building that fixes itself when you press a button. It’s a little bit magic.”
Later that day, we looked at photographs of storms and shared what we knew about them:
What are storms?
Wilson: Clouds and lightning. Kaboom! from thunder and then rain comes down and a big storm happens!
Logan: I usually don’t like storms.
Bayar: They’re too loud!
What kinds of storms are there?
Logan: A water storm!
What happens during a storm?
Hiram: A storm picks up water and makes a huge rainstorm.
Wexler: Once you have a storm one time, two storms can come together and make one giant storm. Tiny other storms come together to get more storms going everywhere.
Wexler: When you’re out alone, nobody can help you because the lights are out.
Robin: If the storm is gone, then you can go out.
One of the beautiful things about the way children’s minds work is that when confronted with a problem – even big, scary problems like hurricanes which can be hard for adults to make sense of – there is always a natural drive to look for solutions and make things better. Play and open conversation are two important tools we use to help support children as they work to understand concepts of destruction and loss. Whenever discussing these topics with children, we turn to Mr. Rogers’ famous method of “look[ing] for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
We talked about the way people get helped during a storm. A few of the children shared the idea that vehicles like helicopters and boats can bring people away from a storm, or bring them supplies, and people who know how to fix buildings can help repair damage from the storm. Finally, we thought about how we can make our buildings stronger to withstand nature’s fury. All cities, real and imagined, are full of things that help: the grids of bricks and mortar, and the people — “the helpers,” protect us, and rebuild what’s been broken.
As the week went on, the children moved away from the problem of storms and became interested in the beauty of wind and rain. Storms began to appear in paintings and drawings, and stories, and we listened to sounds of rain and thunder before naptime.
We read Storm by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle):
You crash over the trees,
you crack the live branch–
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.
You burden the trees
with black drops,
you swirl and crash–
you have broken off a weighted leaf
in the wind,
it is hurled out,
whirls up and sinks,
a green stone.
And, in the coming days, we will continue to meditate on both the chaos and calm that nature brings.