Recycle City

by Shelly Luke Wille, 22/10/2011

“No, no, don’t throw that away, we need to keep it for Recycle City.” The pile continues to grow as we plan the fourth Wille Family Recycle City. This time we have plenty of inspiration as we watch a real city being built up around us in Songdo, Incheon, South Korea. Recycle City I was constructed in our basement in the mountains of Los Gatos, CA. The structure was fairly rudimentary with large boxes taped together and it fit the toddler architects perfectly.  It housed cars and stuffed animals for a few months until it was dismantled during a neighborhood party.

Recycle City II grew in our new basement in San Jose and was much more elaborate. It still had garages for a variety of vehicle sizes, but ramps connected levels, and windows brought light into the deeper recesses. Interesting towers built from round containers and pointed foam decorated with glitter, sequins and other found objects marked the corners and required a step stool to reach the highest points. The chief architect and builder did almost all of the assembling himself using glue guns, scissors and anything he found around the house.

Recycle City II led to RCIII, a shared project created at a sixth birthday party in our backyard. 25 kindergarten children showed up with their own recyclables and glue guns and the backyard quickly became a hub of building and experimentation. Building requires teamwork, trial and error, prediction, knowledge, understanding, analysis, and planning. Children left the party with parts of the city they created and these morphed into cities in houses all over the Silicon Valley area of CA. If this sounds a little like school, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

As an educator, it is hard for me to distance myself from the act of learning. I see such opportunity in play and self-created activities natural to childhood. As a mother, I see the growth that occurs in my children as they wrestle with real live problems and figure things out through dramatic play. Even cars take on personalities as my younger son creates relationships and resolves conflicts through his vehicles.

Building Recycle City is the next stage of this experimentation and learning through play. I believe that by “doing” children integrate concepts in ways that just cannot happen when the material is theoretical. Children and adults, for that matter, benefit from experiences and hands-on opportunities to invent.

Constructivist theorists starting with Jean Piaget have described the process of how individuals construct knowledge from new experiences. I certainly saw this in my own classrooms when teaching kindergarten, fifth grade and college students. When the construction of knowledge is facilitated by talented educators and shaped by well-designed experiences the learning is powerful and durable. This new learning can be shaped and extrapolated so that future experiences benefit from the previous situations.

The school I have chosen to be a part of is doing this very thing for my children. Last year when I first came to Chadwick International, I came in theory as a candidate for the Elementary School Principal position. In reality, I had a hidden agenda. I have two young children and to me there is nothing more important than their educational experiences. I see the school as a true complement to my role as parent, and no matter how exciting the opportunity was for me professionally, there was no way I was going to experiment on my children.

What I found last year were classrooms full of teachers and student who I would happily and confidently entrust with my own children. These first impressions continue to be part of my daily experiences as I walk through hallways full of children engaged in structured “doing”: the cooking show to demonstrate knowledge about nutrition in the fourth grade, the student-created stop motion animations about how germs enter the body in second grade, the charts of roles and responsibilities lining the halls of the first grade hallway, and the paper dolls of my son complete with clothes in Pre-Kindergarten.

Imagine my joy and satisfaction that I felt almost a year later to the day of my first visit to Chadwick International, when my son came home and said that he needed to take part of our Recycle City IV stash of materials to school. Anticipating the long winter, we have been collecting interesting recyclables since we arrived in July. I was more than willing to part with some of our collection to help facilitate the creation of a community for the first grade unit of inquiry. Students leave the unit with an understanding of public spaces and their purpose within a community.

Now, as the principal, I have to admit that I am quite involved in the school, being the principal. However, in this case, my appreciation and understanding was as a mom whose son was about to experience in a classroom of his peers something that I have seen over and over as a great learning opportunity.  I am sure that our RCIV will benefit from the added voices and experimentation that will happen in the classrooms. I can’t wait to break out our glue guns.

About the Author: Shelley Luke Wille is Elementary School Principal at Chadwick International School in Songdo City, Incheon.

Photo - Recycle City III in the making

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