Dinosaurs and Garbage Trucks

Our classroom window looks out over the driveway to our school.  Every Thursday morning, around 9:35, the big blue garbage truck drives past our window.  After our first experience of pressing our noses against the window and listening to the garbage truck back down the drive, my children were hooked.  They immediately started drawing pictures of garbage trucks.  They went “beep beep beep” as they drove their bikes backwards on the playground.  They would come to school in the morning bursting with exciting news. They would scream, “I just saw two garbage trucks!”

My co-teacher and I recognized this passion, so we started arranging our classroom to accommodate for it.  We changed our dramatic play center into a “waste management facility,” with hard hats, work gloves, a computer, and trash cans with real trash.  We acquired 4 plastic garbage trucks.  We scoured the library for every single book about garbage collection.  We put recycled materials in our art center.  Our children were engrossed.

Lately, their interests have shifted a bit.  They have started chasing each other on the playground, growling and stomping.  They are digging in the sand, looking for dinosaur bones.  They are telling stories now that begin, “Once upon a time, there was a dinosaur driving a garbage truck…”

It’s clear from both of these interests that my children are thinking about some big things. We had the opportunity to see our garbage truck up close, and we realized just how big it actually is.  The wheels alone were bigger than many of my children.   A friend of mine is a paleontologist, and he brought in some of his dinosaur bones to show us.  These bones were big.  And heavy.  If one rib bone is big and heavy, dinosaurs themselves must be colossal.

What is this about?  Why have we spent almost two months exploring big things?  As I have mentioned in other posts, I have noticed my children have a profound interest in the small and subtle things around them: the mica in the creek, a dead bumblebee, a small bird visiting our bird feeder.  Those tiny things really seem to speak to them.  So, why aren’t they spending more time exploring bugs, flowers, or sparrows?

Last week, I asked my children, “What is the biggest thing you can think of?”  Many said “A Dinosaur,” or “A Garbage Truck.”  But answers also included, “A Kangaroo,” “A Hippo,”  “A Big Grownup,” and “My Mom and Dad.” These big things are powerful.  A garbage truck can carry garbage that weighs as much as an elephant. Dinosaurs were so strong that they could tear up their prey with their teeth.   Young children are also keenly aware of the power of the grown-ups in their lives.  They feel the way their parents have influence over them.  They sense the power of the boundaries at home, and also the power of love.

It’s completely understandable that power would be so enticing for young children.  Our world is so full with big things. As an adult, I am often humbled by the size of the mountains around me, or the amount of damage a black bear can do to a garbage can. Young children are surrounded by big things. They are always looking up towards the adults in their lives. They have to climb into their cars. Their little legs make a marathon out of trekking through a field of grass. They realize that they are so small compared to the world around them. There are many things that they do not yet have power over.  No one is born with the ability to fully control our bodies, emotions, or community.  We have to learn these things.  And sometimes it’s tough.

This is where play comes in.  When a child is pretending to compact garbage in his truck, he is powerful.  She can choose the route to the dump.  He can carry something the size of an elephant.  She can use tools to fix the wheels of the truck.  Same with dinosaurs.   As dinosaurs, children can grow 20 times their size.  They take up a significant amount of space, and have the power to smash things.

My job as a teacher is to allow them to keep their power.  I facilitate activities that are loud, big, and messy. I let them play with the garbage trucks as long as they need to.   I observe their play, careful not to steal their power.  When conflict arises, I help them talk through the scenario so they can regain a healthy level of power in their play.

I’ve noticed that when they have opportunity to feel big and powerful in their pretend play, they will feel more in control in other areas of their lives.  They clean up when asked.  They are less defiant.  They throw fewer tantrums.  They do not have such a strong urge to engage in a power struggle, because they know that at times, they are powerful enough to lift a dumpster.

I believe that in the grown-up world, at times we also struggle with not feeling powerful. Sufficient control aids in general well-being. It’s not difficult to find examples of misuse of power in the media, and in our personal lives. These are the times that we throw temper tantrums. We try to micromanage other people, or we say or do hurtful things. Anything to help us feel like we are in control.

How can we harness our playfulness and still feel in control? The great thing about play is that there are a plethora of different, valid answers. Some people find pleasure and solace in cleaning their house, others in playing music, dancing, or playing sports. Whatever the activity, playfulness is key. Through play, we are powerful. We are reminded of what we can do, and who we can be. We are as big as dinosaurs and as strong as garbage trucks.

– “And [the wild things] were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all the wild things. ‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!'” -Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are