“Find a space.”
“Is that a good space?”
“Find your own space.”
I spend a lot of my teaching days talking about space – why we need it, what it looks like when we all have it, or when only a few of us have it. I talk about space and safety, space and movement, space as a strategy element, space as a necessity. I work in a gym where my students and I typically have an abundance of space. It would be so easy for us to spread out.
What I’ve learned, however, from watching kids in gyms for a couple of decades is that space is my priority, not necessarily theirs. My students are drawn into their classmates’ spaces like magnets. Students of all ages show a common need to be in close proximity to their peers in one way or another. On an Awesome Gym Day when kids are free to choose their activities, it is not uncommon to find the vast majority of the class in one half of the gym. Or while it would be possible for everyone to distribute themselves among the rings, ladders, ropes or trapezes, several routinely gather at one particular apparatus and wait in line, sometimes egging each other on.
I ask kids to make groups for stretching, or long jump rope, or some other activity and they huddle up near the white board or by the wall, nearly on top of each other while the middle of the gym remains empty. A circle of movers tends to shrink very quickly. Space evaporates between kids at alarming rates as they end up side by side and giggling.
It’s fascinating to me as an observer. Given a choice, most of my students choose to gather with other students even when each child has a ball, or a rope to jump in. They need to show off for each other – to see and be seen. They need to gab and catch up. They have social agendas that are complex, multifaceted and at times, uncompromising. In the space of the gym, students experience a context for engaging with each other that can accommodate serious volume, speed, and force. Many students feel unleashed when they arrive in the gym.
And coming from even the most inviting classroom, how could they not? An open gym simply begs to be run in and make noise to shake the rafters. But when they run, most still like to be in close proximity to one or two buddies. Their need is social and it tops almost all the other priorities they might have coming to PE on any given day.
I got to read an interview with a design anthropologist who is the first black and black female dean of a design school faculty. Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s approach to design begins with respect. She describes the curiosity that her title invokes in others:
People always say, “Design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.”
Which reminds me of what I am trying to do in my classroom, however crudely: “design the conditions for possibility.” I want my students to see, imagine, experience all kinds of possibilities in the gym. Even if the constraints of my lesson plans appear to run counter to what they might want at that moment, this does not stop them from creating new possibilities of their own. They are constantly in the process of refashioning the instructions they have been given to best suit their immediate needs, which more often than not tend to be, social.
Part and parcel of my process is remembering to respect my students’ deep and distinct need to be social – not just to chat but to experience belonging, connection, and purpose with others. These are the very big possibilities in the gym. If I’m doing my best work, then opening up the space for belonging, connection and purpose to flourish will be at the core of what’s happening. Sometimes it means that not everyone will be in their own space when I think they should be. Again, Dr. Tunstall:
Beginning with the notion of respect or respectfulness, the debate becomes about how you stand as a designer as opposed to what you’re trying to do as a designer.
How do I stand as a designer of learning in my gym? And to what degree is my stance expressive of respect for my students and our time together? These are questions I can hold onto and explore again and again, every time my students enter the gym as I ask them to “find a space.”
image CC0 via Pixabay.com