Finding Open Space

ES PE 2010 027

One of the most critical concepts that I teach students is that of space.  It starts early in PK and KG by first defining it: “an area in the gym where you are not touching a wall, any equipment or anyone else.”  We usually start activities with “Please go find a space.” To Margaret who heads straight for the nearest wall: “Is that a good space?”  To Bruce and Will who remain essentially attached at the hip: “Boys, can you show me what a good space looks like?”  The concept itself makes sense to kids, although it may cramp their social inclinations on some occasions.

At the upper elementary level we expand the concept of space in order to apply it in game situations. This is where we explore the notion of open space: finding it, recognizing it, using it, and repeating those steps over and over again. Here’s the thing: open space is entirely transitory.  As long as players are moving and changing directions, a space may open and close in seconds.  I can move into what appears to be open space and quickly realize as I arrive it is gone again.  This makes open space a uniquely challenging and interesting concept to convey to students.

A light goes on for many students when we begin playing invasion games such as speedball ( a beanbag form of ultimate frisbee), basketball, hockey and soccer.  If I can help my students get comfortable with the ideas that 1) in order to receive a pass, they first need to find a space away from the ball handler; and 2) the space they claim is only theirs if they keep moving, then I know that the games we play will reflect this. My goal in all this is to equip students with a tool they can use in a variety of game contexts. I like to think of it as one of the big keys to the kingdom (in invasion games, at least); a useful secret that travels well.

While I was mulling over open space and how and why I teach it, some ideas from a very different angle struck me:

What do I do to find and claim open space? 

What do I need to move away from in order to get closer to what I want?

In what areas do I need to keep moving in order to reclaim open space?

So, there it was: teacher, teach yourself.  How many years have I been peddling this tool without recognizing its potency for unlocking some doors in my own kingdom?

It’s no wonder my kids struggle in applying this concept. They may understand it but acting on that understanding requires another cognitive (and emotional) leap.  In my own practice I am finding that creating space for others allows me to recognize and appreciate the very space I inhabit.  My sense of open space can also expand when I give myself the gift of time: for simply being and breathing. When I truly listen to my students’ questions that often start with “what if…” I am sent to a place of infinite possibilities and sometimes that can feel like the best open space of all.

Where are you looking for open space?

And what will you do with it once you’ve found it?

Powerful Questions, Brave Responses


I’m currently enrolled in a life coaching course and we have been exploring and experimenting with powerful questions. Which questions are powerful? you ask. They are the questions which force you to stop and think. Powerful questions can startle you out of autopilot and make you grab the steering wheel of your random thoughts. You can feel them land. They can catch you off guard and cause you to prick up your ears. They may confound and exhilirate you. Powerful questions tend to find you when you least expect them. They’ve got your number and when they come calling, you’ll be compelled to answer.

What I like about powerful questions is that they are not powerful according to formula. Depending on who you are, what you need and how you function, the power of the question lies in its reception. That makes powerful questions both a gamble and surprise. I like to raise all sorts of questions with my students. Many questions are closed – require a yes or no answer – and yet are often asked in service to a deeper learning: “Was that kind?” ” Were you respectful?” With these queries I often want to draw students’ attention to their behavior and the impact their behavior may be having on others. On the other hand, when time allows, I can create open questions to stimulate a different student response: “What did you do that was kind?” “How were you and your teammates respectful of each other?” In these cases I am encouraging students to dig a little deeper into the topic and give me some specifics from their thinking.

It can be an inspiration when my students respond to a well posed open question. Their answers are often amazingly articulate and plain. They cut to the chase and get to the point. Following a round of challenging team building activities, I asked my 5th graders silently to ask themselves this question: What am I learning? Then I asked them to share their answers with me individually and I noted them on a sheet of paper. Here’s what some of them said:

“We should be safer, be more respectful and cooperate more.”

“We need to have teamwork which is kinda hard, but we learn to problem solve.”

“I need to rely on others.”

“Working with teamwork means that you have to put in effort.”

“If we yell at each other, people get discouraged and feel under pressure and then can’t do their best.”

“It’s basically a trust exercise. You have to trust others…”

“When you work as a team, winning isn’t what matters.”

“I am learning about the word challenge. You have to keep on trying and challenge yourself.”

“Maybe we don’t have to fix it every time, maybe sometimes we should go with the flow.”

“To listen to others more carefully.”

“It was better when more people gave ideas. We had more brains thinking.”

“We shouldn’t scream. We should be more helpful and give support.”

Those are some powerful responses. I felt each of them land. They hit the nail on the head and gave me pause. In my students’ answers I find fuel for my own ongoing inquiry: What am I learning?