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stix ‘n mud can make a hug

A new charter school in Corvallis commissioned this mud project as the initial step in creating an “outdoor classroom.” All 60 kids, K-5, participated in 2 days of playdough brainstorming and design, and six days of mud. Parents and neighbors contributed random prunings of willow, fruitwood, and forsythia that we wove into a rough hut; the mud came up out of a hole in the ground, and we ended up making a lovely cob bench and this “hug hut.”   The hut is intended to be temporary. It will probably “last” for at least one winter, but my hope is that teachers and parents will replace or augment academically defined “art curriculae” with a culture of creativity, where every year, individual students not only get to “express themselves” and “make things,” but where all the citizens of the school will share in re-making the school into a warm, inviting place to be and to learn—rather than the cold, factory-like institutions that we’ve inherited from industrialized systems thinking. It seems to me that the underlying foundation of culture is not the things we make—why burden future generations with mandatory maintenance and obedience to a single vision?—rather, let’s pass on the skills and stories by which our children can live and celebrate their own lives in joyous relation to the lives and stories of those who went before them.  The hug arrived completely unplanned and uninvited—perhaps it was a response to the uninviting “no trespassing” sign that marks the boundary between the playground and the adjoining property (just visible in the upper right corner of the photo above).  The source of our inspiration was this fuzzy, lumpy, perforated pile of mud that pretty much followed whatever shape the underlying sticks gave us. The finished hug was a bit of a surprise, but once we saw it, it was clear what we needed to do: Spike defined the regal roman nose on the yellow figure, and all we had to do to bring the red figure to life was outline the head, and clarify the eyes, nose and mouth. The arms were there—they just needed hands… We started with homemade playdough, and as many ideas as we had kids.  The idea of a small, enclosed space was popular with at least half the kids, each of whom applied their own  embellishments, sculptural shapes, and stories.  We looked at all the work and considered our options, given a short time frame and limited materials… The first four sticks seemed impossibly mobile and indefinite, but every additional stick lent strength and shape to the growing form… leaves on the sticks helped define the shape and fill in the gaps… but the bigger gaps made for nice windows, both large and small… There were a few kids who really didn’t take to the mud, but we had other jobs, like stripping the bark off trees that were donated for a “challenge walk”—balance beams that will be set on blocks to mark out the edges of the playground, provide for shady seating on hot days, and a path from here to there… Most got dirty, and when they did, they got happier, too! The bench takes shape under expert hands. I’ll be curious to learn how many kids make mud at home this summer… The hut takes shape… The principal: not sure she wants that kind of hug… In addition to books and desks for every student, this school also provides shovels, wheelbarrows, and other real tools suitable for doing real work.  Parents and other community volunteers make such projects possible; there are always more details and more work than one person can manage alone.  Many hands… Light work… applying color: both red and yellow are local soils mixed with water and just a bit of cooked flour paste for binder.  The finished bench, with concrete cap.  Cutting rebar for setting the beams of the challenge walk… The kids devised the clever system for clamping the metal while cutting.  The nature of childhood, it seems to me, is to seek shelter and observe the rest of the world. Such observation is the basis for all other learning.   And shouldn’t shelter feel like a hug?  The earth embraces us, in a mud hut, on an earthen bench, or in a circle of stumps.