We were playing with our classroom "catapults," crude ping pong ball shooting devices that are not really catapults at all, but act like them with the help of rubber bands, which I built in my garage one summer

They are always extremely popular play items and because I'd only made six of them, they are always short in supply with occasional conflicts erupting as the kids figure out how to share them. At the beginning of the morning, I'd supplied a couple dozen balls, but the available supply had now dwindled to a handful, the rest having been "lost" under the classroom furniture.

"Teacher Tom, all the balls are gone," announced on boy who was carrying a catapult possessively not wanting to give it up.

"Not all of them," I answered, "But there were a lot more earlier."

"They're all under there," he said, pointing at the gap between some cabinetry and the floor.

I nodded.

"We have to get them out."

I agreed.

"I tried to reach them, but they're too far. You try it, Teacher Tom. Your arms are longer." I fell to my belly only to find that the girth of my forearms above the wrists prevented me from reaching them.

By now we had attracted a cluster of four and five-year-olds, several of whom were on their bellies making their own attempts to fetch the balls, but without success. Then someone had an idea. They used a broom handle to reach the ball and after a few attempts managed to pull it out from under. This set off a flurry of children seeking broom handle-like tools then falling to their bellies. Soon, we had retrieved all of the balls, seemingly good news, except in the case of several children who burst into tears, one after another. It seems that in the rush and crush of helpers, they had not had the opportunity to retrieve even one lost ball. I tried consoling them with the assurance that more balls were certain to roll under the shelving, but, as one boy pointed out with a wail, "I don't have a broom!"

I looked up to find that we were surrounded by a veritable work crew of preschoolers all bearing long narrow ball retrieving tools, some fashioned from brooms, but others from blocks, costume wands, a fly swatter, and anything else that fit the description. The room had been stripped of long narrow things, the catapults abandoned, and the kids were now waiting around for balls to roll underneath the cabinets. The big problem, however, was that no one was now playing with the catapults, items that had been much in demand only moments before. So we all stood around for a time, some ready to help, some crying, and all waiting for balls to get lost.

I can imagine that it would have struck someone who didn't have experience working with young children as a bizarre situation. A cool game had been completely upended by the desire to be helpful, but for those of us who've been doing this for awhile, it made perfect sense. Whenever there's real work to be done, there are always kids eager to pitch in. Oh sure, they shirk and hide and avoid when something is assigned to them as a chore, and they often fight work that is not "real," like worksheets or the other exercises in rote learning that show up in traditional classrooms, but when genuine help is needed, they tend to reveal themselves as Batman. This isn't just my observation. Researchers like Felix Warneken have found that children as young as 14 months old will pitch in to help, unprompted, even giving up fun activities like playing in a ball pit (or playing with catapults), in order to do so. In this TedX presentation, Dr. Warneken describes a series of experiments that he used to establish that this sort of altruism as inherent in humans:

For several minutes we stood there waiting to help, but without the opportunity, until finally, a boy had the idea of helping by handing his broom to one of the kids who were crying. This set off a kind of domino effect of tools being turned over to children who didn't have one. When one opportunity to help had ended, they found another. We then continued to mill around like this for a couple minutes until a girl said, "I know!" She raced to the abandoned catapults and began launching balls towards the furniture with the intent of "losing" them in the gap and that then became our game of the morning, everybody helping everybody.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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