It’s A River Party!

by Eric Eyman

“Children need safe enough environments in which to play and explore, and they need free access to the tools, ideas, and people (including playmates) that can help them along their own chosen paths.”

~Peter Gray

river6Over the past couple of months, Emerson, Everett, Jackson, Lewis, and James, have bonded over creating waterfalls and rivers in the sandbox. This exploration is something that has connected a group of children that don’t often play together, and has become a weekly, and sometimes daily activity for the children.

On one particular day, I had the opportunity to observe the children for a long period of time and felt so excited and inspired by what I saw. I watched as the children gathered around the sandbox and discussed their plans for the rivers. The children each volunteered to do different jobs, and with a blink of the eye, the group set off to fulfill their river-making duties! James, Everett, and Emerson raced over the hill to the garden to fill up buckets of water, while Jackson and Lewis began digging away in the sandbox. A few moments later, a long, curvy riverbed started to take form. The middle of the riverbed wrapped around in a circle, which Jackson called a moat. I was amazed by how fast the two had created this elaborate river! Each time one of the children dumped a bucket of water, there was a moment of anticipation and wonder, as the children froze in their places and closely studied the movement of the water.


I wondered: what was it about making waterfalls that was so captivating for the children? 

Jackson and Lewis made adjustments to the riverbed after discovering how certain parts of it needed to be deeper in order for the water to flow. James mentioned, “We want it to fill up everywhere.” After taking many trips back and forth carrying heavy buckets of water, the children started to complain about feeling tired. James hunched over and Everett’s arms went limp. I started to worry that the children were going to abandon the river-making and move on to another activity. I wasn’t ready for this exploration to end, and wanted to see what other possibilities the children would discover. I thought of ways to fix this problem, but then remembered how important it is for the children to problem-solve on their own, and learn how to work through feelings of disappointment or frustration. I decided to wait and see if the children would come up with any solutions.

Finally, James came up with a solution to use the hose in the sandbox. He realized that we needed to connect both hoses together (the hose from the garden and the hose from the mud kitchen), in order for it to reach the sandbox. I thought about where he may have learned this idea, and I realized that the gardeners often connect the two hoses together to reach the trees in the back corners of the yard. James shared this idea with the group, and a rush of energy came over them! The group ran over to me and asked with enthusiasm if they could use the hose. Noticing how excited they were to test out this new idea, I agreed to let them use the hose for their exploration. I thought about how James wanted to fill up the riverbed, and how many of the children were interested in seeing how the water moves. I wondered if using the hose would help them achieve their goal of having a flowing river. I also thought about ways we can conserve water, while still being able to follow through with this idea. I shared with the children that I would only turn the hose on so that a small stream would come out. The group picked up their pace as they unraveled the hose together and carried it over to the sandbox. James positioned the hose at the top of hill. As I walked over to mud kitchen to turn the hose on, I could hear the children chanting, “Water! Water! Water!” When the water from the hose started flowing down into the riverbeds, Everett, Elliotte, Emerson, and Liam splashed the toy dinosaurs around and shouted, “Yay!”


While some of the children enjoyed playing with the toy dinosaurs in the river, Jackson and Lewis continued to dig around them, stopping only to wipe the sweat from their foreheads. It seemed like the two were determined to bring their vision to life. As I watched the two of them tirelessly dig, I wondered what it was about this project that motivated them to keep going.

Was it the thrill of seeing the water rush through their man-made riverbeds? 

Were they inspired by the other children, who shared the same passion and excitement? 

Eventually Jackson and Lewis created a second moat that connected to the first one. During one moment, Everett stopped playing and looked around at their masterpiece. In a very earnest voice, he said, “I’m SO glad. I’m SO glad.” When another child approached the sandbox, Everett cautioned him saying, “Watch out! Jackson and Lewis made this.” It seemed that he was very appreciative of the rivers that they had created.


Later, Caroline joined the group and helped with the digging. When Jackson and Lewis started to slow down and take longer breaks, Caroline passionately shouted, “We need more diggers!  We need more diggers!” Gradually, more and more children gathered around the sandbox and observed the river-making magic happening. Seeing this group of children work together, as they had many times before, I could feel the mutual respect and trust they had for one another. Many of the other children watched quietly in fascination, and some shared observations with their peers. At one point, Nathaniel mentioned how the two moats that connected together looked like the number eight. Soon, there was a crowd of children surrounding the sandbox, and it became a big spectacle! Everett exclaimed, “It’s a river party!”


2 thoughts on “It’s A River Party!

  1. Eric, I love how you make the children’s learning visible. You showed us how they collaborated and worked together as the different children had different roles in this project. As well as showing us how we as teachers have the eagerness to help and sometimes solve the problem they are having, but remember to allow and hold a space for them to solve the problem on their own. I wonder if it was the physical work that kept Jackson and Louis engaged in the construction of the riverbed. Or Did the work start out just to build a river and became more meaningful for them as they saw more children wanting to play with what they built? Did it become about being part of the community?


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