Every year the teachers at Little Owl create sand names for the children. We view them as tools for the children to utilize in the classroom. They create a sensory and tactile experience with letters that provides a more concrete understanding of their shape. And they’re the perfect introduction to the meaning that words can have…and what word holds more meaning than their name? It’s the word they’ve probably heard the most in their lifetime, and it’s theirs. They learn quickly that they can use their sand names for different things. They often copy the letters of their name into their journals, use them to sign-in in the morning, or write their name on their artwork. They even place them on things like block structures to let others know they plan to return and continue to work there. Soon, children start to recognize their own name, and the names of their classmates. They are tools for community-building that help shape our classroom’s distinct culture.
Creating them is time consuming, and once they’re finished the question becomes how to introduce them to the children. This year Milly, one of our wonderful teachers, had finished the task of making one for each child and once they were ready they sat in a basket on her desk…waiting to be offered. When she spoke out loud to another teacher, asking “how should we give them to the children?” I overheard and remembered something that had been buried in my memory for quite some time.
A long time ago I worked alongside a woman who quickly became one of my biggest influences, her name is Cathie. I credit her with putting me on the path to pursuing progressive education, and introducing me to the radical idea that children *gasp* should be respected and recognized as individuals with important rights, and are capable of constructing their own meaning, culture and knowledge. I learned so much from working with her, and am forever grateful for the guidance she gave me back then as my director, and to this day as my friend. She was the one who taught me about the idea of giving sand names to children, and why they are so beneficial in forming concepts of literacy. I remembered that she had wrapped the names up like gifts and given them to the children we worked with years ago.
I offered this suggestion, and Milly was excited by the prospect of presenting them in this way. She set to work, wrapping them all in bright tissue paper. So the very next day they were going to be given to the children at our afternoon gathering. We had no idea how the children would receive these gifts. I think there were even some concerns on the part of the adults that the children might feel shortchanged by opening something that is presented like a gift, but only contains a bit of foam board with glue and sand on it. Milly brought the basket to meeting and passed out the gifts.
Before they opened them, a question was posed to the children: “what do you think it could be?” It was remarkable what some of them suggested. “A scooter!” said one child. “A basketball!” said another. The excitement that they were getting presents seemed to supersede their rational ability to assess the size and shape of their package…magical thinking at it’s best. They were given the green light to open them and I was poised with my camera to capture their reactions.
The paper started being torn off…
What happened next was simply astounding. It was a moment in time that I will always remember as an educator. Their faces began lighting up. I heard someone say “MY NAME!!” another said, “I knew it!” I panned the camera around the room trying to catch everyone’s reactions and saw children smiling big, some even started laughing. I saw some children counting the letters of their name, moving their fingers across the textured lettering, comparing their names to others, noticing if they had letters that were the same saying “Mine has H too!” Some children held them up for other children to see, squealing to teachers “Look! My name!” I even heard “Mommy’s gonna be so proud.” Another child remarked “I had one of these on the Yellow Side and now I have one on the Green Side!” then she literally started jumping for joy.
In the 2 minute video I had recorded, I had captured a palpable magic…a bliss that nobody expected. I’ve watched it countless times and get goosebumps every time.
And you know why?
It was the epitome of spontaneous, unfiltered joy…the kind that happens so effortlessly around young children. It was a moment that could never be predetermined, manufactured, or recreated. The sheer delight, the endearment that the children exuded for the gift of their names, hammers home an important lesson about meaning-making and how children don’t need expensive, commercial toys to experience elation. Fulfillment doesn’t have to revolve around stuff…so much reverence can come from simply being together, or perhaps even more profoundly…just being.
Moving forward, we’ve decided to expand on this idea of a name as a gift and have invited parents to write a handwritten letter telling the story of their child’s name and why it was chosen for them. We will read them aloud to the children at meeting times and hope it will turn into a book by the end of the year, a precious keepsake for our families. We will be reflecting with the children collectively on this experience of opening their gifts, and documenting their perspectives, writing their words…telling their story…the story of their names.