Finally, after many days of delays and postponements, the Saudi Aramco Summer Cultural Program opened its doors to the visiting public. We had prepared, selected materials, built an environment, coached facilitators, immersed ourselves in the culture, and felt ready. But we were not prepared for the sheer magnitude of the crowds, and the challenges that come with facilitating in a very different culture than we are used to, and without the ability to speak the local language. There were definitely some rough moments and challenges that first day, but despite that, the enthusiasm for this type of work, both from the facilitators (who were incredible, as usual) and the visitors is very high. Here are some photos and thoughts from that first day.
Scribbling Machines was by far the most popular activity in the whole booth. This was a little surprising because usually Marble Machines takes the brunt of the crowds wherever we take it, and we were in fact hoping that the fort would acts as an escape valve for the whole booth. But we found that the Scribbling Machines table was mobbed the entire time. I think that part of the appeal was that people thought they would be able to take home what they made, and this lead to some tensions throughout the day, as we, and especially the facilitators, had to keep reminding visitors that the point of the activity was not to take one home, but to learn how to make a drawing machine.
The facilitators felt uncomfortable telling people no, because they are not yet used to being heartless Westerners, but they worked through their discomfort and stood firm. Even so, over the course of the day our stock of motors, baskets, markers, and everything else kept dwindling and we had to keep replacing things from our storage room. Likewise, quite a number of marbles and wind tube materials walked away. We factor attrition into the equation, but at this pace, we would run out of things before the festival is over...
There were a lot of really great interactions between family members, and the facilitators are getting their "sea legs", practicing a lot of the techniques explored during the initial workshop with Karen and Mike.
One thing that needs work is, once again, a cultural difference that we failed to take into account. The expectation here seems to be that all kids, of whatever age, should be able to participate, and that if they cannot physically do the things required of an activity, it is the facilitators' job to do it for them. Of course this runs contrary to what we believe is valuable about these activities, and in theory, so do the facilitators; but knowing something and being able to put it into practice are two different things, and so we made a point to remind each other, when we find ourselves taking over the making process, to take a step back and let the kids struggle for a while, even though it is uncomfortable at first.
Circuit Boards was another big favorite. I was surprised by the number of kids that chose to sit at this table, and the length of time they stayed and explored. One thing I noticed is that kids here seem to have a more firm understanding of what a circuit is and how to complete it. So, whereas in the US a kid will often display great joy and wonder at making a light bulb turn on, which often leads to excitement and further explorations, here it feels more like a confirmation of something the kids already know. "Yep, I thought so" is the perceived feeling.
Marble Machines was solid, as it usually is, albeit a little less crowded than we would have thought. We noticed that the same kids stayed a very long time, and here like in other activities, the focus is on "doing it right" more than in personal expression and exploration. Changes and additions came slowly and bit by bit, while playing with the same configuration of tracks and pipes over and over again.
Adults were a minority here, but definitely not absent! Another observation here was that there were a lot of each type of material; there was no chance of running out of tracks, or copper pipes, or dowels, and so things tended to be overbuilt, substituting redundancy for innovation. Tracks were held of with dozens of dowels, and often they were doubled up, with two tracks side by side for the whole length of the contraption.
The Haba tracks worked well in capturing the interest for the youngest folks. Initially they were deserted, so I sat on the floor and started building a simple stack. That's all it took: within 10 minutes I was pushed out by lots of kids happily stacking tracks and configuring bells.
Finally, Wind Tubes suffered from some of the same problems that Scribbling Machines had. The whole area was packed with people, and lots of little kids. This meant that the most common interaction was picking up a stack of something (a strawberry basket, dixie cup, etc.) and throwing them into the tube one by one, over and over. This is fine, of course, especially for younger kids, but it gave us the idea that limiting the palette of materials to things that either don't fly on their own (derders) or don't look like they should (baskets) would force people to try to construct an object.
As the first day was drawing to a close we felt exhausted and elated at the same time, and after debriefing with the facilitators, talking about things that worked well and didn't work well, and discussing possible solutions and changes, we came up with a plan for several changes to the environment, staffing, and interactions with the visitors, and yesterday we got to the site early to change things around.
Next up: how things got much better, and the power of the environment!