For better or worse, traffic is a significant part of the natural environment of most young children, especially those growing up in a city. I've written before about traffic in the context of "dangerism":
These kids spend much of their lives within a few feet of chunks of metal, weighing a ton, hurtling along at deadly speeds, some of which are being "controlled" by 16-year-olds. All of us in the city do. We worry about pedophiles and uncovered electrical sockets and knives, but tend to be rather blase about this very real agent of death and dismemberment whizzing about us.
That's because we've all taken great pains to actually teach our children how to safely navigate our urban terrain, just the way all of us growing up in South Carolina knew how to identify and avoid poisonous snakes and rabid dogs (I'm not kidding).
And while traffic is by far the greatest danger your child will face on a day-to-day basis, it's also an integral and exciting part of of their lives, fertile ground for learning through dramatic play.
My father, a retired transportation engineer, has loaned us his real traffic light, which is always cause for excitement and curiosity when it's in the classroom.
How often do you get to see one of these ubiquitous objects up close like this? Every child, even the youngest, already knows what it is. And they all arrive in the classroom knowing the meaning of each of the colors. Some of them even know the proper sequence of a traffic light: green, yellow, red. And if they didn't know it before class, they sure do by the time they leave as it cycles through the pattern again and again.
Most of the 2-year-olds also already know some of the traffic signs as well.
And even if they don't know what they mean, they still understand that they are traffic signs.
Every time we have the traffic signs out, kids carry them around with authority, holding them in one another's faces powerfully. They might not know what they mean specifically, but by the time they've spent 24 months on the planet all of these urban children know that these signs are something to be obeyed.
It's actually incredible how much they already know about traffic. Many of them, without prompting, stop riding their little push bikes when the light is red, waiting for the green light. Some even know to ride more slowly when it's yellow.
As we play "traffic," we begin to understand the need for rules of the road.
Under normal circumstances, 2-year-olds are still suns around which the rest of us revolve . . .
. . . but we quickly find that when it comes to traffic, we need to cooperate with the other drivers or all hell breaks loose.
We intentionally keep the traffic play contained in one corner of the classroom so the children are compelled to figure out how to live together on the roads. (Although that doesn't mean that Connor's mom Trisha didn't have her hands full playing traffic cop all morning.)
It might not have the heartwarming "glamour" of teaching children about nature or art, but learning about traffic from a very young age is a kind of utilitarian knowledge that every urban child must have, just as Inuit toddlers must learn to properly use sharp knives to cut their own blubber.
I've often had the experience as a driver, especially while speeding along a crowded freeway, of being amazed at my fellow humans. Yes, I get frustrated with traffic like everyone else, but there are also times when I find it incredible how much we must trust and respect one another to engage in such an incredibly dangerous and potentially deadly activity together. Each time we get behind the wheel it is with the expectation that everyone else more or less understands the rules of the road the way we do, that they know when to stop, when to go, when to turn, and when to wait. Given all the things that could go wrong, given how different we are, given all the things humans seem incapable of doing together, I sometimes wonder as I'm hurtling along side-by-side with all those other drivers if perhaps traffic doesn't at some level represent the best of us.