Last summer we needed a ladder, so we made one. It took us two days and a lot of measuring, sawing, and hammering. In the end, it did the job of getting us up higher.
It's been in the outdoor classroom ever since, fully accessible to the kids, but it's just pined there these past several months, on its side along the wall, one of those things we've quit seeing. A couple weeks ago I leaned it against the high, white wall that contains two sides of our sand pit. I pushed it into the sand, but I knew I'd need to keep an eye on it as the kids played. When you climb a tall ladder in the real world it's considered common sense safety to have someone at the bottom to "steady" it. That's the kind of ladder this is. This is not one of those ladders one finds in a typical playground, bolted securely to some kind of superstructure. No, our home made ladder is a regular, real ladder that should have a steadying hand.
For a few days it was just there in the sand pit without anyone wanting to give it a try, but after awhile kids started to notice it, test it, test themselves, maybe trying out the first step, but no one ventured higher until a few days ago when one of the boys said, "I want to climb up the ladder."
"Sure. I'll steady it for you." I stepped back to give him room. He was cautious, a trait I've watched him develop over the past 3 years, grabbing one rung with two hands then putting his boot carefully on the lowest one, lifting slowly. He concentrated on his hands, on the next rung, on not looking down.
I could tell he didn't quite trust the ladder. Maybe he didn't quite trust me. "I'll be right here to catch you if you fall," I assured him. He climbed up one more step.
It's not always a comfortable feeling being up high like that. You hold on. You've climbed up playground ladders much higher than this a million times, but this is a real ladder, with the real potential consequences that come with that. It takes courage to live in the real world. He's now climbed the ladder 4 or 5 more times over the last few days, often waiting in line to do it.
In fact, several kids have tried it, some only one rung, some two or three, a couple all the way up to the rung second from the top. That's as far as we go because in the real world one never stands on the top rung of a ladder. The funny thing is, every single kid who has climbed that ladder has either asked me or otherwise announced her or his intentions to me first. I've not made any rules for the kids about the ladder, nor have they made rules for themselves, but in 2 weeks of this ladder leaning against the high, white wall in the sand pit, freely accessible, Teacher Tom not always nearby, no one has tried to scamper up it without first checking in with me.
That's because, I think, they know it's a real ladder. It's because they have enough experience around Woodland Park to know that the rough wood isn't always sanded, the sharp corners aren't always padded, and there isn't always an adult standing ready to warn you, but rather to ask questions or make observations that cause you to think before you act. I think that engaging me in a conversation is part of the increasingly habitual risk assessment that is a necessary part of thriving at Woodland Park, and indeed in the real world.
After spring break, I'll be setting up our home made water walls, so it'll be good we've worked on our ladder climbing skills now to give us a running start on the next thing to learn: balancing on a ladder while pouring water.
How different this kind of climbing is to the climbing they usually do, where much of the hazard has been taken out of it. I'm not saying one is better than another, but this is certainly different from that. Where the one is more like an exercise or even a sport, this is about learning to use a tool, properly, safely, one we all need at one time or another. Wouldn't it be great if some of these kids grow up knowing they can pick their own fruit, paint their own ceilings, or sculpt a towering statue? Doing it yourself is powerful. Learning how to use any tool opens up possibilities and a ladder is a pretty basic one.
The top of the high, white wall is a good 8'-9' feet up there. If you stand on the second to the top rung, you can peer out into the street. Six kids have dared it so far. They report cars parked along the street, a school across the street, a bad guy breaking into cars (but not "our cars") and a "band of aliens." These are things we might not have known about without the home made ladder.
But even more fun than climbing to the rung second from the top is getting almost up there, then using the periscope to see into the street.
There's sleeping and meditating, there's talking to each other, and for everything else we use tools. Even when we're just thinking, it's mostly about using words or using tools, usually both. Tools are the primary medium through which we humans interact with the world (hammers, forks, books, telephones, sewing needles, ladders) and each time we become proficient with a new one, we open the world a little more to ourselves. The more tools we can use with confidence, the wider our horizons, the greater our prospects, the bigger our minds and imaginations. And the only way to learn to use those tools is to put our hands on them and, well, use them.
That's how it works in the real world.