Friday, June 07, 2013

"If You Don't Fall Down, You Can't Learn Anything"



































As a follow-up to yesterday's post about preschoolers using power tools, I thought I'd re-post this piece from a year and a half ago, with some editing because we've always learned a few things in the interim, about how Woodland Park approaches risk assessment as a community of parents and children.

In the 12 years I've been at Woodland Park, we've sent two kids to the hospital. One turned out to be a precautionary over-reaction. The other involved a boy who tripped while walking on a smooth, dry linoleum floor, splitting his chin open, requiring two stitches.

I think that's a pretty good track record for a school like ours with a play-based curriculum, although this isn't to say we don't suffer our fair share of bumps, bruises, scrapes, and cuts. I'd be awfully wary of any preschool that doesn't boast its fair share of those. As an Austrian ski instructor named Hans once told me, "If you don't fall down, you can't learn anything."


I've written before about the concrete slopes that for better or worse are features of our outdoor classroom, and most recently about how the children, after a bit of retrofitting by the parent community, now use the longer, steeper one as a concrete slide. Seeing how much fun they were having with it, taking turns climbing to the top, the sliding back down, I at first regretted that we'd removed the site's original very tall, rusty metal one, but now that we've entered a state of "normalized relations" with the slopes, I'm seeing that what we have is far more versatile than a proper slide, which is, after all a kind of one trick pony, hardly worth the real estate it takes up.

They're still sliding down the slope, of course, but now it's not "sliding" so much as just a way to get from one place to another. Many of the kids have now developed a kind of full-body confidence on the steep slope that can only come from experience, dropping almost casually onto their bottoms to slide down, often continuing to carry on their conversations while in motion. There's very little of the tottery-ness that characterized our first couple months of school, the kind of physical behavior that had the adults catching their breaths. Whereas in the beginning, even the most physically adept among us would climb up it using hands and feet, now most of the kids who like to play there are pretty much just walking up and down the slope like they would any of the thousands of paved hills in this city of paved hills.


In the weeks leading up to the holiday break, the kids had started taking ropes up the slope with them, then dangling them down its face, almost like they were fishing for friends, who, of course, took the bait. I'll confess at first to wondering if this was something to which we needed to put a stop, but as I watched them play, I found myself genuinely impressed by the remarkable care and caution they demonstrated with themselves and one another. The adults at Woodland Park often talk about helping children assess their own risk, about how helping children learn to be responsible for their own safety is the single most important thing we can do to create the kind of school that doesn't regularly send kids to the hospital, while still giving them the opportunity to "fall" so that, you know, as Lars says, they learn something.

The first thing I noticed was that despite how it looked, none of the kids were really putting their full weight on the ropes being dangled down the hill for them to grab while climbing up. They already knew not to fully trust the stability of the child who served as the uphill anchor for their climbing rope. In fact, the rope climbing was as much a dramatic play exercise as a physical one, as most of the kids were merely walking up the slope under their own power while holding onto the rope with one hand, creating the illusion they were using it to climb.


As for the kids serving as anchors, many of them started by standing in a full upright position, but as their downhill friends put more of their weight on the rope, they began to lean back on their haunches. As more weight was applied, they fell into a full squat, further lowering their center of gravity until finally they found the most stable anchoring position of all was to take a seat on the ground, eliminating the risk that they would be pulled down the hill.

When kids found themselves losing their balance, when the rope holder's strength began to sag, when the climber lost momentum, it was a sight to see them recognize what was happening, then simply drop to their hips and slide to the bottom where they could start over with a little more wisdom under their belts. 


During the time the kids were doing this the other day, there were three of us adults fully engaged in keeping our eyes on things. Finn and Grey's mom Jenny stood directly at the bottom of the slope making informational statements about what she saw happening, occasionally, and without unnecessary urgency, warning the kids, of course, about things they might not have noticed (e.g., "Rex, Luella is right behind you.") Charlotte's mom Amanda and I were a ways off, discussing what we saw, almost trying to find reasons for the kids to stop doing what they were doing, but we couldn't.


While we saw children engaged in "risky" behavior, I'm quite certain that none of the kids saw it that way. It was a self-selected activity, one limited by their own willingness to test their capabilities. We adults could have made them see "the danger" by repeatedly pointing out the hardness of the concrete or the steepness of the slope. We could have raised their level of caution about the insecure nature of the ropes they were using to climb up and down. We could have caused them to question their confidence, their judgement, their competence. We could have raised their level of anxiety and doubt. But instead we found a way to stand back and let the children figure these things out for themselves, leaving them to discoveries about their own judgment and abilities, ones grounded in experience rather than our worst-case-scenario fears.

Parents often talk about wanting to teach their kids to be responsible, then go about it by trying to boss them into it, picking for them those things for which we think they ought to feel responsible (e.g., "Clean up your room" "Make your bed."). But this mostly just teaches obedience, which does nothing to further the kind of responsibility we want children to take on. The problem is that it's almost impossible to feel responsible for things that one sees as unimportant. We might clean our room, but if we're taking responsibility for anything it's for keeping mom happy (which is not the same thing), even if we're not just doing it to avoid a punishment


Responsibility always involves something that matters and nothing more manifestly matters than our own safety. And that is exactly what we are doing when we give them the space to test themselves with "risky" physical or emotional behavior -- balancing, climbing, swinging, running down hills, swinging hammers, public speaking, performing on a stage -- responsibility for something that matters to them. When we step back and allow children to engage reality as they see it before them, without our always being there to catch them, without our anxieties there to cloud their judgment, we find that they are perfectly capable of being responsible for themselves, which is ultimately the responsibility from which all others come.

And sure, as Hans will tell you, they'll fall if they're ever going to learn anything, but they'll do that anyway, even while walking on a smooth, dry linoleum floor.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Although you probably didn't intend it in this way, your post today brought to mind conversations on the recent spate of attempted kidnappings in Seattle. Moms have been talking about the pros and cons of teaching their kids about stranger danger and sneaky people. Your post made me see this issue as another part of teaching your kids about accessing risk rather than simply telling them to avoiding all contact with strangers. Of course it is probably harder for kids to assess/identify those sorts of risks than it is for them to assess the risk of whether and how much I will hurt myself if I do X. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom
I found your blog earlier this year and have been eagerly reading it daily and making my way steadily through the archive ever since. I'm a mum from New Zealand passionately involved with my local playcentre, which seems to share a lot of the value and ideals of Woodland park. I'm constantly finding inspiration both in terms of activity ideas for on session and the reminders about the importance of giving children the space and chance to choose how they learn and play.
I see you are coming to New Zealand later this year. Any chance you will be in Wellington?
Antonia Reid

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