Thursday, March 06, 2014

Safe Enough

I don't know who built this ascending walkway of planks leading from the lower sand pit to the top of the box that was built to hold the half million dollar Calder sculpture. It seemed to appear one day, fully realized.

We have a half dozen of these planks in our outdoor classroom, each 7-8 feet long. These large scale loose parts are in constant use, especially by the older kids who are always finding new ways to use them. 

They are often employed as walkways or bridges or teeter totters or catapults or spring boards or giant swings. We adults tend to see hazard in how they are used, and in all honesty there is often a certain amount of hazard. The stereotype is that children tend to underestimate the risk involved in such things, but from the experience of watching them play with these sorts of things day in and day out, I'm more inclined to conclude that adults are at least as likely to err on the side of overestimating danger. 

I've been watching children engaged in this sort of play for a long time now and I've come to think of it not as risky play, but as "safety play," the practicing of skills and habits that will serve them as they move forward in the world: balance, coordination, judgment, and most importantly, an understanding of one's own physical and psychological limits. And, of course, the gradual stretching of these limits. These are things the will never be learned in an environment full of adults expressing their own overwrought and inhibiting fears in the form of "be careful!" words that tend to plant self-doubt in a garden where self-confidence is more properly grown.

Recently, an adult who doesn't have children enrolled in our school saw our planks where the children had left them, not like this, but as they'd been arranged to cross over gaps between the tree rounds that line the sand pit. She was concerned that they were unsecured at each end, "What if they fall?" It's a question that can really only be answered with another: "What if they don't?"

At bottom, education must be an exploration of the real world, of the physics that govern it, of our own capabilities and limitations within it, of our capacity to manipulate and create it, and, yes, sometimes merely to survive it. It is through this exploration that we develop an honest understand of ourselves "in context," unclouded by those who continually caution us from a place of fear and doubt and stereotype, and instead learn to trust our own judgements. It's from this that we learn to stretch ourselves while being "safe enough," which is always the nature of a life worth living.

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Gosia Winter said...

Brilliant. :)

Anonymous said...

I spotted this news article today in the Australian media and thought you would enjoy it:

Anonymous said...

This concept is so foreign in our field - makes me sad that no matter how loud I toot my horn or try to educate "teachers" it tends to fall on deaf ears and the kids in their care lose out on lessons that will truly benefit them.

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