Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Do Not Help The Children Get To The Top

One of the special features of our outdoor classroom is what we call the concrete slide, a slab of concrete poured on a steep slope as part of erosion control efforts that also includes several large lilacs. I've written about it before, telling the story of how we started our lives here some three years ago, banning the children from playing there, such were our fears that they would kill themselves on it.

It took us a month or so to pull ourselves together, and after quite a bit of consultation, came up with a solution that we felt mitigated the most extreme hazards without robbing the concrete slide of its challenge and thrill. Today, kids run up and down it all day, treating it, in combination with the lilacs, as a sort of fort or climber or just a place apart. Whereas I once positioned a parent-teacher nearby to warn of danger, I now find I need only instruct adults on one thing: Do not help children get to the top of the concrete slide.

This, of course, should be the adult role anywhere children play. If a child is incapable of getting places on her own, then she should not be up there. And while children still occasionally pick up raspberries and bruises on the concrete slide, our simple mitigations along with this lack of adult assistance has rendered it no more risky than any other square inch of our space. Indeed, I would reckon that children are a bit safer playing there given the level of concentration it takes to gain and maintain your place. Some of the 4-5 year olds basically live up there, interacting with the slope and the branches like the seasoned experts they are. 

By the same token, we rarely find 2-year-olds up there. It's not that they don't sometimes try, but the grade is quite steep, even for the most competent of them, and the alternative of climbing around from the side, while less steep, is a tangle of roots and rocks that require a bit of strategy. No, most of our youngest children challenge themselves at their own pace, perhaps struggling up a few feet before giving it up for another day. That's our greatest safety mitigation, getting out of the way and letting the children explore this unique feature at their own pace, using their own judgement.

That's not to say that our youngest children don't sometimes make their way up there. In fact, yesterday two of them did.

I was sitting at the bottom chatting with a crowd of fairly rowdy boys who had tied ropes to the top and were using them to climb up and down. They were swinging and jumping and running and climbing, demonstrating not only physical competency, but also a growing mastery of the fine art of playing on the concrete slide, with others, in a way that acknowledges that no one wants to fall, that we're all in this together. This is the kind of thing kids simply can't learn with adults forever cautioning them.

Through that tangle-town of legs, I noticed a very little girl carefully making her way along the back of the lilacs, using hands and feet to pick her way to the top. I wondered as I watched her how she would feel when she got up there, looking down that hard, steep slope, amidst all those larger, faster moving,  louder, more capable bodies. She inched her way along the top ridge, gripping the rope we installed up there for that purpose, her other hand clutching the chain link fence behind her. I half expected she would need me to rescue her.

When she got to a relatively clear spot she stood looking at the slope beneath her, then, apparently making up her mind, she cautiously fell into a squat, then settled onto her bottom. She sat there for quite some time, then, in the midst of a mini-maelstrom, studied on that slope, before rolling over onto her belly, feet downward. 

The older children didn't exactly acknowledge her, but they also didn't jostle or impede her as she lay there right in the middle of their games. I swear we could all see a sort of protective bubble around her, an unspoken acknowledgement that this little girl was trying something for the first time, a moment we all wanted to honor, not with warnings or rah-rah encouragements, but rather with a bit of space and time for her to do it her way.

Slowly she inched her way down. We call it a slide, but it isn't particularly slippery. I saw her shirt ball up, exposing her belly to the bare concrete. I imagine it hurt, but she didn't stop. When she finally got to the bottom she stood up, wiped her belly, pulled down her shirt and without a sound, moved on to other things.

Moments later, another young child, a boy, made his way to the top. This time, his older brother saw him as he sat there contemplating the challenge below. Sitting beside him and taking his hand, the siblings went together, going faster than the younger boy anticipated, and right at the bottom he lost control and spun around, landing on his face in the sand. I expected him to come up in tears, and he did show a face screwed up for a moment in pain. He looked at me, then held up his hands, which were covered in sand.

I said, "You can wipe them off on your pants."

"I can't do that."

"You can wipe them off on my pants."

He started to say, "I can't . . ." then smiled and came over to me, where he gently brushed the sand away.

Then, he too, moved on to other things.

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Donna said...

Awesome! Just awesome!! That's all I have to say, well and the fact that I love how respectful you are to children!! Have a wonderful day!!

Jeff said...

If only all preschools were this respectful of children it would be a much better world.

Jennifer Friend said...

I am so glad that you share this kind of information with parents and encourage them to resist the urge to step in and intervene! It's not easy to stand back -- our instinct often times is to help our children and protect them from perceived danger. We think that by helping we are letting our children know that we love them. Otherwise, we feel negligent. It's refreshing to know that giving our children space to discover, explore, and grow, we are fostering their natural development. I encourage your readers to also check out this great blog from LePort Schools about fostering independence at home: http://leportschools.com/blog/supporting-your-childs-budding-independence-at-home/

Derek Sheppard said...

You're learning, Teacher Tom. A democratic school would never allow a staff to ban others from doing anything - an issue would first go to a School Meeting at which interested staff and students could consider and debate an advertised written Motion and make a decision or not by majority vote. Your blog demonstrates what is known that young people will and do respect each other, and give them the space to try out things for themselves. Given that time, respect, trust and responsibility, young people will exercise their freedom with caution and go as far as they, and they alone, will feel capable. Good work though, and keep learning.
Regards, Derek Sheppard

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