Tuesday, January 26, 2010


While I continue to envy preschools with the good fortune to be located within or adjacent to a tract of the natural world in which their children can hike and explore, the advantage of an urban location is the ability to easily take the bus to places we want to go.

Yesterday, we hopped the 44 down into Ballard where the Snoose Junction Pizzeria opened early especially for us. We could have taken the 5, which has a stop within a block of the school, and transferred to the 44, but then we wouldn't have had the 1-mile hike necessary to build up an appetite.

We did choose a relatively quiet neighborhood street down which to walk, but I kept up my usual constant chatter about the danger of cars:

"Don't go into the street in front of a car or it might hit you and it'll hurt."

"We have to look both ways before crossing the street."

"I don't want your mom to be mad at me, so don't let a car run over you."

I've seen 2-year-olds wander into the street, but I'm not particularly worried about the kids in the 3-5 class. They've grown up in the city. They all know to look both ways before crossing the street. Some of them prefer to hold an adult's hand, but those with younger siblings in strollers are well accustomed to crossing under their own steam. They know to wait for the "Walk" signal at controlled intersections and to stay on the sidewalk. They're pretty savvy about the danger of cars, which, frankly are easily the biggest danger children face in a city.

The excitement of going out and about in a large group like this can cause momentary lapses in judgement, like the three boys, holding hands, who decided to run together across one intersection. The unfamiliarity of being connected to one another caused them to veer slightly into the street, where a garbage truck was slowly making its way toward us, but a parent was on top of things, corralling them back onto the straight and narrow, giving me a chance to say to nobody in particular, "If you get run over by a garbage truck, you'll be flat and I'll have to mail you home."

Thomas answered, "You wouldn't be flat, you'd be dead."

Sarah agreed, "Yes, Teacher Tom, you'd be dead."

Annabelle added matter-of-factly, "And it would hurt."

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).

Danger and our perceptions about danger are clearly a relative matter. The same parents raising kids in this environment also erect safety gates at the tops of stairs or forbid their child's playing in a home where weapons are kept, even under lock and key. I'm not judging these parents, I'm just pointing out that we all make our own risk assessments in deciding with what we are and are not comfortable.

Gever Tully over on the fantastic Tinkering School blog has recently coined the term "dangerism," to describe how a culture decides what is and isn't dangerous. He uses the example of the Inuits who start teaching their children to use knives as toddlers. All of us own sharp knives, but most of us just keep them out of reach of our 3-year-olds because they don't have the need to learn to cut their own seal blubber. This is what makes knives dangerous: most of us haven't taken the time, or found the need to teach our children how to use these tools with the kind of caution we've taught them to have around traffic.

I've spoken with a lot of parents over the last few years who are concerned about their concerns. We all look back on our own youths and the "dangers" to which we were exposed and worry that we're coddling our own children, perhaps not realizing how much danger teaching we've already done. Just like most aspects of parenting, there is no easy solution, but I think Tully says it well:

So, what is the right answer? I’m not sure that I have all of it, but there has to be some accounting of the merits of an activity when assessing the value. We can’t let our fears of what could happen prevent us from letting children engage in meaningful activities. We must assess the risks, weigh the benefits, know the child, and know ourselves – then we just have to try to make the best decision we can.

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Michelle said...

I like this post very much Teacher Tom!! Although we are in suburbia NC, I hear your words on every outing. I love to joke with the kids about how mad Mom, Dad, or even Grandma would be with me if I let them get crushed by a School Bus. Yet, with exposure I see them becoming more independent every day :)

Jenny said...

Both of Gever's TED talks are well worth the time to watch. He has a brand new book out as well, 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do which is wonderful. It's aimed at older kids, about 9 and up, but there are plenty of ideas in it I've done with my 6 and 3 year olds.

(My sister has worked with Gever at Tinkering School for the past few years.)

Deborah Stewart said...

For teachers, I think the word "liability" has really held them prisoner and in fear of letting children take risks. Too bad too - I went into a toddler classroom recently and the teacher had moved all the shelves up agains the windows so the children could no longer look out the windows. I ask why? She says, that they try to climb on the ledge and might get hurt. So she removed the risk - perhaps we could just teach the kids to manage those risks just like you did with a walk in the city.

pamela wallberg said...

I find it so difficult to explain to parents about "risk". It takes one bump and that's it - the world is so dangerous! I wish I could take them undercover into the grade 4 - 7 classrooms - and playgrounds - and see the risks that are taken when children haven't learned about danger.

But I can't. So I am just the crazy person who doesn't "care about safety". Ironically - so many of the "safety" things we do lead to more dangerous environments and dangerous behavior!

Mariah@Playful Learning said...

Great post! I just discovered Gever Tulley's work and look forward to reading it.

Unknown said...

This is certainly something to think about. One thing I do NOT like to think about are the 16 year olds that are driving... Ay yi yi! Will your daughter want to drive when she is 16? Will you be the teacher or your wife?

Teacher Tom said...

@Becky . . . Josephine will be driving the second she's legally allowed. I might even just give her my car and let her drive ME around for a few years . . . And I'll definitely do the teaching

@Pamela . . . I think you're right. The really dangerous thing to do is to avoid teaching children how to make their own, informed risk assessments.

@Deborah . . . I agree. "Liability" is a scary word."

@Jenny . . . You're sister is so lucky!