Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Concrete Slide

We're pretty bold as schools go, for the most part, willing to trust the kids, to trust our own abilities to actually teach the kids, to let the kids teach themselves through mistakes and even occasional injuries. As the Scottish mountaineer William Hutchinson Murray wrote, mistakingly thinking he was quoting Goethe, "Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!" but, you know, there are times when we must heed the words that Shakespeare, that other pillar of the Western canon, put into the mouth of Falstaff: "The better part of valor is discretion."

That, at least, has been the story so far of a wonderful and odd feature of our new outdoor classroom: namely our concrete slopes. About a month and a half ago I penned a rather bold post about how we were exploring them, taking risks on them, challenging ourselves with them. What I didn't tell you was that we spent the summer with the longest, steepest section of it tarped off so that the children would not go there. Even those of us not normally risk averse agreed that it seemed rather hazardous, even beyond the usual Woodland Park standards.

The wonderful Pastor Judy whose office overlooks our outdoor classroom remained one of those who felt we were being a tad overly cautious. After all, children have been climbing that slope for decades without (significant) incident, a point that perhaps should have won the day, and might have had the question been solely about the children's safety. But in this case, there was also the fact that many, if not most, of the adults with our higher centers of gravity, simply could not get up there ourselves, which means we were unable to assist injured children or intervene in conflicts. And although I was one of those able to clamber around up there, it took concentration and was not without some concern about succumbing to gravity. So something had to be done.

We considered covering it in rubber, creating a latticework of old tires, and installing a catwalk across the top with ladders sunk through the concrete leading to it. We even seriously discussed removing the concrete altogether, leaving just a dirt slope, but there was some legitimate concern that this would lead to the entire parking lot one day sliding down onto us. Vivian and George's dad Terry, a contractor by profession, thought maybe the most dangerous aspect of the tarped off section was not so much the steepness or the hardness, but rather the sheer length of it. On our first day playing there this summer, before the tarp, many of the older kids decided to descend the slope by running pell mell down it, careening just barely under control to the bottom. Maybe, Terry suggested, we should just raise the grade at the bottom, rendering the slope shorter.

Charlotte's mom Amanda, our 3-5's class chair, had the brilliant idea of contacting the city and worked her way through to one of the people responsible for retrofitting Seattle's public playgrounds for safety. Incredibly, he agreed to drop by and take a look. At the time this seemed like a mixed blessing to me because while we love our outdoor classrooms (this is the actually the second one our community has built), we didn't consult any lists of "safety" guidelines, but rather relied on our own judgement as parents. I had some concern that he would call Amanda back with a long list of other things we needed to do. Instead, his first words were, "Don't sanitize this playground!" Yeah! Be bold!

The second thing he suggested was to raise the grade at the base of the slope. Go Terry! To do this we more than doubled the amount of sand we have in our two-level sand pit, adding an additional 10 yards, making it nearly 3 feet deep at the base of the slope. We raised the other section by adding another 10 yards of wood chips, all of which are enclosed with the massive cedar rounds that came complete with the Snohomish County hornet. The overall impact was to shorten the slope by a good 25 percent, plus creating a wide, soft "landing pad" should the descents get out of control.

This safety expert's third recommendation was to permanently install a couple of ropes for the children to use to steady themselves as they climbed, one across the top and another leading up to the top. Terry has installed three 4X4 posts for the ropes, one of which is now in place across the top.

Now, during these first few days of school, the children are letting us know what they would like to see happen next as one after another of them has climbed to the top, either by scaling the steep face of the slope, or by using one of the alternative routes around the ends, under the lilacs that grow up there, taking a seat, and sliding down on their bottoms. None of them has said it with words because they're simply loving the concrete slide as it is, but it won't take long to wear holes in the seats of their pants, so I guess now we have to figure out how to install an actual slide of some sort.

It's the story of our preschool, indeed the story of childhood, perhaps even the story of life, this pendulum we swing upon between boldness and discretion. Watching the children play here, both are present, often within the same child during the same ascent and decent. I think there is a prejudice out there that a child's inexperience causes him to err on the side of boldness, and sometimes it does, but I've seen the same "mistake" just as often on the side of discretion, which can be as debilitating as any prospective injury. The concrete slide seems to be a wonderful place to practice both.

It was that mixture of pushing forward and being pushed forward, which is the brief history of most human things. ~George Eliot

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Briana said...

This is great! I love hearing how you and your school process risk assessment and how you allow the children to feel risk. I guess I am especially excited about your post because I'm currently working on a blog post of my own involving an incline and new walkers. Unfortunately our incline ends in asphalt, but it's much shorter and less steep. I am interested in the idea of allowing children to negotiate 'dangerous' conditions like this, as the children in my care do and have since they have been able to move. We have bumps and scrapes too, but I've noticed that no one falls the same way twice, and they are beginning to catch themselves in a safer way when they do fall, or avoid the fall all together. It's an interesting concept to explore....

Anonymous said...

You could get trays or just cardboard that the kids could sit on. Much like the hidden slides of San Francisco

Momma Jorje said...

Perhaps cardboard, plastic trays, or even carpet samples would work wonders to save the britches.

When I was a kid, my dad had a 1 ton dump truck. He'd raise the bed and let us carry carpet samples to the top, then slide down... even though there was about a 4' drop at the end! It was SO FUN!

We had to use the wooden rails on either side to assist our ascent.

Teresa said...

It would be amazingly cool if you could figure out a way of having a funicular railway type thing. (had to look that word up!)

One child riding 'something' down would pull up the next 'something' for the next child.

Maybe tin trays as suggested, or something with wheels as it wouldn't go too fast with the counterbalance of the other cart.

Anyway, just me getting a little carried away!

Love your blog!


Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Thanks for the detail in this post. I'm currently working with a school at a beach with a concrete hill. I've hummed and haa-ed about whether children should be "allowed" on it. The incline is considerably less, but the length longer and it's a rough bumpy slope with pits and pockets.

The first week was really interesting - the children discovered the hill from the top. Wow! Naturally they wanted to walk down it. This did involve one-to-one supervision. I insisted that the staff didn't hold the children's hands - that they had to go it alone but we spotted them.

At the moment, that's where we're at. Last week the focus was on the sea, but when it returns to the slope I'm going to be really interested to hear what the children think about it.

Part of the problem is... I haven't had enough experience of knowing how children are in such situations. But I'm determined not to let my lack of knowledge and fears dictate a situation. There is the added responsibility too that other groups of children will end up using the beach so time is needed to think through the issues.

Also at the top of the slope is THE BEST view of a sea wall when the weather is wild and the waves come crashing over the water creating gigantic waterfalls.

Checking the foot of the slope is a great idea. I'm looking forward to learning with the children about this slope.