Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Danger In The Comfort Zone

Last week I posted about the rope ladder that one of the adults hung from the cross bar of our swing set. I wrote then about how I'd started by imagining non-specific hazard from this arrangement, at least during the time before actual children arrived on the scene, but because my laziness trumped my conservatism on that day, the kids figured out, through actual field-testing, that the dangers were no greater than those associated with a normal swing and without my, or any other adult's harping on it, took appropriate precautions.

In the meantime, Aunt Annie posted an excellent piece on risky play, in which she included this graphic (which she says has been making the rounds, but it's new to me):

She was applying this principle, in this case, not to the children, but to the adults, who, like I nearly did if not for my laziness, too often allow our ability to imagine catastrophe to guide our interactions with kids. What I labeled "conservatism," is here depicted as the "comfort zone," a much better construct, I think.

We tied a rope with a loop at the bottom to one end of our swing set.

It occurs to me that this is perhaps the primary function of teachers in a progressive play-based environment: to continually expand our own comfort zones until they increasingly overlap that large, wonderful area where the magic happens.

Those stumps the kids are standing on are not fixed to the ground in any way, so just
standing on them requires concentration as they tip and wobble under their weight.

Children are already, naturally, drawn to where the magic happens. It's what the play instinct is all about. Not all of them are daredevils, of course, but it seems to me that this principle doesn't just apply to physical risk, but rather to anything worth doing. Human progress is really the story of stepping outside of our comfort zones and since education is a story of progress, teaching requires an ongoing and conscious effort to knock down the "brick walls . . . with nary a window" that Aunt Annie warns about and step outside.

If you push off too hard, your stump will topple over according to the equal and
opposite reaction aspect of Newton's third law of motion, leaving you with no place 
to land when you swing back (according to that same law of motion)
so you have to take care to leave it standing when you launch yourself.

I've documented here and here, about how our preschool community (and by that I mean the parent part of the community) has made an uneasy peace with the concrete slopes that came with our new outdoor classroom. At this time last year, our larger concrete slope was closed to the children, covered with a tarp and surrounded with caution cones. Today, the older children race up and down the slope, hang from the lilac branches at the top, and construct "cabins" up in there. The younger children test their skills, making forays as their abilities allow, stepping outside their comfort zones, while the adults say things like, "If you can't get up there you aren't quite ready to be up there," instead of "be careful" or "watch out!" 

And then there are those steel swing set poles to navigate, which all adds up to big fun
and big learning.

It's in the nature of adult comfort zones to contract if we're not continually conscious of stretching them out; if we're not in the habit of questioning our assumptions about children and about ourselves. It's not an easy thing in our risk-averse society for teachers to get out of our heads about risk, to set aside our catastrophic imaginings, and deal instead with the reality of the risk-taking that comes naturally to young children. 

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Kathy said...

Unfortunately, it's not just teachers/caregivers whose attitudes shape the experiences that children are allowed to have in group settings. It's the administrator, the parents, and the "long, heavy arm of the law" (i.e., licensing). In my experiencing, child care licensing positions tend to be held by folks who are risk-averse and rule-bound by nature - it's just their personalities. Many take their jobs very seriously - they see themselves as the protectors of helpless children. That righteous attitude combined with the power they have to cite, and potentially close, a program are certainly enough to make even the most staunch child-empowering teacher limit children's opportunities for risky play. I don't know what the answer is. But I do know that there is plenty of need for attitude-altering to go around!

Aunt Annie said...

YES, Tom, exactly!! The comfort zone does contract unless you fight to keep expanding it.

It's easy to label this as 'teacher laziness', and there have been moments when I've impatiently labelled a teacher's behaviour in exactly this way in my head, but the truth is that many people really do feel terribly anxious about letting children do perfectly normal things like climbing- I saw this in the staff at the centre I was talking about in that post. They really are good people, but they couldn't hack the agony of watching the kids do something where they MIGHT get hurt. Six months, it took!! Six whole months to move that attitude!

And Kathy is right- a large part of the problem is out-of-date administrators who are just trying to avoid making waves with the parents. THAT is a whole new obstacle to tackle.

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom, you are a true inspiration.
What you wrote here is true for parents as well as teachers. Are parents not the ultimate teachers after all?
I wish we had a school like yours or even educators like you in my country.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting thought. Thank you for sharing.

RobynHeud said...

As always, you are able to put into words what I want for my own child. I'm hopeful for the preschool near our house as it has many of the elements that I see in your school, including older equipment, a garden area, and lots of room for free play. Here's hoping!