Sunday, August 11, 2013

"A Place To Really Break Your Arm"

As Niki Buchan from Inspired EC and I have been traveling around Australia speaking with teachers, the subject of risk has been at the forefront of many of our conversations. 

We've been taking about healthy risk, of not wrapping our children in cotton wool, of giving them the autonomy and space to experience the real world free of the hyper-vigilence and catastrophic thinking that has invaded our playgrounds and homes over the past decade or so. Increasingly, we're finding that the removal of swings and sticks and rope and water, the installation of spongy "fall" surfaces, padded corners, and ladders that don't wobble, and our cries of "Be careful!" and "Don't run on the pavement!" has lead to a generation of fearful, risk-averse children, kids who've learned incompetence and trepidation. And to make matters worse, we've managed to wind up with children who are more, not less, likely to injure themselves when faced with the real world, while robbing them of the educational benefits that come from engaging the world in a genuine way.

Although this is in a park located in the heart of a city of some 1.8 million, no one is telling these children to stay on the paths, our out of the water. No one is warning them to "be careful" or stop moving the rocks and sticks around.

I get the sense, however, while visiting Down Under, that the pendulum is swinging back the other direction, that parents and educators are coming around to understanding what is lost in a world devoid of pointy bits. Even the new national educational guidelines here urge teachers to introduce challenge and risk. 

On the other hand, I'm not so sure about America. I still get too many folks who are worried about hammers, saws, and glue guns; who fret over every bump and bruise, not understanding that this is the way young children are designed to learn, to fall down, sometimes often. It's why nature has designed children with flexible bones, skulls that are not yet fully fused, short legs that keep them closer to the ground, memories designed to forget quickly, and bodies that are quick to heal. Far more than adults, children are made for physical risk. This is necessary because as our bones grow more brittle, our skulls close up, our legs stretch out, and our bodies take longer to heal as we get older we need to increasingly rely upon the wisdom we gain during these years of falling down.

Steel frames and stacks of sticks for cubby/fort building: a hybrid creation.

And not far away is this more "natural" cubby, perhaps inspired by the "artificial" ones.

I was inspired yesterday morning when Niki and I visited the relatively new Rio Tinto Naturescape at Kings Park in Perth. Built two years ago in the heart of a botanical gardens, this is a place where no one is expected to stay on the paths. As we came upon a man-made waterway, designed with natural elements like rocks of all sizes, lined with trees and bushes, criss-crossed by footbridges, we found children wading about, doing what children naturally do. This particular group was damming up the stream, balancing on the rocks, scavenging far and wide for natural materials with which to do what every child seems programed to do. As we stood watching, a mother cheerfully spoke with us. She said, "I grew up in the country. This is what children need. A place to really break your arm."

A place to mix potions.

As Niki and I explored the 60,000 square meters, a space that felt much, much larger, we noted how quiet the children were. Yes, there were occasional shrieks and screams of joy and adventure, but certainly no crying or bickering.

These man-made towers are hidden around the place, offering both challenge (note the irregular rungs) and vistas from which to gain a bird's eye view of the place.

It was hard not to want to intervene as parents, still versed in the dark art of "be careful," hovering or protecting, but of course, they too have learned these unnatural lessons, things pounded into us by a society made fearful by marketers of "safety" devices and the threat of lawsuits. This is a place for parents to learn, or perhaps un-learn, as well.

A "climber" of ropes, criss-crossed between over-turned trees, their roots reaching for the sky.

Children chose their own level of challenge, some get right up to the very top.

Others elect to stay low to the ground. All of this knowing that there is nothing but ground beneath them.
I was struck as we wandered around the space by the fact that however much we were talking about "nature," this was, in fact, still an unnatural place. There are towers to climb on, caves and frames constructed from steel and rebar, canyons formed from oxidized steel, smooth basins hewn into stone, perfect for mixing up potions, and ropes hung between trees that have been planted upside down, their roots reaching into the sky. My initial instinct was to regret these intrusions as artificial, but the longer we were there the more I understood them as not only inevitable in a city, but desirable. 

I reflected on our  own Lake Union back home in Seattle, a body of water neither fully of nature, nor fully man-made. This is working with nature, not against it, creating new places the way humans always do, places that have never existed until now. This is how we provide these kinds of natural, engaging, and, yes, risky, experiences to our cities, easily accessible, not requiring the burning of gallons of fossil fuel to reach. As we grow up as a species I hope we come to embrace these hybrid places.

Of course, to me, the tourist, Australia is still an exotic place with parrots squawking in the trees, strange insects, and plants that seem like they belong in the era of dinosaurs, but at the same time, there are familiar things like logs, rocks, running water, and tadpoles.

These insects are called "spitfires," I'm told.

As we were leaving to catch our plane to Sydney, we ran into a young man who works there, the first employee we'd seen since we entered. Rio Tinto seemed to have dispensed with the idea of "life guards" and the like, at least not in an obvious way. He asked us how we liked the naturescape, obviously proud. We asked him about injuries. He reported that in two years they had experienced one broken arm, caused by an awkward fall from less than foot off the ground. Not really the answer you might expect from a place where you can really break your arm.

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Annie Hosking said...

That is an amazing space to play in. Wonderful!

Vicki said...

We took our K/PP (4-6 yos) classes there last year and they had a ball! We were in small groups with lots of adults and the kids basically did what they liked. Some would have stayed in the stream all afternoon if we hadn't had to get back on the bus for the 1.5hr drive home. A few parents looked nervous at first but relaxed when they saw that the kids did actually know what they were doing. Hope to go again soon :)

Frode Svane said...

Dear Tom! Only one broken leg on this "MOUNTAIN" in the schoolyard in use for more than 13 years! THE MOUNTAIN AT MANGLERUD PRIMARY SCHOOL - OSLO - 160 pictures:

Naamah said...

Glad you were able to experience the play space. As a local it's favourite of ours. I hear what you are saying about the not entirely natural space and how it is still somewhat managed. I like to think of this area and other like it around Perth as a starting point. Once parents, carers and children have experienced a taste they will want the 'real deal' and head to the regional parks for some real exploring, armed with their beginning ideas formed here.