Friday, August 02, 2013


I've been traveling these past couple days in Australia with the wonderful Niki Buchan who is sometimes referred to as "Nature Niki," a woman I'm learning is well deserving of the nickname. I've meet few people who are as truly passionate about nature and educating children in nature. My first evening in the country, we spent our evening in downtown Brisbane, where she joyfully gave me a tour of the city's resident birds, bats, and trees, naming them teaching me how to identify them, and otherwise whetting my appetite for what she assured me would be only the beginning of my experience of Australian wildlife.

Among the subjects we've spoken of at length has been sticks. I suppose that's as inside baseball as it gets for progressive, play-based, early childhood educators. I really can't imagine how tremendously tedious we've sounded to those who've overheard us: And, honey, these two adult people at the airport spoke for a half hour about sticks! But in our world, and the world of just about every child I've ever known, sticks are vitally important, and infinitely useful things. More than one child at Woodland Park has his own "stick collection" at home. At any given moment there will be at least one, usually more, children walking around with a stick in his or her hand. We draw on the ground with sticks. We count sticks. We break them into smaller sticks. We look for longer sticks. We discover thicker sticks or thinner sticks or sticks for stirring or poking or throwing or for using as a drum stick when the actual drumsticks somehow come up wanting.

It's got me thinking that there are a few other simple, versatile tools like that we have out there in our outdoor classroom. There are rocks, of course, and we find any number of uses for the wood chip ground cover we've laid down across our space, but as I scrolled through my photographs, I noticed a man-made one turning up over and over in all sorts of play situations: ropes!

I reckon I'm as interested in ropes as I am in sticks now that I think about it. We keep a dozen or so, perhaps more, ropes lying about our space, almost like parts of the landscape. Most are of the 4-6 foot variety, easy to handle, made of cotton or nylon, but there are longer ones out there, usually found tied to something via complicated knots of a child's invention. And there are even longer ones stashed away in the storage shed should we need them. As with sticks, we've found, ropes are infinitely useful turning up in just about every game we play, machine we invent, or activity in which we engage.

The sad part is that many schools, as with sticks, have chosen to ban ropes. We heard yesterday about a school that punishes children simply for the act of picking up a stick, interpreting that act as intent to hurt someone. Ropes, while perhaps not as common as something that fall from trees, suffer from the same sort of irrational prejudice.

Ropes and sticks, just like any tool, have a potential dark side, of course. As Ani Defranco has said, "Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right," and we can all see she's right if we're willing to engage in catastrophic thinking. But learning to avoid the dark and engage the light always stands at the heart of education. Removing sticks or ropes or anything with a pointy bit or scratchy part, I think, impoverishes our children's education in the name of an impossible standard of what we narrowly call "safety." What sets the human animal apart is our ability to invent and use tools; it's one of the things that makes us truly human, and we lose a bit of what we are, and hide a bit of what we can be, when there are no sticks or ropes in our lives.

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Anonymous said...

minor correction: Ani's quote is "every tool is a weapon if you hold it right." ;-)

Trisha said...

YES! While there are times when the ropes and sticks can be just a little scary (when somebody gets one wrapped around their neck for instance!) removing the ropes and sticks is not an option I'm afraid. They are some of the richest learning materials we have - there is little that provides the open opportunity for just about anything in the way a bunch of sticks and a pile of ropes can!

Kylie Moore said...

We love Ropes too Teacher Tom! Thanks so much for your blog, I have just found it and am enjoying it immensely!

Michele @ The Hills are Alive said...

Teacher Tom you're in Australia??? Welcome from a reader from the Sunshine Coast (just up the road from Brisbane). Loads of sticks and rocks and ropes here. Keep on spreading the good word. Enjoy your time in our beautiful part of the world.

Amii said...

I totally agree with you. We have a bag of ropes that we recently rediscovered! The children did some fantastic things with them, have a look


Males in Early Childhood said...

It was great to finally meet you Tom. Isn't it funny how a South African is the one teaching you about Aussie fauna and flora?

I'm not sure what you should fear more, all those deadly animals waiting around every corner or all those women throwing themselves at you.

-Lo said...

I love this!


Juliet Robertson said...

It's so true! I'm a real fan of ropes because the children never cease to amaze me with how they choose to use a rope.

Yes they require good supervision and a bit of loving care to ensure that they last well and are looked after but I do feel a pre-school setting without a rope is a less rich play environment.

Carol said...

Here here Tom. I totally agree.We have ropes which are used everyday in a myriad of ways. Tying loads on trolleys, wound like a winch in the steering wheel (up/down lifting buckets - simple cause and effect), towing bikes and trolleys.
There is so much risk aversion taking place these days, it is staggering. Like most things, give children the knowledge to use these things appropriately. Its all in our perception of children,are they capable and competent?

Ann said...

great I love children to use sticks and ropes. Do you have any rules to keep them safe and help other adults (parents, staff etc) know the children are safe?


Unknown said...

Hi Tom
I have been involved with introducing lots of loose parts into schools and preschools in the UK through the Playpod and OPAL projects and ropes do make me nervous. We had a recent tragedy in a UK nursery involving a rope and a slide. I believe children can be taught to be competent and safe in their use of ropes, but just as with fire I would want them to know that misuse can be very serious and I would not want children who I did not regard as competent using ropes without close supervision.

TheLittleGrownUp said...

I love the idea of allowing children to really thrive while they take charge and discover what they can do with sticks and ropes, but I have to agree with Michael Follett's comment; these materials make me extremely nervous. I have seen children in my class cause bodily harm to themselves and others with all kinds of toys and supplies. Despite my attempts this year to teach them how to use our classroom materials safely and competently, they continued to cause injuries until I was forced to remove materials that had any perceived danger. It makes me feel like I'm cheating these kids, but what can I do? (I'm actually asking here- What can I do about this??)