Thursday, November 07, 2013

Exploring Height

Several years ago, I learned to walk on four-foot stilts to take part in our neighborhood summer solstice parade. It was a nerve-wracking experience, walking around with my head 10 feet in the air. Our instructor kept reassuring us that it really was no different than walking, that learning to balance on on stilts was the same as learning to walk in heels, that once we got used to our new center of gravity, we would be able to do anything on stilts we could do on the flat ground. Intellectually, I believed her, but never had the space between knowledge and actual acceptance of the knowledge been greater for me. It wasn't the physical challenge, because it really was just walking, as much as it was a psychological one I had to overcome.

Of course, as with most things, practice and experience are the keys and our cohort eventually worked its way up to tottering around Green Lake, a three mile hike amidst joggers, prams, and cyclists. Still, I never got comfortable up there, I could never eliminate the fear of falling, and it was with no small amount of relief that I had to bow out of the ensemble due to a non-fall related injury suffered a few days before the actual parade.

Most children are driven to explore height, engaging their full bodies in their experiments: experiments that we adults typically label as risky. And there is an element of risk, of course, which is true of anything for which there is a reward.

We warn and nag children about their explorations of high places, too often addressing our own anxieties by simply forbidding them. Every year a handful of parents in our Pre-3's class will start the year by informing me that their child is a daredevil, that we will need to keep an eye on him or her at all times, lest they kill themselves. My own daughter's school installed a magnificent rope-based climber only to immediately place strict restrictions on climbing to the very top. There is a body of thought that children are naturally prone to want to kill themselves, an absurd idea, of course, but one that guides too much of our interaction with active young children.

While we don't have a climber at Woodland Park, a conscious decision, we do have plenty of naturalistic opportunities for children to engage in their study of being up high, with a minimum of nagging from adults. Yes, when children appear to be taking an undue risk, we do engage them in a risk assessment discussion, but we rarely forbid them from their efforts. By the same token, our policy is that children should not be helped into situations in which they cannot get themselves under their own power under the theory that if they are capable of climbing to a certain height, they are ready to attempt it.

When left to explore height in this way, at their own pace, all of them start low, engaging in balancing play only a few feet off the ground, working their way up as they get older and more experienced, the way I should have with those stilts. This is the proper way to learn about height, incrementally, getting comfortable a few inches off the ground before taking it up to a foot, then two-feet, then finally up to the full four-feet and higher.

I suppose there are some who would scold us for "letting" the children engage in these experiments, but it really isn't a matter of "letting." Children who are driven to it will make the attempt, be it on our radar or off, and off our radar is far more dangerous than on. I often say that we can never really prevent an injury; we can only at best succeed in pushing that injury off into the future, which is perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.

In fact, if I've learned anything as both a parent and teacher it's that no one has ever prevented a child from attempting something they really want to attempt. Sure, I can stop her today and tomorrow, but eventually that experiment is going to be tried, and when I forbid it, I guarantee that the attempt will be made when my back is turned. How much better it is to be present with our children when they must perform their experiments, if only so we're there to pick them up when they fall down.

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Nancy Dustin said...

You said it all. They will complete their experiment at some point, most likely when your back is turned. I prefer to have a conversation before the attempt and then let consequences happen naturally. Never say "I told you so. I never step in and help, they will achieve their goal when they are ready.

Nancy Schimmel said...

That was me, climbing all through my childhood and adolescence--bannisters, furniture, fences, trees, cliffs. My mother said later that she was frightened for me but didn't want to teach me to be frightened. Quarter-way down a cliff in college, I decided the stone was too crumbly and wouldn't go on with the others to the beach. I wondered if I was becoming a grown-up and losing my youthful sense of invincibility. My friends got down and up fine, but years later I read about a couple of people who died on that cliff. I wasn't being a grown-up (whew!) I was just being a sensible person with some experience to back me up. I've never broken a bone in my life.

Anonymous said...

I have a new teaching position working with 5 and 6 year olds. I have to enforce rules about climbing which I often think are stupid. There is equipment which children are allowed to climb on where they have fallen and gotten hurt. So far it has been minor injuries such as bumping a lip. No broken bones thank goodness! Some of the things like a tunnel slide that children are not allowed to climb on are actually safer, but I have to enforce rules made by supervisors. Generally I see that children know their own personal limitations and climb on things as they are comfortable and can reach/manage. My own son when he was six was climbing a tree in our backyard he had climbed safely previously, and fell because his shoes didn't have adequate traction after a misty morning. My husband and I were standing right there, but couldn't have prevented the fall. It freaked us out, but after the initial panic (by both child and parents) he was just fine! Another friend's child at age 6 used to climb about 30 feet up a pine tree and though it was a bit nerve wracking for those of us on the ground he loved it, and at 14 is still with us today! Obviously, bad things can happen to climbing children like when Eric Clapton's 4 year old son fell off the balcony of a NY skyscraper. And sometimes those kind of things happen so fast none of us has the reflexes to halt gravity. Supervision is important and necessary. Judgement is also important. Some rules about climbing seem over cautious, but children are individuals and what is no big deal for some is an injury for others. I suppose that is why limits are posed at the least experienced/coordinated children one is monitoring in group situations. Sometimes as a parent, one child has proven he/she can handle a challenge, while another child needs to wait until he/she is ready. And sometimes that's the older child rather than the younger one!
I used to love stilts as a child and teenager, but am not sure I'd use ones that are 4 feet off the ground now in my 50's! I'd probably go for a lower version, but I still feel up to the challenge of using stilts!