Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"It's Soooo Dangerous"

A few years back I inherited a box of costume jewelry, mostly earrings and broaches. When I offered them up to the Pre-K class to consider as additions to their costumes for our Pre-K play, they were mostly only interested in declaring various pieces "dangerous." I understood the pins on the backs of the broaches -- no one likes to be pricked -- but earring posts? 

"These are dangerous?" I asked, trying to sound incredulous.

"Yeah," answered Jody, "Somebody could poke it through their skin." The others nodded.

Our outdoor classroom is bestrewn with "loose parts." When educators use that term,
they're usually referring to rocks and sticks and pine cones, natural things, but at
 Woodland Park we stretch the definition to include all kinds of things, including
 discarded costume jewelry.

"Really?" I was genuinely irritated by this development. This wasn't supposed to take up much time. I just wanted to let the kids take what they wanted, then we would add the rest to the outdoor classroom. I thought they'd make cool loose parts, but the kids were finding danger in my plan. I made a show of poking my finger with an earring post. "It doesn't even hurt. See?"

Several of the kids offered up their own fingers. "Did it poke through anyone's skin?" No, it hadn't. I figured we were now ready to move on. I'd leave the broaches at the workbench with a pair of pliers with which the kids could break off the pins, but at least we wouldn't have to do anything with the earrings.

Jody said, "They didn't poke through our skin because we're big kids. But the little kids might poke themselves . . . because they're little." His friends agreed and since we didn't have any little kids around on which to test Jody's thoughtful theory. I was thwarted.

So we divided everything into two piles: a very small "safe" pile and a very large "dangerous" pile. We believe at Woodland Park in involving children in their own risk assessments, but just as they sometimes create draconian rules when left to make their own rules, they sometimes find danger behind every tree when left to assess their own risks. It's part of the pendulum process of figuring out how to be responsible for oneself, I know, so I took a deep breath and went with the swing, knowing full well that it wouldn't be long before one of them careened from being hyper-cautious into trying something that caused my heart to leap into my throat.

As it turns out, the children were either not capable or not interested in removing the dangerous bits on their own, and so it was that I found myself the following morning sitting in the outdoor classroom, using a pair of pliers to render the costume jewelry "safe." We were later going to visit our neighborhood fire station, but in the meantime we were waiting, and Jody was one of the first kids there.

"What're you doing, Teacher Tom?"

"Breaking off the dangerous parts."

"Those are sooooo dangerous."

"Not any more," I said, tossing a post-less earring into the sand pit. I was long over my irritation. I sometimes babble. "Oh, I shouldn't have done that. It's already so messy out here. Maybe we should make a rule: no making things messy."

Jody thought about it for a moment. "No, that's not a good rule. Making things messy is how kids have fun."

"Really? Then I guess that would be a bad rule."

"Yeah, it would be a bad rule."

I tossed a pin-less broach into the sand pit. "What happens when everything is just totally messy?"

"Then we'll have to build it all back up, then mess it up again."

"And that's how to have fun?"


"Do you want to help me mess this jewelry around the playground?"

"That's not fun."

"Okay, I'll do it myself."

"It's soooo dangerous."

"Are you kidding me?"

"I was always kidding you, Teacher Tom."

I don't always know if the kids know what they're saying, but as I painstakingly broke yet another tiny post off an earring I kind of suspected Jody knew exactly what he was saying.

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