Wednesday, February 19, 2014

About Not Falling Down

You can hardly be anywhere with young children without finding at least one of them engaged in an experiment with balance, usually of the full-body variety. Every time I turned around there was a child walking atop a wooden plank or carefully navigating the tops of the tree rounds that line our sand pit. Almost every day a child will demonstrate for me how she can stand on one foot or perform the arabesque she learned in ballet class.

Falling down and not falling down are clearly important aspects of a high quality early childhood education, but it's clearly not as simple as that, because the moment they learn to move, children engage, as long as they're given an opportunity, in increasingly challenging feats of balance. Not all of them are daredevils, of course, but all of them work on their balancing skills.

Awhile back I was talking with a new acquaintance who is a fitness trainer. He said that one of the most common phenomena in his business are adults who commit themselves to getting into shape, join a gym, adopt a regimen, work hard at if for awhile, then less hard at it, then stop altogether. "It stops being fun and just becomes work," he said. "I'm trying to get my clients to understand that they could be working out all the time if they'd just stop being embarrassed -- and it would be fun." He then proceeded to describe to me what children do all day long as they go about their days: balancing along curbs, jumping on and off of low walls, swinging from tree branches, running up and down hills. "It won't necessarily result in a chiseled physique, but it is all about developing full body functional strength."

That's what the kids are doing, of course, when they tackle these challenges, developing their full body functional strength. It's not a commitment they make, because it's one of the natural aspects of their urge to simply play and it's an urge that becomes stunted by the addictive lure of screens, by the fear implanted by those who perpetually warn them that they're going to kill themselves, and the knee-jerk idea some adults have that there is such a thing as "bad weather." It's an urge, that as we get older, we come to find embarrassing in ourselves, as somehow not "mature," as a set-up to be accused of not acting our age by both our parents and our peers.

I forget about this all the time in my day to day life and I'm one of the lucky ones for whom it's always okay to be a bit sweaty or dirty. When I pass rockeries I usually fight back the urge to leap up on the first rock, then hop across them. When I see a grassy slope I typically just think about running to the top, then rolling back down. 

Lately, I've been trying to remind myself to not fight the urge, to go ahead and jump up and try to touch that awning or stride along the sidewalk two concrete slabs at a time. So if you see a 52-year-old man with his arms flailing as he balances along the back of a park bench, it might just be me, playing, learning, and as a side benefit, working on my functional strength.

Just this weekend, in fact, I arrived at a speaking engagement in Portland a bit early, so I decided to take advantage of a warm, steamy sun break to go for a walk in the large park across the street from the venue. It was a place of rolling, grassy hills, sports fields and a winding, paved path. It had been raining, hard, all day, so there were puddles and rivulets to dodge and leap along the way. Soon I began to encounter other people, adults, all of whom were trudging straight ahead, getting their heart-rates up, breaking a sweat, working on their fitness. They all nodded back to me when I greeted them, but none mirrored my smile, concentrating on speed and distance. I tried to stay focused on the moment, on the challenge of avoiding soaking my feet in the lava-water that was everywhere, first up on by tip-toes, then stretching it out with a modified grand jete. At some point I calculated that I could get back to my starting point by leaving the paved path and took a detour over a grassy hill, sacrificing dry feet as my Converse high tops soaked through almost instantly. If you're going to play outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, wet socks are a fact of life. 

I noticed almost instantly that the ground was saturated and the grass slippery. It took my full concentration to make it to the top of the ridge from which I could see the parking lot where my car awaited. I enjoyed the panorama for a moment before heading down the other side, carefully at first, keeping my feet as flat so as to put as much rubber to the ground as possible. As I got closer to the bottom of the hill, I felt the urge to jog the rest of the way down, which is when I took my first fall, landing on my backside. I felt the moisture on my seat and saw the muddy stripe on my calf, but I bounced immediately back up and without a moment's hesitation jogged a few more steps before falling again. This time a slid a couple feet. 

When I got to the bottom my lower body and elbows were thoroughly mud smeared, with my presentation coming up in a few minutes. I tried cleaning up a bit, but there was no hiding it, so that's how I showed up to give my spiel. This time it was about falling down. Next time, perhaps, it will be about not falling down. In any event, I will continue to work on my functional strength, even as embarrassment lurks on the downside of every hill.

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Stephanie Schuler said...

Love this activity! Reminds me (on a much smaller and less daunting scale!) of my high school trip to a team-building high ropes course.

Becky said...

:) I find it much easier to do this sort of fun with a child along. So, I'm lucky to have a 4 year old. We take full advantage of the fact that no one goes to playgrounds in the winter in NJ and that is where I get my "workout" on those days. When there are more people, I am concerened I'll be in the kids' way, and get less involved, but really the playground is public and all should be able to use it--respectfully.