Monday, March 31, 2014

Getting Close To The Edge

I've written before about having spent several childhood years living in Greece. In the spring and summer, our family, sometimes in the company of other families, would get away for weekends, or even longer, the central attraction of which was playing on a beach. Of course, having grown up with Atlantic Ocean beaches, these mild Mediterranean ones, with their warm, shallow water, and gentle wave action, while undoubtedly beautiful, didn't really hold our interest as long when it came to swimming, and we'd outgrown collecting seashells, so we had to find other things to do.

Once, when I was about 11, we discovered a nice horseshoe shaped beach, framed on either side by rocky cliffs. Naturally, the older children soon lost interest in the surf and ranged toward the rocks, clambering up and over them. To one side we found a natural archway, through which we spied topless women sunbathing, a fact that startled us into running away. Around the other side, however, we found ourselves alone. At the top of one particularly steep incline we discovered a kind of cave outside which was a fig tree heavy with ripe fruit. Sadly, our previous experience with figs had consisted exclusively of fig newtons, so we used them as missiles to hurl at one another. Not all of us were able to scale the height to the cave at first, so we had to coach the younger kids up, but once we'd all made it to the top, we did what all children do when exploring outdoors, unsupervised: we explored some more.

It turned out that the "cave" was made of rocks that were sort of leaning against one another, probably as a result of a previous avalanche, and we found a small exit through which we had to crawl. We were all in our bathing suits, barefoot, and those of us with larger bodies came away from this part of the adventure with bloody scrapes on our sides. Together on the other side, we imagined we'd found a sort of path along the face of the cliff, a way, we told ourselves, others had used before us to get to the "top," whatever that meant. To this day, I'm not certain we were following a path or just imagining one, but it was on the face of a cliff. At one point I recall putting my full weight on a ledge only about half as wide and long as my foot, and as I looked below, realized that I was a misstep away from a 30 foot fall into rocky sea below.

I was born in 1962. I've lived to tell you that this was far from the only time that my play took me close to the edge, and I was, by the standards of my time, a rather cautious child, or at least not the one to leap first.

I first heard of "The Land" about a year ago, a UK playground being made famous by the attentions of Erin Davis, a Vermont-based documentary film maker, when I learned about her successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project.

The Land, Promo from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

When I first saw footage from "The Land," I recognized it right away as what people call an "adventure playground," but what I think of as a "real" place for children. The fact that children play with fire here is the part that grabs our attention, and that is a challenging aspect to get one's mind around, but otherwise I see kids doing the things I remember doing.

The boy sawing cardboard in the video clip? I've done that. Of course, living in a suburb, we didn't have a concentrated playground of junk like this. Instead, we had our entire neighborhood as our "land," a place that opened to us more and more as we got older and bolder, a place connected by the paths we wore through the neighbors' lawns connecting one street with the next. We hopped fences, made enemies, then friends, with the kids from Christopher or Winston Streets, and got "lost" in the remnants of woods we explored on undeveloped lots. Our bicycles allowed us to range for miles, even into "Hampton's Land," a tract of private woods, where we discovered secret places we called "The Sand Pits," or "The Clay Pits." And yes, sometimes, one of us would be carrying a book of matches and we would play with starting and stomping out fires.

The Land (both the documentary and the playground) has lately received a renewed burst of publicity (in my circles, at least) when both were featured in a recent article from The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin entitled The Overprotected Kid. In it, Ms. Rosin discusses her own childhood memories that, while differing in the particulars from my own and from The Land, share the common theme of unsupervised play, outdoors, with friends, the  holy trinity of free play. She worries, as do many of us who work with children, that this has been lost over the course of a single generation. Seriously, once folks my age are gone, there won't be a lot of people left with any kind of first hand experience with this sort of childhood. That is troubling. It's a well-written, thoughtful piece and I urge you to read it.

Adventure playgrounds have obviously informed our outdoor classroom at Woodland Park, which people have both slurred and praised with the phrase "junkyard chic." Our place doesn't have quite the abandoned lot aesthetic of The Land, but we do share many of its elements, including mud, things that are slowly decomposing, and a lack of anything that smacks of the out-of-the-box, cookie cutter playgrounds that have come to dominate the outdoor lives of most American children. As with The Land, families and friends of our school are forever dropping things off, junk really, things that are on their way to the dump, asking, "Can you use this?" and we most often can. Of course, The Land is mostly a place for older children, while we're set up for the 2-6 year old crowd, but the basic concepts of child-lead play with loose parts, "real" things (as opposed to toys), and a healthy relationship with risk-taking rule the day.

Yes, we're a cooperative, so there is quite a bit of adult supervision, but like the professional play workers who "loiter with intent" at The Land, we try to stay out of the way, allowing the children to explore their physical social world through their instinct to play. And yes, to take risks. Perhaps what I like the most about what we are doing is giving parents an opportunity to get to know both their own and other children in the context of "risky" play, of challenging themselves, of performing their own risk assessments, of learning lessons, and gaining confidence through natural consequences.

Yesterday morning I ended my bike ride at the new South Lake Union Park, where I sat on a bench looking out over the water. Between me and the water was a wooden dock where one can temporarily moor a boat. Right at the edge of the dock, they've installed a kind of metal plate with tread on it for traction to, I suppose, make it a little safer for those who are tying up. There were no boats there yesterday, just me and a few other landlubbers enjoying a cool, clear, breezy spring day. A young family was there with their little girl, probably not much older than one. The drop to the surface of the cold, deep water of Lake Union at that point is about three feet and there is no railing or anything to prevent a person from toppling in. The parents were letting the girl run along the dock.

As the girl made her way toward where I sat, the metal plate caught her eye and she veered suddenly toward it, continuing to run a mere inches from the water's edge. If she fell in, someone would have to jump in after her and as the closest adult it was going to have to be me. Her parents started running toward her even as I lurched to my feet. The girl, of course, continued running on the metal plate, un-intimidated by being so close to the edge, confident in her new-found ability to run. She was little and lurch-y and clumsy in the way all new walkers are. She could very have easily found herself in the water, but didn't. When her mom caught up, she instructed the girl to stay on the "wood part," not the "metal part." Naturally, the moment mom let go, the girl was drawn back to the metal plate. Time and time again I saw the mom try to "teach" her child this particular safety point, and time and again the girl was drawn, like steel to a magnet, back to the precarious edge.

We can't remove all risk from our children's lives if only because they are children and are driven to it. There are clearly fundamental educational benefits to getting close to the edge, to exploring those things that at least seem risky. We can either make those opportunities available to our children or they will wait until we aren't looking and take them anyway, in secret, where the stakes tend to be much higher. 

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Dakota said...

I *just* wrote about this topic on my own blog (with the same prompt) and one of the comments I got was from a gal who used to do childcare. She said that she often felt like she wanted to let the kids take risks, but felt she couldn't because of parental judgement and safety/liablity expectations. I'm curious how you address that question at your preschool. Is it the subset of parents you have? Do they all get a rundown of activities when they enroll their child?

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Did you hear that The Land is closed with no set re-opening date? There was a fire, arson, which destroyed the office and a chunk of the playground...just this weekend.

Unknown said...


Thanks you for sharing your childhood memories of outdoor, unsupervised play. I believe there is great value in reflecting on these play experiences and how can we, in today's world, re-create some of those types of opportunities for our children. I have read The Overprotected Kid and watched The Land, which both resonated strongly for me in my own teaching practice. I like the idea of "loiter with intent" because I believe that is our role as educators.

Thanks for tackling the topic:)

Diane Streicher @ Diane Again said...

"We can either make those opportunities available to our children or they will wait until we aren't looking and take them anyway, in secret, where the stakes tend to be much higher."

My experience from working with adolescents and middle-teen children, especially boys, tells me that when we adults deny kids the right to take risks and play independently, they don't just wait passively for another opportunity. They get angry. And that deep-seated frustration eventually spills over into their daily interactions, their primary relationships and their identity. When we deny kids the right to explore the world, we deny them the opportunity to understand themselves, and we need to take responsibility for the understandable rage that ensues.

erin davis said...

Thank you for sharing this story and your observations. I admire your blog, and your work very much.

Regarding the arson, Claire (the manager) has demonstrated unflagging optimism and playfulness by insisting it merely ensures that The Land is in a constant state of change.