Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Just Right Risk

When the teacher can't make it to class in a cooperative school, the parent-teachers take over. Last Thursday and Friday I was traveling, so I left our 5's class in those capable hands. When I arrived on Monday, I found an elaborate construction in and around the laurels adjacent to the concrete slide. It was one of those builds the 5's have been creating this year, involving most of our larger loose parts, such as planks, gutters, tires, pipes, our home made ladder, and a large wooden crate.

My initial reaction was, That could be hazardous, but left it in place as I had more pressing things to deal with having been gone for a few days, figuring I would investigate it with the kids when we were later outdoors and let them tell me about what they had made.

I later learned it was a tree house, and one of the boys immediately walked me through the intricacies of the construction, explaining how they had created it and what each part represented. He pointed to one plank in particular, saying, "That's the important one. If somebody moves that, the whole thing will fall down." As I took my tour, I tested it's stability with my hands and feet and found, despite it's apparent slap-dash construction, that it was indeed a passably stable structure.

What I was most impressed by, however, was how this group of boys played on it. There was none of the daredevil jumping and swinging and boundary testing one so often sees on playgrounds featuring typical climbers that come from a box, the sort of play made necessary to add a sense of thrill to things that have otherwise had their sense of thrill designed out of them by our tendency to over-protect children. 

Like it or not, kids need risk in their lives, the chance to test themselves. It's an aspect common to children's play in all societies, in all circumstances, throughout history. In fact, this kind of risk-taking play is not even species specific: it's found in all mammals and many birds. One of the fundamental evolutionary characteristics of youth is to seek out "just right risk," and if the opportunity is not there, as it so often isn't in the play spaces we set aside for children, they create it for themselves, and then it's very often not of the "just right" variety.

Not surprisingly, one of the main characteristics of the children's play in their tree house was caution. As they moved up and down and around the structure, they moved deliberately, testing each hand and foot hold as they went. They knew, without being told, to take turns, to not push and shove, to give themselves and others enough space and time to explore. Whenever someone challenged themselves by trying out the angled platform (formerly the base of a wooden rocking horse) they'd wedged amongst the branches, the highest point in their construction, the others would gather around below, coaching, keeping an eye on the undergirding, cautioning, almost like an impromptu safety team. Often, someone would call out, "Stop!" then take a moment to make the structure more secure before giving their friend the go-ahead. In fact, as they played it was hard not to think of all of this as "safety play," as they continuously sought to improve and explore their tree house.

It was fascinating to watch the individual kids find the "just right risk" for themselves, within the context of a spontaneous team project. Some spent the entire time buzzing around the base, never really moving beyond ground level, finding plenty of challenge traversing this steep slope, the concrete slide, and the building materials. Others tested out the branches above the construction, moving higher into the trees, perhaps discovering places the group might want to go in the future.

Another striking characteristic of the play was that while it was robust and physical, full of the usual quibbling, these 5 year old boys, an age group notorious for "loosing it," maintained the sort of emotional and physical even-keel required for this sort of play. There might have been arguments, but they didn't go beyond a few cross words. As we often discuss around the work bench while engaged with hammer, saws, or glue guns, risky things and strong emotions simply don't go together. We didn't need to remind them of this: it was built into their play, just as was an ever-present sense of caution. 

There were two adults always nearby, closely supervising this play. And while we were physically near we mostly stayed out of it, "loitering with intent," and the children, as children always do when left to explore their world according to their own instincts, found their group and individual levels of "just right risk."

Pretty cool stuff. The stuff of childhood. This is the kind of play we owe our children.

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1 comment:

james said...

i like this post very much. everything are enjoyable.