Monday, November 17, 2014

Safety Drills

On a regular basis, we adults at Woodland Park drill the children on the finer points of both personal and community safety.

Last week for instance, the grown-ups kept our distance as a team of 4-year-olds put themselves through a battery of physically demanding exercises involving our swing set, starting when they re-discovered how to place a long plank between the two seats, creating what we usually call "the giant swing."

They began with simple balancing and cooperation drills, starting with a child standing on each end of the board, holding the chains in two hands, as a third child sat, straddling the board, while holding a purple stick pony in his right hand. They had originally set out to practice the more challenging safety exercise of four kids standing together, but two of them quickly recognized that they were in over their heads, so they adjusted the maneuver to instead work on a few of their more foundational balance and cooperation skills which is what lead to the straddling. 

We adults nodded from a distance in admiration of their commitment to developing their core safety competencies.

They then began practicing what they would do should they find ladders in and around the swing area. 

On this day, they concentrated specifically on what would happen if there was a step ladder adjacent to the giant swing. 

It took some doing to get it just right, but I'm confident at least one girl is feeling pretty good about how to safely climb over the top of the step ladder and down other side onto the giant swing. 

They also practiced their safety skills when a homemade ladder is present. These are particularly technical drills. The ladder is positioned with one end on the ground and the other angled up onto the seat of the giant swing. This gives the children a chance to practice being safe when they do what they would do upon discovering a homemade ladder positioned with one end on the ground and the other angled up onto the seat of the giant swing. 

Most of the children are successfully crawling up with an acceptable safety record, but one of our students appears ready to take the next step. Repeatedly, concentrating on his feet while also providing instructions to his friends about how they could best support his efforts (such as keeping still), he drilled himself on how to safely step his way up to the second rung before jumping off. An exercise he repeated several times.

They then worked on what safety skills they would use should they need to employ the homemade ladder as a seesaw. 

Naturally, as the teacher, I was the leader of these drills, a responsibility I performed, for the most part, from outside the schoolyard fence (where I was simultaneously operating the hose that fills the cistern of our cast iron pump). I supported their efforts by raising my eyebrows in just the right way and occasionally lowering them into an ernest frown meant to communicate, had they looked in my direction, that I too was serious about safety.

These are not easy drills, mind you, especially since they must test themselves for every eventuality, such as doing it on one leg, or jumping, or causing the whole thing to swing higher or twist crazily. 

We find that a running dialog amongst the players is important to coordinating safety efforts. I was particularly impressed with their ongoing safety discussions, which I acknowledged by winking my right eye in a subtle, yet supportive way:

"Try it like this!"

"Hey, that almost hit me!"

"Stop! Stop! You're moving it too much!"

These, instructional statements were interspersed with those important safety sentences that begin with the word "Let's . . ." These "Let's . . . " sentences are a vital part of their drills in that they tend to preface planning discussions. For instance, "Let's pretend this is a ship" would lead to developing a series of specialized drills designed to prepare them for those moments when it's imperative that they pretend the giant swing is a ship.

We finished by adding a pair 10 foot long cedar 2"X2"s. We have some work to do on how we would stay safe while experimenting with a sudden catapulting action in the midst of lots of people. But, naturally, that's not an insurmountable problem because we can always work on it until we get it right. Like I said, we do these drills both regularly and rigorously, which is the key to any good safety program.

When they were done, I wore an expression that, had they been looking, would have let them know I expect the same sort of effort tomorrow. Nothing less will do when it comes to safety.

(On a serious note: Before chastising me for not taking safety seriously, let me assure you there is no one more safety conscious than me. That is why we permit children to experiment with risk. When we don't allow children to practice assuming responsibility for their own safety, we leave them dangerously unprepared for the hazards that exist in the real world. From where I sit, a classroom in which adults enforce a long lists of "safety rules" places young children at far more risk than this sort of play. And yes, a few bumps and bruises are a necessary part of how safety lessons are learned: this is true whether you have a long list of safety rules or not.)

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