Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Last week, Lenore Skenazy of the Free-Range Kids blog, a woman who was once labeled the "worst mother in the world" for letting her son ride the New York City subway alone, linked to a post I wrote awhile back about how "brave" we are for having a swing set on our playground. She praised us for not giving in to the kind of "worst-first thinking" that has lead other schools to deem swings too dangerous for children. I was flattered, of course, Lenore is one of the folks responsible for opening my eyes to the damage we do to children when we let our worst fears about things like "stranger danger" and physical risk-taking prevent us from allowing our children a normal childhood.

Naturally, I read through the comments, most of which involved adults remembering the joy of swinging or detailing the cognitive and physical benefits of swinging for developing children. Good stuff. And then I started reflecting on how we really use our swing set on a day-to-day basis: some days, the kids swing, but most days the kids are using it as a place for asking and answering their own questions about physics and their own bodies, which is the reason we come to school.

For instance, yesterday a new student, a three-year-old wanted to sit in our pallet swing. She asked me to help her and I did by pointing out that there was a step-stool nearby. She positioned the stool, but try as she might, she wasn't able to summon up the courage to step from the stool onto the unstable swing. After several minutes, she declared, "I can't" and climbed back down, but that didn't stop her. She then retrieved a plank of wood and made a ramp from the ground to the swing. She climbed the wobbly thing on her hands and knees, slowly until she was at the very top, but after a half dozen tries, again decided it was a bit much for her to take that last step. This was her own risk assessment at work: she had gone as far as she was comfortable even though there were no adults standing around warning her to "be careful."

Her efforts, however, attracted other kids who, when she was done, used her ramp for their own ascents, most crawling as she had, each cautiously at first, none needing me to rattle them with incessant cautions. As they practiced, they developed both confidence and skills right before my eyes. By the end there were children balancing up the plank on their feet, often with two or more friends bouncing and wiggling the apparatus. And after watching for awhile, our new student, the one who started it all, finally took her turn, inspired by the successes of her classmates.

Sometimes we use those planks and hang them between the two regular swings to make a "giant swing," big enough to accommodate a half dozen kids at once. Other times we place the plank across a swing, making what we call a "teeter swing." Indeed, our planks are regular additions to the swing set, which is why our new student found one so close at hand.

A couple weeks back a pair of boys invented a game they called "bumper cars" in which they sat sideways on the swings, then took turn bumping the tire swing, which we've hung between the regular swings, back and forth to one another. This is science and they were enjoying the thrill of "Eureka!" as they did a thing that had never been done before.

And then there is the "spinning" game the kids like to play with the pallet swing. Two or more of them take holds of the sides, then start walking in a circle twisting the ropes together, lifting the wooden pallet higher and higher. Sometimes a kid or two will even sit on it, eagerly awaiting a thrilling ride when they let go: the pallet spins faster and faster until it reaches bottom with a sudden lurch before beginning to wind itself in the opposite direction.

Notice the adults in the background, available, watchful, but standing back to give the children space to think for themselves.

Yes, if the corner of that spinning pallet hit a kid, it would hurt, but the kids know that, they're prepared for it. They've been playing with that pallet swing for a long time now and they know the hazards. You should hear them cautioning one another as they wind it up, warning others to step back, warning one another that they're going to have to "run" when they let go, working together to make sure they all release it together using verbal cues of their own devising, usually something like, "Now!" as they all duck away.

These guys twisted up the swing, then instead of letting go, they held on and lifted their feet off the ground, giving themselves an exciting, twirling ride

And then we sit around watching it spin, commenting, some kids even stepping in as it slows down to be the first to take hold and start twisting it up again. All the while, they are keeping themselves safe, taking their own risk-assessment in to their own hands, learning from one another, talking, not engaging in worst-first thinking, but rather, thinking rationally, using a common sense approach to the risks we all know they must take as part of a normal childhood. This shouldn't be something for which we receive congratulations; this is what childhood is supposed to be about.

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1 comment:

Danna said...

You know what struck me and stood out as I read this? Obviously the kids learning to evaluate risk for themselves, which is a critical life skill. I often explain to other moms and to my husband, as my 8 & 10 year old sons are doing things that are perceived as being "dangerous" or physically "risky" that I'd rather them risk a broken arm now and learn about assessing risk and their own limits, than learn that lesson at 16, driving my car on a freeway. But, what really struck me was the lessons about perseverance and overcoming ones on fears. About trying and trying, about overcoming the barrier of one's own fear and accomplishing something. About not succeeding the 1st time and continuing to try to find a method and the courage to succeed in a later attempt. Those are SUCH critical life skills that so many young kids are denied the opportunity to learn in our over scheduled, over managed, over supervised modern childhood experience.