Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Creating A Just-Right Challenge For Themselves

A long-ish 2X4 had been dragged across the path. It was in an awkward spot in my estimation so I picked it up and, in the spirit of play, positioned it to span the gap between the tops of the cedar rounds that line the lower level of our sandpit and our playground row boat. Several two-year-olds watched me do it. I said, "It's a bridge," then immediately wished I hadn't said it. A bridge is for crossing and I wasn't sure it was a good idea to encourage kids this young to give it a go: it was narrow, un-secured, and relatively high. I said, "I'll take it down."

"I want to go across."

"Me too."

I cautioned, "It's very narrow and very wobbly. I think it might be a bridge for grown-ups and not kids. I'll show you." I started across expecting that I'd either lose my balance or that the wood would slip off of one end or another. I was prepared to make a comical show of falling into the sand, waving my arms about and whooping in mock fear, but to my surprise the span felt fairly solid. It bent under my weight, but I managed to make it.

I said, "That was hard, but I did it." A clutch of kids gathered around the other end of the wood, but there were initially no takers. Several even said, "I want to try it," but they hung back, their sense of self-preservation warning them that perhaps Teacher Tom was right, maybe this was a grown-up bridge. Then, after a minute or two, a girl who I know to be particularly physically capable stepped up. She carefully tested the 2X4 bridge with one booted foot, then another. She paused as she felt the board bend a bit, shuffled forward a few inches, then stopped, again feeling her balance. She had begun walking with her toes forward as I had, but now carefully turned her body side-ways so that her feet her perpendicular to the wood and like this, slowly, she shuffled her way across. When she reached the end, she bent down to grasp the edge of the boat with both hands and stepped in to stand beside me.

No one had told the others to wait. They had watched their friend all the way to the end, but once she had accomplished the feat, several more said, "I want to go across," although there was still a lot of hesitation. Finally, a boy, another kid who I know to be physically capable, stepped a foot onto the board. He stopped as the girl had before him, feeling his balance. He tried a second step, then stopped again. I could see he was uncertain. I said, perhaps unnecessarily, "You don't have to try it," and began to move into a position to catch him if he fell. He then crouched, lowering his center of gravity. From there he reached his hands in front of him and began to methodically crawl across the bridge, fully concentrating on his effort.

Now the floodgates were open. The next child tried stepping onto the board, then sat on it, then straddled it, with her feet dangling almost to the ground on either side. Like this, she scooted her way across. This then became the method of choice, with child-after-child scooting one behind the other.

The human instinct for self-preservation is strong. I had bumbled into setting up something that was potentially hazardous, at least for children this young. I'd misguidedly made it worse by role modeling a potentially hazardous behavior. And yet the children, on their own, these two-year-olds, with no extra warnings from me, had taken most of the hazard out of it, creating a just-right challenge for themselves. And my job was to simply marvel at it.

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