Monday, June 29, 2020

Teaching Themselves to Stay Safe While Testing Their Limits

A dance instructor who had been teaching Woodland Park children for several years, once said to me, "I teach kids all over the city. The kids from here are the most physically coordinated children I've ever taught."

It wasn't exactly intended as a compliment, but I treated it like one, "Really? Thank you." Then, "I wonder why."

We were outdoors in the junkyard playground, children swarming around us. She kicked at the wood chips under her feet, "I think it's this playground. Look at it. There's not a flat surface out here."

The playground is built on a sloping, undulating surface. I'd considered that lack of a flat place as something of a detriment given that some activities are better suited for the flatlands, but I've also always valued the uneven surface. Indeed, I often remarked on the fact that for some of our two-year-olds, the youngest children we enroll, just walking from place to place was often a challenge. 

"And all these logs and tree stumps are out here," she continued. When we first built the place over a decade ago, a tree service had dropped off a tall cedar's worth of rounds instead of taking it to the chipper. We used them to create the borders of a large two-level pit that we filled with a dump truck's worth of sand. Sometime later, a parent had dropped off a stack of uncut firewood that the children sometimes used as building material or furniture or props in a game of pretend, but which more often than not just lived in the space, scattered about in a way that made at least one adult fret about "tripping hazards." The logs and tree stumps were a particular challenge for the youngest children, some of whom had to work mightily just to clamber into the sand pit, but the oldest kids spent their days leaping from stump to stump, jumping over logs, balancing their way from place to place, barely pausing to consider what they were doing.

"And that concrete slope." She was referring to what we call "the concrete slide," a slab poured generations ago to prevent erosions. It was such a steep, hard surface that when we first moved into the place we adults restricted access for fear of injuries. And, honestly, at first it was a bit of a hazard with scrapes and bruises occurring several times a day, but as the children practiced, they got better at it. Again, the youngest children continued to struggle, but as the years passed, it became a sort of rite of passage to be able to climb to the top to stand amongst the lilacs like the big kids. As the dance instructor and I stood there, children were using ropes which they had tied to the lilacs to haul themselves up, then once at the top, dropping to their seats to slide back to the bottom. Some were foregoing the ropes altogether having learned to get a running start, while others were using the "secret ways" to ascend which involves using the exposed lilac roots as a kind of impromptu ladder.

"I mean, it's the whole place," she said. "The swings, the playhouse, the shipping pallets . . . And all the freedom to just go for it." I thought about all those two-year-olds who've come to us unsteady and uncertain, wobbling around the playground, spending almost as much time on their bottoms as on their feet. Those kids who then played here day after day for two, three, four years, adapting to the unevenness, the obstacles, and the quirks that make you pay attention to what you're doing. I thought of all the extra scrapes and bruises that pop up whenever there were children playing with us who hadn't "grown up" there. 

Public playgrounds have to be designed with those kids in mind, the inexperienced ones, but a place like this (or a backyard playground) has a different purpose. Those other places are essentially for occasional use, physical entertainments intended for an hour or two, but playgrounds like Woodland Park's are a place to grow up, a place to test yourself day after day, a place for learning about your body moving in space over the span of years. Those public playgrounds must be made "safer," and therefore more mundane, because the children who play there generally don't have the sweep of time necessary to teach themselves, step-by-step, how to keep themselves safe while simultaneously testing their limits.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 

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