Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Listening to Their Inner Voice of Experience

The only rule we ever had surrounding our swing set is that the adults didn't push the kids. Other than that, we took things on an ad hoc basis, allowing the children to experiment and explore as they saw fit, negotiating and re-negotiating as new circumstances and new children arrived. 

Many of our four- and five-year-olds, partly because adults were not pushing them, had figured out how to "pump" themselves, a rite of passage skill like whistling, snapping, or winking. This meant that the kids were starting to experience some of their classmates swinging higher and faster than they did at the beginning of the school year. There may have been a time when the adults felt compelled to warn the kids about the danger of swings, but it had been months since I'd heard one. That's because the children, of their own accord, perceiving the potential for injury should one not remain alert around a swing in motion, had taken on that role for themselves, listening to their inner voices of experience rather than the external one of command.

One day, a newly-minted high flyer was really leaning into it. A couple of friends stopped to admire her. They stood directly in front of her in a spot close to where her feet were arcing into the sky, but just out of reach.

The girl in the swing shouted through a mischievous grin, "Be careful! I might kick you!"

Her friends reflected her grin back at her, then accepted the challenge by stepping closer. On most playgrounds an adult probably would have swooped in, but our community of parent-teachers had learned that not only do these kids know their limits, it was also necessary for them to occasionally test those limits because that's part of how we grow in wisdom.

On the next swing forward, the swinger's boots missed the heads of her friends by a good two feet, so they stepped closer. This time they were within a foot of being kicked, so they stepped closer. Their beaming faces were mere inches from her boots, so they stepped even closer. Now they were within range and they knew it. You could tell by how they prepared their bodies: poised to dodge. They had the measure of the timing by now and as those boots headed their way, they stood their ground until the last second, before falling back, pretending to be kicked, dramatically acting out the worst case scenario, laughing at the near miss they had carefully manufactured for themselves.

They did it again and again, all three of them laughing at the risk they were pretending to take. There were a couple times when the dodgers waited a bit too long or were a little clumsy in getting out of the way, but the girl on the swing simply curled her legs away from them, insuring that there was no actual contact even if there theoretically could have been.

These are important moments for children and when we over-regulate them we rob them of the opportunity to learn about themselves and others. As the adult responsible in that moment, I was alert, staying nearby, ready to coax or coach as the case may have required. I may have responded differently had different children been involved or different emotions or a different style of risk-taking. What I saw in this case, however, was three children fully in control of their situation even as it may have looked hazardous to someone viewing the situation from the outside.

This is the problem, of course, with many of our "safety" rules: they create hard, immovable boundaries when living, breathing ones are called for so that children can actually make a space into which they can grow, even if that space is only the whisker of daylight between the heel of a boot and their chin.


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