Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Disappearing Or Getting Lost

People are often surprised when I say or write that safety is our number one responsibility when it comes to our work with young children. After all, human babies are born uniquely vulnerable compared to other species and they stay that way for quite some time. Psychologist and author Alison Gopnik argues that adults caring for the young is so important for the survival of Homo sapiens that we are among the only species to have evolved grandparents to compensate for how long they remain in a state of relative helplessness.

I don't want the children in my care, or any child, to be injured, which is why I have always started each day by removing and mitigating hazards in their environment.

If there is a rusty nail sticking out at eye level, I pound it down.

If I find broken glass on the playground, I remove it.

If the railing surrounding a high place is wobbly, I shore it up.

It's common sense to identify and remove hazards. But keeping children safe does not mean removing opportunities for children to explore and play with risk. Indeed, brain science tells us that children need risk, genuine risk, if their brains, and the pre-front cortex in particular is to develop properly. If for nothing else, children must experience risk in childhood if they are going to grow into adults who know how to eep themselves safe. 

I want children to be safe, not just for an hour or a day, but for a lifetime, which is why I allow children in my care to play with self-selected risk. It's why I refer to all those bumps, scrapes, cuts and bruises as "learning ouchies." Each bandage, each ice pack, each body part that requires a loving rub or a kiss, represents a moment that a child has challenged themself in order to learn an aspect of the most important lesson there is; to keep themselves safe in this world; to learn their limits, to learn about consequences, and to learn about healing.

Norwegian professor and researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the value of playground risk taking. In her doctoral thesis, entitled, delightfully, Scary Funny, she identifies six categories of risk that young children must explore in the quest of experiencing the "exhilaration and fear" that we all need in order to develop properly: great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, and (perhaps the one that frightens us adults the most in today's climate fear about children) disappearing or getting lost.

There are children hidden in the branches of all of these trees and not an adult (other than me) in sight.

I've been thinking quite a bit about that final one in the afterglow of my recent trip to Iceland to take part in the annual Play Iceland experience. Most play-based settings I've observed on this side of the pond do a decent job of allowing children opportunities to explore the other modes of risk taking, but we tend to freak out about the idea of children disappearing or getting lost. Even the extremely risk-friendly Woodland Park playground is designed to allow adult eyes on every corner.

In contrast, I've never visited an Icelandic preschool that didn't include places for children to experience the exhilaration of disappearing, at least momentarily. The playground pictured in this post is large compared to most American preschool playgrounds and it features stands of trees and patches of shrubbery ideally suited for children to "get lost." As I toured the place, both outdoors and indoors, I came across children, both alone and in groups, playing in out of the way corners, in the branches of trees, and pretty much anyplace that provided them a respite from the adult gaze that follows our children for the entirety of their young lives.

Everywhere I looked, I found these worn places behind rocks and amidst trees where a generation of children have experienced the thrill of being "lost."

Sandsetter writes about exhilaration and fear, but as I've spent time in Icelandic preschools, I get a sense that for many children, these moments of disappearing and getting lost also contain an element of relief. There is a special kind of freedom that I recall from my own childhood that comes from being away, finally, from the critical eyes of adults.

Most impressively, I think, was that other than this intrusive tourist, stumbling across them in their hiding places, the actual adults responsible for them were emphatically not hunting them out. They were not constantly counting heads or calling their names. They left the children to be lost, trusting that they would allow themselves to be found when the time came to reveal themselves.

Do the children in our care have these important opportunities disappear or get lost, and if not, how can we provide them? Perhaps it is as simple as adding blankets under which they can hide or large appliance boxes or rooms where they can simply shut the door. It's a start at least. It's something we should all be thinking about, especially if we want children to grow up to know how to keep themselves safe.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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