For the past years, the outside play yard at our school (known as the Big Yard) which is surrounded by a fence and concrete retaining wall supporting a grassy hillside, has suddenly expanded to include a whole new frontier for the k-2 class to explore. We have opened the floodgates to a Lewis and Clark expedition along a newly chartered hillside that provides a vista view of the Olympic Mountain range, on any clear day.
There was a gradual process leading to our backyard expeditions.
First it began with electing one of our better-coordinated agile ones to scale the fence to retrieve any balls that have gone over. And for about a week the teachers tossed around the idea of opening up this area to the oldest group in the school.
Now, just about every one in the K-2 class excels at hopping the fence. The fence they straddle to climb over runs parallel with the retaining wall, and the wall has spots that are more accessible than others, but this is still no easy hurdle for 5 or 6 years old legs and arms. Here’s a quick disclaimer about our seemingly dangerous mission: First off, after much practice, these kids are trained experts at leaping over fences and balancing themselves, and support each other cooperatively on steep inclines. I have also noticed that those who are fearful of climbing over the fence do not. In fact they want you to help them over, which I won’t for the sake of building independence, and after several attempts – sometimes days later – they do make it over. Now that that’s out in the open, lets continue onward to the other side.
On the other side of the fence, lies another fence, just at the crest of the hill, preventing anyone from stepping foot into a residential road. No, this is a wiry tall fence and their smart enough not to even think about climbing this one. The hillside is full of thick tall grass and bushy Scottsbroom, which flower yellow come spring (quite invasive in the newest). But in this case, this is the perfect plant because they are pliable, smooth, and resilient enough for them to pull themselves up as they topple over, or use the roots to get more leverage on those steeper areas. As soon as these kids set foot on the hillside, the warrior and wild games begin, as they turn to dragons, hunters, and wolves. Also all the other side you can find the remnants of bamboo posts from our garden that can quickly become spears. (No one has lost an eye…knock on bamboo) This is the point were we bark a teachery request like: “Please don’t use them as weapons or your welcome to use those sticks as walking staffs…only…” Or occasionally, we say, “PLEASE STOP SWINGING THE STICK…PLEASE PUT IT DOWN,” if it gets a little surly up there. And an eye is saved. In all honesty the sticks are quite useful, as I tested their purpose as a walking staff when I walked the hillside perimeter myself. (Suddenly instead of teacher I became a dragon they wanted to slay. But I held my ground.) In fact, I’m glad I used the stick (as a staff of course), as I almost lost my own footing. So yes, we established a few ground rules: no sticks as weapons, no going past what we call the doors (an area out of our sight), and leave the sticks where you found them – on the hillside and away from smaller hands in the yard.
There is something magical that takes place when these kids leap over a fence to an area that is has a bit of urban wild to it. Automatically they are placed in a unique perspective in relation to their environment. They will slide down the hill on their bottom, hide behind the shrubs, get caught is a few brambles, break sticks over rocks, roll around, fall laugh, make up new games, help each other out if their stuck, and other wise care for each other.
Our play yard space at the school is not small by any means, but an extras strip of land on a hillside has made their world. Our only hope is that the thrill of this new adventure, never wears off. And as they grow older they continue to over come obstacles or any barrier in front of them.
Today, two people who in the past could not make it over finally did. Their smiles and statuesque exuberating confidence, with a return thumbs up comment from the teacher… “YOU GOT IT!” is a defining moment in anyone’s education. And I am glad the hillside is there to teach us the way.