Archive for category Risky Business

Kids Climbing Fences: Charting New Land

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.

Here’s some rad pics of kids scaling fences: 


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Give Kids a Steel Rake and a Shovel

Introduce a few kids about 5 and 6 of age to actual metal (adult) tools and their whole demeanor changes. Most want to engage with using these tools and are set on using them properly. Even with little prompting or explaining they tend to be focused on the task at hand. Sure you may have to interject here and there saying, “Ok, make sure the shovel stays on the ground. Or be careful with the end of the rake it may hit so and so. Or you can only use that technique when no one around.” And these are general, just heads up comments that naturally be come dialogue when kids are experimenting with new tools that can be almost twice their height, when propped up.

In our schoolyard we have a mound of extra gravel for filling in shallow spots around our track. For the past few weeks we’ve been keeping active loosing up gravel with the steel rake on the mound, scooping up shovel loads, filling up buckets, and spreading the wealth of gravel around the track. I just introduced the idea one afternoon and they’re stoked about working with adult tools. Of course I’m right there beside them participating, but I have found that they are complacently safe, without any lecture on safety, and quite intrigued on the task at hand. While the group plucked away at the heap of gravel in the yard, the topic of “playing,” came up. It was a short lived dialogue, but when I asked the two helping to shovel and rake the gravel, if we were “playing or working?” – one sided with playing and the other with working. In fact the one who said were working, would periodically comment, “we’re working hard and I want to keep working all afternoon and skip open classroom and studio time.” Both seemed thoroughly involved in what they were doing, and seemed to take great joy in it, but is this work or play. Or are there any delineations between the two?

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Give Kids Rope

Here’s a social experiment for teachers who want to expand on the idea of an autonomous child centered environment. Give them about 30 feet of rope, and get out of their way. Be careful not to interject any anxieties, however the obvious inadvertent neck rope around the neck is never fair game. Observe with great detail their interactions, while maintaining vigilance for safety, however don’t impede on newfound experiments, including those pesky verbal disagreements. Sure you may initially hear the bouts of disputes, but do you expect when ten or more kids have their hands on a rope and they all have a different idea, as to what to do with it. Remember to have faith in the fact that allotted the time and space, they’ll figure it out.

Not, that I completely opposed to having adults facilitate a rope extravaganza, or set up a obstacle course with an ideal of forming a line, taking turns, and “spotting,” each other, but there is a sense of authenticity and sheer reliance and creativity that occurs when their up to their own devices. There is also a sort of a benign experience in allowing kids to craft their own structure, as they are more compelled to rely on each other’s peer cooperation. A tug of war game may ensue, and yelling back and forth may endure, but stay patient dear adult as the plan of action uncoils. “Get off the rope, get off the rope…I’m trying to tie it.” “Stop grabbing onto the rope!” “It needs to be tighter!” “Yeah…let’s maker it tighter.” These are just a few of the loud burst of adrenaline your hear before those really interested stick to the task at hand while others may slowly begin to disperse, away from the seemingly chaos – before order.

And then the rope begins to get snugger; the knots begin to get tied, as they settle on the suitable height or angle. Or the rope over a pull up bar, attached to a bucket or a stool, becomes a sort of pulley system. And then the real fun begins, after the tension has settled and they are invoked in physics lesson at hand. All physics projects need testing, measuring, and further experimenting, as they’ll find ways to tangle their whole bodies around the subject at hand. The upper torso will lunge towards rope stretched between to anchoring points, to find away to balance. Feet and legs will curl around to suspend themselves in mid air. And then as an adult you’ll ponder how their made up knots has supported the weight of ten frantic kids – wondering if a knot will slip out at any given moment and send them crashing down. But then you’ll notice there only about four feet at max above the playground. And yet the joy on their faces and their non- stop gaiety, will lead you to believe that they’ve discovered a way to fly. Or that no ride at an amusement park could compare to this cooperative physics thrill.

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Movable and Transformable Playgrounds for Little Hands

First let’s begin by abandoning the antiquated ideal that childrens play equipment needs to be pieced together or assembled by adults. For the purpose of this article play ground equipment is as simple as a box, board, plank, tire, log, or any other object suited for full gross motor activity.

Villages, towns, and worlds can be built of boxes, boards, planks, and other versatile buildables that promote self-constructive playground equipment. As long as materials outside are clear of sharp corners, nails, staples, or other potential serious owwie makers than it is fair game, and young people will know exactly what to do with all this stuff.

Moving sand, stones, soil, sticks, buckets, balls, or anything else for that matter that is not bolted down or is just to heavy to pick-up is what young architects, archeologists, carpenters, and artists do. Naturally they are doers, set on constructing their world around them. Their world is about mixing, shaking, dropping, lifting, shaping, pushing, pulling, any materials in sight they can gather or re-arrange for the sake of a full sensory experience. And providing a rich diversity of interesting parts that can be customarily constructed to fit their ideas and visions of play ground equipment is paramount to enhancing physical agility, dexterity, coordination, confidence, different perspectives, and a healthy ego.

Young people are notorious for bending and stretching their imagination around any object – their experts at this. They can find multiple uses out of sand castle bucket, while an adult can typically be dumb-stuck by the challenge of finding more than one function. For instance the kid lumbering around role as a knight, robot, warrior, or monster with a bucket over his head is typically the one you may also find moments later using the same bucket to mix cake batter, or to carry stones.
Typically four year olds will randomly transform an average playground system into a rocket ship, a castle, a cave, a volcano, a moon, or a home center, depending on the ideas being spouting out boundlessly from their inventive minds. A playground system can be more than just a place to climb-up and slide down.

An upside down table can suddenly become a car, train, or balancing posts by stretching out their legs. Stumps or logs can be moved with a team effort to set the stage for an obstacle course or as an added boost to reach a high bar.

In the play yard where I teach, some of the kindergartners’ are rolling stumps to a spot they have designated. They ask for my assistance for a plank that weighs close to 40 pounds, but instead I offer a suggestion – to ask their friends for help. Sure enough after a moment of recruiting, they decide to tackle the laborious task of moving the plank. Observing them stumble, strain and persevere, they eventually achieve the end result – a bench or an additional piece of playground equipment that will eventually be used differently by another set kids after they are through. Most of their interactions during the construction of building their bench, table, or balance beam are full of non-verbal gestures, impromptus, and agreements that lead to the goal of setting a heavy and cumbersome plank across two stumps.

Versatility comes with greater dexterity, confidence, and competence, when intentional materials are provided for young people to explore in creating their own playground equipment – providing the adults around are mindful that play involves certain risks. Laborious or constructive play in an outdoor setting for young people can be precarious at times. Scrapes, bruises, bumps, or the infamous owwies is bound to happen. Here’s the challenge: As adults we want a safe environment for play but we don’t want play to be stymied by over reaching concerns or anxieties. It is east to always project our concerns and harder to watch from a far a potentially non-safe method of using materials. I am not refering to the kid who is throwing a brick in the direction of other people, because I wouldn’t hesitate to yell “stop” and give compassionately reasoning and redirection – perhaps finding a safer area away from people for throwing a brick. But, if a young person may stumble off a foot high plank or stack of stumps because it is off centered, this I would chalk up as a valuable lesson that would only fall to the wayside if I stopped them and fixed it for them. In other words watching a young person interact uniquely with what they perceive as equipment for play does not always conclude the behavior is entirely unsafe, just risky. And some risk can enrich an experience.

The other challenge is: Being patient and knowing that they’re developing physically and need to test their strengths and build confidence. And their bodies urge to move vigorously, at times clumsily, in order to gain a sense of coordination. Every day the availability of raw materials such as rocks, bricks, straw bales, stumps, or logs are at the root of stimulating not only natural connections, but also real opportunities for the cultivation of ideas and experimentation.

Clare Cherry in Creative Play for the Developing Child, states, “The most effective type of learning involves movement. Books may provide facts and patterns. Lectures may offer clues. But actual learning comes through doing.” Providing an open, free space for unlimited movement of materials for constructing their own playground equipment provides a natural challenge for creative perspectives, second thoughts, innovative ideas, enriching endeavors, confidence, and self-reliance. Valuable qualities, perhaps a book can never offer.

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Risky Physics Lessons For Preschoolers and Kindergartners

In these past weeks we have been learning about physics in the Pre-K and kindergarten class and we been putting bodies and tires to the test. Our supplies are simple; we hand over two ropes each about 25 feet in length, some wooden beams, and several car tires.

Through the use of these materials kids are able to experiment outside with knots, slopes, angles, ideas, and different ways of balancing. After setting up what I referred to as an “obstacle course,” and the kids coined as a “playground,” others in the class soon join in. Adjustments are made as they learned to counter measure each step they take, calculating each move and setting up their physics experiments in accordance to their visual perceptions. Occasional someone tumbles and quickly bounces up, to try again, shifting a step or grip or readjusting their positioning to make the movement possible.

Outside with the ropes they make up their own knots or wrap them around various objects (play structure, stumps, trees, poles, etc.) to test out the friction and resistance as they either pull, climb, stretch, or wrap their bodies around the rope. They also attached a rope across the upper part of the slide using to supportive beams as anchors – then used the rope to pull them selves up the slide as a group. Jimmy, a five year old set up a pulley like system to around a pole to drag a stump. As a facilitator I occasionally would set up a tight rope for the challenge of walking on or a tire swing. But most of the physics experiments were conducted through the ingenuity of play with rather simple materials.

In another schoolyard are a bunch of wooden beams and car tires.
These random objects laid out on the play-yard entice them to experiment. Their testing out their balance and coordination by propping wooden beams against the fence and climbing to the highest point – to then slide down – always trying again and with a new angle.

The other day someone had the idea to lay two of the beams side by side on a table outside, along with another two that butted right up against the two on the table, which sloped to the ground. They then were taking turns carrying and passing tires to each other – rolling the tires down a slight gap they kept in the between the two boards and watched in awe and excitement as the tires rolled down the slope they created. Their creation was ingenious certainly nothing I thought of using the materials for, as a teacher who simple just decided to casually leave them in a heap in the middle of our school yard, one afternoon.

But can these self-imposed or cooperate physics games or play occur without some degree of risk? Yes, we had one bump on the head and several falls, but certainly no blood shed. And this is a rather physical group, as most four and five year olds are.

Movement is critical at this particular age group and their always wanting to test new heights, either through scaling furniture, fences, adult legs, playground structures and it is our duty to provide safe ways for this need for movement to occur. And it begins by introducing the materials and also letting go of some adult anxieties.

Adults have a habit of placing reservations about what a child or child cannot do in their world of exploration – and these self imposed expectations, can inhibit what could other wise be a moment for growth and new insight. In other words, as an adult it is easy to impose restrictions on play based on a general concern for safety without fully rethinking what can be gained from taking the actual risk.

The simple response most teachers would mutter, who don’t rethink the distinction between what is risky and what is unsafe typically sounds like this: “please stop that because it is unsafe.” Of course, we want to rule out those unsafe measures, but in an environment where play is a commonly accepted and an appropriately integrated into the curriculum, rarely have I experienced a child perform a activity or take a risk that had me concerned for their safety and the safety of others. For instance, if a child is picking up a five pound rock, as I have commonly observed in the playground to test their strength and to have a sensory experience with the rawness of the earth – I can never just spew out of my mouth that what their doing is unsafe. Yes, this may possible lead to an unsafe situations, but their intentions in a loving supportive school community is not to bash in the head of another, but to simply have that innate experience of gripping the rock and feeling the power of releasing it – and hearing the sound of it collide with the ground. In this case, redirecting the rock being thrown with an impromptu: “I’m noticing you like throwing that rock, however would you mind throwing it in the garden area – away from other people,” would clearly address the obvious safety concern without crushing their empowering sensation of throwing a heavy rock.

Simply put, it’s easy to have knee jerk reactions to risky experiences in preschool, however as concerned adults who want to nurture self-reliance is it not worth looking closer at what it means for kids to be “safe?” And then we can start by asking ourselves, what sort of opportunities in their environment do we want to provide for children to optimally thrive? After all raising four and five year olds can be a risky business.

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Tire Risking

In the “big yard” at a school I teach at we have play ground equipment for the physical challenge. We also have installed a semi-tractor trailer tire, which also invites more risk. For the younger twos, threes, and four year olds climbing up the tread of a three foot high tire is not always an easy task. But many do climb to the top after several attempts at slipping and falling on three feet of wood chips below.

Often I will watch them struggle with their climb. They will reach out their hands, ask for help, but I give them the nod of recognition and the verbal insurance, that they can do it all by them selves. And they do. It may take several tries, but they eventually make it to the top, even if it happens another day — to the point where they are then leaping off the top, like a frog.

It is not unusual for the tire to be covered with people either standing or sitting on top, but generally they all move cautiously and considerately around each other with out any adult prompting. They are managing their own risks, taken control of their world. In a well nurtured and loving environment, youth are trusted to take risks. But where do those limits lie? Where as an adult do we draw the line? (Feel free to comment below. This is another work in progress.)

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Climbing The Walls

We have some serious climbers in our preschool class. There are twin boys who literally climb everything in sight. You name it: the book shelve, the sensory table, a teachers leg a wall, what ever they can grip onto, constantly testing their heights. In the side yard of our classroom we have a playhouse butted up against a concrete wall. The roof is about five foot high, there is a three-foot railing around the perimeter, and the concrete wall beside it is roughly four feet high – and the “play oven” inside the playhouse is just perfect for a boost themselves onto the roof. This playhouse is prime time for climbing and there is a select a bunch of kids, who like to defy gravity.

And here comes the teacher on a sunny day watching the kids at play, as three or four of them will wiggle their way out of the playhouse and crawl on top of the roof. “Stop climbing on the roof, it is not safe. Please get down,” is my normal response. Every week it is the same words. Arrrhh… is the sound under my breath. I want them to explore and it’s really not that risky, but what the hell do I tell a parent if their son and daughter falls off the roof like humpty-dumpty?

Physically and developmentally they crave this interaction, other wise they probably wouldn’t be climbing the roof about once a week. This sort of risk is important part of growing up, as they improve their coordination, self-esteem, and confidence, yet each time their climbing the wall I ask them to stop and get down. This activity is not nearly as dangerous as playing near traffic and the roof could be much higher – and the ground could consist of concrete, instead of about 2 feet of wood chips and sand, but I have this safe teacher role to play – and they totally see through it. There’s always this grin on their face and the plead for me to help them down, knowing it is not something we allow at school, and knowing that they accomplished something far more superior then my incessant nagging– a whole new horizon in play with or with out my consent.

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