Friday, September 30, 2011


T catches himself on the way up the hill
One thing I know about one year olds is that they live a very perilous life. It seems they are attracted to the terrain that is trickiest to navigate, and the trickiness is heightened by their wobbly nature as new walkers. Gravity, it seems, is always ready to play.  And calculated risk is the name of the game.

SW contemplating the hill and his bike
And yet, through the inevitable and often repeated falls, they soon find themselves confidently walking (or running) up and down inclines, stepping across river rocks, reaching impossible distances, and feeling the edges of space with their feet and hands.  In a relatively short span of time, children go from being wobblers to toddlers, and this transition to confident navigators is wrought with risk and falls. Amazingly, children seem not only ready to take risk after risk, but they are even drawn to risky areas. They seem to know, better than us most of the time, that they need to take risks in order to figure it all out: Where's the edge? How close can I get without falling? How can I fall better? How high can I climb and still be able to get down? What happens if I just let go?
One of the many up and downs the hill for T and his bus
Never is this exploration more clear than outside at TIH. Between our front lawn and asphalt area is an incline of about 45 degrees. There used to be ornamental grasses planted there. In fact, there used to be grass there, but almost every child in our school finds their way up and down this slope, whether by feet, belly, bike or bum many times everyday. Now it has holes where shovels have dug, bare dirt mixed with clumps and grass, and other various places that call out to children: I'm risky! Can you navigate me?

The wobblers often congregate around this area and try different methods to go up and down. When a fall happens, it's usually on the way down. Nearly everyone has skinned a knee, scraped a palm, or even bonked a head. Today, SW was riding a small bike down the ramp, and fell forwards over the handle bars. This wasn't the first time it had happened, and today he caught himself on his elbows, which, while it hurt, was much more preferable to his face.
SM and the skateboard with SC watching

The challenging nature of this incline is like a magnet. They challenge themselves to not fall down this time as they lift their feet and fly down the hill on a bike. They challenge themselves as they roll down, climb up, run across, and fly by.

Whenever an area has a high number of injuries (even small scrapes and bonks), we have to ask ourselves as the adults: Is this safe? What are the risks? Are the children able to make calculated, age-appropriate risks? Are the risks appropriate enough so that they are resulting in increased skills? Are we willing, as adults, to allow these risks to be taken, knowing the likely outcomes? Are the risks too great? Do we need to offer slightly less challenging risks that will help build up the skills necessary to be successful with this challenge?
With our incline, we could make it less risky. We could make the incline smooth—but there's a hill just a few feet away with a smooth incline, and it sees much less use... We could put some plants back onto it, cut it out so that it's less steep, or even put a bunch of soft mats all around it.

At this point, however, the children who have access to the incline are all facing what we consider minor risks: small scrapes and bonks. At this point and with these children, everyone is working hard to build on their skills in calculated and intentional ways. They are learning about their bodies, about how it feels to navigate and fall on different terrains and different slopes, about the different tools you can use to balance better and fall better.

However, with any risky area, I find myself hanging out near this incline constantly now. When SW fell over his bike, I quickly went to him. I crouched down, and we talked about what happened: “You rode your bike down the hill and fell. Ouch. It looks like you landed on your elbow, look! Right here, see these red marks! It looks like you caught yourself! You did it!”

As I was talking the other children gathered around, finding places to sit on the hill. Everyone wants to hear what happened, see the scrapes, and hear what happened again. The story will likely be retold over and over and over in the next few days. In a few months, someone will probably point at the bike and remember, “SW down hill. Fell. Elbow hurt.” But for now our place of risk has become a meeting spot, and we begin to sing a song. During the song, some of the boys naturally begin to slide down the hill, and the navigating of challenges has returned.

Because we allow children to take risks and challenges themselves, they learn how their bodies can work under all sorts of conditions. Most of the time, the children play happily on this incline and other challenging areas of the yard because it has been a part of their outdoor experience since they have been able to move on their own volition. They have learned that while we as adults create an environment that isn't TOO risky for them, they are still responsible for keeping themselves as safe. Each child gets to make their own choices about when and how to challenge themselves. They learn, not from us “teaching” them but rather of their own accord, to look ahead, calculate risks, fall better, recover, and persist.
Even the preschoolers continue to experiment here
We give the children this gift of risk because we trust them. We trust that they will take their safety seriously, that they will learn from their falls, and they will continue to gain skills that will help them with the next risk they challenge themselves with. JanetLansbury put it perfectly in one of her blog posts highlighting the risk a 9 month old she was observing was taking: “They challenge themselves, stumble (literally and figuratively) and get up again. What we might perceive as 'mistakes,' they accept as just another interesting life event and a challenge to be overcome (unless, of course, it hurts too much).”

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