Child’s Right to Risk

This post represents a summary of several talks at the recent “International Green Schoolyard Conference”.  Although I agree wholeheartedly with all of the ideas described below, I cannot take credit for many of the thoughts.  Because the speakers’ positions were so powerfully and clearly expressed, I have quoted liberally from my notes, in an effort to bring these inspiring voices to my readers.

Cam Collier of Canada’s Evergreen calls it “bubble wrapped childhood”  and says we’re killing our kids with caution.

By trying to keep them physically safe, we are depriving children of experiences that are essential to the development of a healthy sense of self confidence. It is not possible to create an environment that is free of risk, and in trying to do so, we remove rich play experiences.   In a natural setting with tall trees to climb, pointy sticks, slippery rocks and unexpected holes in the ground we worry that “something might happen”.  “I would love for something to happen” says Dr. Petter Akerblom of  Movium and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala.  Their scrapes should be acknowledged as  proof that “you tried to do something!”

In a talk by Dr. Bernard Spiegal of PLAYLINK,  he asserted that our risk averse society is damaging children and teens.

He pointed out that many regulations governing outdoor play experiences demonstrate a belief that children are fragile, incompetent, incapable of making judgements, mostly incautious, incapable of learning and likely to fling themselves into situations they can’t handle.  Clearly it would be morally offensive if we allowed such children to encounter a situation of risk.

As educators, we believe that children are just the opposite: strong, competent, clearly capable of learning and often astonishingly wise. Yet those of us who are experts at how children problem solve,  develop resilience and learn to make decisions are often not the ones who determine what children will be allowed to experience when they’re outdoors.  Instead a disproportionate and irrational level of fear of injury and litigation guides decision-making by technical experts, insurers and regulators, to the detriment of children’s healthy development.

Dr. Spiegal suggests that an acceptable level of risk in play should be “freedom from life threatening or permanently disabling injuries”  He compares our acceptable risk thresholds in outdoor play settings with our acceptance, in sports like skiing and football, of broken bones and other injuries which are considered an expected and acceptable level of risk in exchange for the thrill and excitement of the sport.  He suggests that our view of play spaces should be similar.

Dr.  Spiegal  on rubber surfacing: We rubber coats playgrounds in an attempt to protect kid’s bodies at all costs but  by doing so deprive them of  opportunities to develop a realistic understanding of the world.  As children are figuring out how the world works, do we really want to suggest the false lesson that ground is a safe surface to fall on?   In free play, we know that children learn that choices have consequences.  If every surface is a soft one, then we are not teaching anything about the way the world really is.

Standard play equipment teaches children not to pay attention.  When every rung is evenly spaced, it’s easy to let attention wander.  Climbing a tree with varied limb diameters and spacing requires focused attention.

What is the science behind risk assessment?  According to Dr. Spiegal, weak at best.  When a real child falls, they instinctively put up their arms.  Tests are often done on models or cadavers.

Traffic calming is 10x more cost effective at saving children’s lives  than limiting play.

Allowing a child to cross a street alone is a real risk.  Yet all parents must eventually allow it because they understand that it’s necessary.

The job of the parents, teachers and caregivers  is NOT to succumb to every anxiety, nor to put their anxiety ahead of what is good for children.  Sometimes you have to just look away!

The Risk/Experience Equation:  (This is paraphrased very clumsily from Dr. Spiegal’s clear and logical explanation, due to my inadequate notes, but hopefully you get the gist.)

1. We understand and respect the inherent competence of children

2. Some things cannot be taught, only learned, such as confidence and resilience.

3. Some things can only be learned through experience.

4. If you haven’t had the experience, then you cannot learn those things (such as– watching someone climb high doesn’t tell you how you’d feel in a high place)

5. Any new experience is inherently risky and a potential hazard.

6. Any new experience is a potential learning opportunity (and potentially an opportunity for great fun).

7. We must balance the potential hazards with the potential learning and fun so that children will have the opportunity to exercise their competence and learn and grow through experience and risk taking  in rich play settings.

For more from Dr Bernard Spiegal and colleagues on this compelling topic, check out “Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide”.


October 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm 1 comment

Patching the Playhouses

Here is the story of a natural building project I love…

If you aren’t familiar with natural building, it is, basically, using natural, non-manufactured materials to create soul-soothing, sculptural structures.  My favorite is earth-building, which uses in various combinations, a mixture of clay, water and sand, along with a fibrous material (grass, straw or wood fibers) for tensile strength.  A method called “Cob” combines clay, sand and straw and builds with wet bricks called cobs because they are about the size of a cob or loaf of bread.

I discovered cob about 7 years ago and tried increasingly ambitious projects (first birdhouses, then a garden wall) before diving into a natural building project that was a pretty life-changing experience for me and for Sandra Redmore.  Sandra is the director of the Clarendon Child Care Center, home of the sweetest pair of playhouses you can imagine.

The CCCC Cob Playhouses, built in 2005 by many loving hands (and feet).

One of the coolest things about natural building is that it can be done using no power tools and for very little cost which makes it perfect for natural playspaces.  It takes time though.  Sandra and I spent countless hours that year, from early April till late in the fall, almost every weekend, organizing dozens of generous volunteers and participating in workdays to get these little houses built.  By that cold fall we had built the playhouses and also a friendship of the deep sort that comes from hours spent together, toes in the mud.

Yes, toes in the mud!  Another cool thing about natural building is that the traditional way to mix that clay, sand and straw is with bare feet.  And what could be more perfect when building with children?

Who can resist that ooshy squooshy-ness?!

Cob is incredibly durable and long lasting as long as it has what cobbers call “dry feet and a dry head” which means a good foundation that keeps the cob off the ground and a solid roof with good overhangs.  There are cob houses in Great Britain, where the technique originated,  that are more than 500 years old.  It does need occasional repairs though, such as when a crack develops and little fingers start to chip away at the cob.    But that’s a good thing because the community that develops around a natural building project like the one Sandra and I embarked on is rare and special.  Patching the playhouses (as we did a few weeks ago) is an opportunity for the children (and teachers and families) who come after the project is done, to understand where the houses came from and to get their toes in that magical mud!

A whole new group of toes.

Patching the playhouse with mud.

And our little patching project was filmed for Arlington Cable TV!!

There are lots of great books on cob and natural building.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Dig Your Hands in the Dirt by Kiko Denzer

The Hand Sculpted House by Yanto Evans

October 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm 3 comments

Who Plants the Garden? The 2011 DC Schoolyard Garden Tour

From coast to coast, this is school garden tour season!  This week I’m bringing you news of another city where exciting things are happening for kids.  I visited 7 wonderful DC school gardens on a recent rainy Saturday.

The theme of this year’s tour, which capped off a school garden week full of workshops, contests and events, was to show the diversity of ways that school gardens “take root”.  The tour highlighted parent-led, teacher-led, outside organization-initiated and even alumni-driven school garden initiatives.

Signage is always an issue in gardens where students and visitors need to understand the intent.  There were a variety of great sign examples on the tour.

We started the morning at The Watkins Living Schoolyard, a 17 year old school garden which began as a collaboration between parent Molly Dannenmaier (author of A Child’s Garden) and teachers in the school’s Montessori program.  Watkins Schoolyard now includes nine outdoor classrooms and the newest addition, an indoor Kid’s Kitchen that includes a cooktop with demonstration mirror, double ovens, undercounter grow lights and is staffed by a kitchen teacher who uses fresh produce from the edible garden to teach nutrition.  A curriculum for first, third and forth grades will be available online this fall. This schoolyard is completely integrated into the curriculum at the school with the full support of the staff and administration.

A seating area inside the Watkins edible garden with a lush bed of butternut squash.

Student made signage states rules in positive terms.

Weatherproof colorful signage throughout the garden helps visitors understand the garden goals.

Artist-made signage adds beauty to the gardens

The next stop on the tour was Kimball Elementary, where a collaboration between the nonprofit  Lands and Waters and the school community brings nature to the schoolyard.

Kris Unger, of Lands and Waters, shows the habitat garden which replaced lawn with native trees, understory plants and accompanying wildlife. Students can get close to wildness without ever leaving the school grounds.

Milkweed brings native monarch butterflies, and milkweed beetles, shown here, to the garden.

At Coolidge High School a unique partnership between ASLA, the very active alumni association, and a wide variety of sponsors and volunteers is working to restore the original 1938 Greenhouse, and has created a master plan and an extensive series of raised beds, seating and pathways. Science, math, special ed, art and English teachers at the high school are all getting on board to develop lessons and bring their classes outdoors.

The greenhouse, awaiting renovation, with a raingarden and patio in the foreground

Raised beds, the patio and a trellis donated through a collaboration with the American Society of Landscape Architects 2010 National Conference.

The six outdoor classrooms at Murch Elementary are supported by an active group of parents (90 of 200 families are involved).  Parent volunteers coordinate frequent special events, classroom support and garden maintenance.  At School Garden week’s special recess tour, kids with passports visited all 6 of the gardens usually used by only one grade.  Kids got to learn about gardens they don’t often work in and earned stickers on their passports from parents manning each station.

This school participates in the Chefs Move to Schools program, launched by Michelle Obama, which brings chefs (in chef suits) to schools where they cook school garden harvests and encourage healthy eating.

The newest addition, a textile garden, features cotton, dye plants (in school colors) and grasses for weaving.

Pumpkins gone wild sprawl over everything in the edible garden and outside the fence in a tangible lesson about the power of plants.

A labyrinth (around the peace pole) is repainted annually by a mural-artist parent and is surrounded by herbs in containers.

Lafayette Elementary has the newest garden of the tour.  Students at the school are planting vegetables and painting signs, cooking and eating with chefs and even blogging about their adventures in their one year old garden.  This effort is supported by a group of dedicated parents who help with cooking classes and garden maintenance.

Lovely child-painted labels for every crop.

A late crop of peas

The tour ended at Tubman elementary, where an effort initiated by two teachers has led to a schoolwide gardening program with strong ties to the White House.  Michelle Obama and White House chefs have worked in the Harriet Tubman gardens, and the Tubman students  garden and dine regularly at the White House.  President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act at Harriet Tubman.  This hard to replicate model has generated a great deal of excitement and garden support among students, parents and community at Tubman!

A child-made sign at the garden

Lush beans, kale and cabbage in the Tubman gardens.

And finally, thanks to DC school garden sponsor Chipotle, for a warm and delicious donated lunch for the cold, wet and inspired garden tour participants.

October 1, 2011 at 6:31 pm 1 comment

Nine Nifty Ideas from San Francisco Green Schoolyards

1. Nature inspired poetry displayed on a long clothesline makes a great literary focal point in the garden.

2. At this school, the side of the shed provides wall space for nature facts, schoolyard information and art displays.

3. An outdoor sink with a simple hose hookup and a drain just opening onto the ground makes outdoor handwashing easy.

4. Whiteboards outdoors mean absolutely any lesson can happen in the fresh air and sunshine.

5. Curvy raised beds made with recycled plastic lumber and reinforced with galvanized fence posts turn a steep hillside into a lush garden classroom.

6. Stumps provide a meandering path through the bed and an opportunity for a little balancing.

7. The coolest watering system ever: Movable stands support gutters that can be combined and arranged by kids to direct water to any bed that needs it.

8. Who could resist watering with these these individual sprinklers (made by punching holes in a yogurt container or milk jug)?

9. Brighten up dreary asphalt with bright colored paint and lots of container gardens.

September 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

The International Green Schoolyard Conference: What do we have NOW? What do we WISH for? What ACTION will get us there?

Let me begin by saying that Engaging Our Grounds: The International Green Schoolyard  Conference was a powerful gathering.  I just counted and I have 64 pages of notes and more than 300 pictures from 2 days of talks and site visits, so clearly this will take more than one post to describe.  There were brilliant ideas, beautiful spaces, and very inspiring energy– the movement for green schoolyards is at a tipping point and big things are happening!

To me, the biggest revelation of the conference was learning about the challenges of even the most magical and comprehensive programs.  It was extremely reassuring to learn that all countries, even those  with wonderful programs and beautiful spaces for children, face tough issues, and some of those seem to be universal.   A few examples…

  • The fire inspector in Toronto is concerned that sedentary kids in Canada can’t manage stairs fast enough in fire drills.
  • Typical Japanese playgrounds are dirt covered sports fields.
  • The UK is a risk-averse society where “risk and safety” are an easy excuse for parents and schools to “avoid doing anything that might be construed as fun.”
  • The Swedish struggle with a lack of space in dense cities, and must defend space for the urban schoolyards of the future.
  • In Germany, despite government funding for green schoolyards, most master plans take up to 10 years to realize because there is not enough money.

While no one is doing it in exactly the same way, people all across the globe are coming up with clever ways to reintroduce beneficial risk into children’s lives, get kids involved and excited about being outside in green spaces, find funding to create green schoolyards and convince safety, risk management and insurers of the value of these experiences.

Here are a few highlights:

Evergreen is the Canadian National Learning Grounds Program that has, to date, worked with 100,000 volunteers and brought trees, boulders and art to more than 2700 schoolyards.  See more at their website including free design guidelines to help school boards “do it right the first time.”

The typical Japanese schoolyard pets include rabbits, chickens, peacocks and fish and 90% of schoolyards for children from nursery to high school have pools for wading and swimming!

 Learning Through Landscapes in the UK does “planning for real” where kids, who are recognized as the experts on their own environment, get to use things like traffic cones and leafy branches to decide where to plant trees on their school grounds and also get to offer crits to the landscape architects who design based on kid ideas.

A new initiative of Movium in Sweden roughly translates as “Children’s Right to Scrapes.”  One goal of Movium is to encourage children’s movement to, from, in and after school.  Lund is a model city for green schoolyards that “didn’t cost a fortune.”

Grun macht Schule is a government agency in Germany where a small staff of landscape architects and teachers work with insurance providers to design schoolyards that help kids learn to deal with danger.  A 20-year collaboration has led insurers to believe that grown-ups should be courageous and give children freedom.  Children in Berlin are taught proper techniques by welders and carpenters and then go on to build their own playground sculptures and structures.

And now, a few photos…

The nibbling garden for recess tasting at Rosa Parks Elementary

Inside the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard

The outdoor oven at the Edible Schoolyard

The digging bed in the garden of a public school preschool

One of the ponds on the playground of Sherman elementary. On the PLAYGROUND.

An outdoor classroom complete with benches, shade structures, storage cabinets and a whiteboard.

Raised bed edible gardens.

And finally, one very exciting outcome of the conference was the convergence of seven people from the DC area.  We didn’t all know each other before– but now we do– and the potential for a regional alliance is strong!  Stay tuned…

L-R back Sarah Bernardi, DC Greens; Sam Ullery, Office of State Superintendent of Education; front: Nancy Striniste, EarlySpace; Ann Erickson, grandmother (retired art teacher FCPS); Elaine Tholen, Fairfax County Eco-Schools Coordinator; Susan Boyd, Concern, Inc; Sandy Bandier, DC Cooperative Extension

September 19, 2011 at 3:08 am 8 comments

Welcome to the very first EarlySpace blogpost!

Children need nature.  Here in the Capitol area we are rediscovering that in a big way.  Natural play and learning are coming to DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Teachers are learning about how to teach outdoors and how to support outdoor learning; schools and children’s programs are creating green schoolyards and natural play spaces; and communities are launching organizations to support the child/nature connection.  This blog will keep you updated on the exciting projects, new initiatives and dedicated people that I run across.  My goals are to inspire us, connect us and bring nature to more children.

To kick off this blog I’ll be leaving the DC area and heading to “Engaging Our Grounds: The 2011 International Green Schoolyard Conference.”  I look forward to sharing lots of inspiring ideas with you.

The San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance is a model for all of us—they provide training, resources and funding to help to green the schoolyards of the Bay Area.  Because of the work of the Alliance there are some very innovative school gardens and schoolyards in San Francisco, and I am eager to see them and share them with you.

I know that many of the people in San Francisco got their inspiration from the cutting edge cool things that are happening in parks and schoolyards around the world.  Speakers who are leaders in the field from Sweden, Germany, the UK, Canada and Japan will be sharing their stories at the conference, and I will bring them to you!

So stay tuned…

September 14, 2011 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

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