“Watch this, Ms. Schlow, watch!”
A Pre-K student, standing at the top of the slide on the playground begins her descent – not on her bottom, but upright, on her feet; first slowly, then faster, dismounting with a great leap and a triumphant grin on her face. “Wow!” I say. “You have excellent balance!”
Less than two years ago, my reaction to this child's daring use of the slide would have been different. I most likely would not have praised her agility or creativity, but rather reminded her that the acceptable way to use the slide at school is sitting down, on your bottom, feet out front, by yourself. No sliding down in groups, no climbing up the slide and certainly no running down it.
And then I heard about the Land.
A decidedly unmanicured adventure playground that opened in Wales in 2012, the Land features overturned boats, makeshift wooden shelters, and metal garbage cans; it looks more like a junkyard than a playground. But it is here – and at similar supervised spaces around the globe – where children have an opportunity to engage in the type of “risky” play that in this age of structured play dates and extra-curricular activities is often lost.
And that, experts say, deprives children of the chance to test their limits and to make their own decisions about the levels of risk they want to take. The playground, research suggests, is where children hone their skills – emotional, physical and social. It's where they prepare for life.
New Day Films released a short documentary https://www.newday.com/film/land about the Land, which many of us screened during a professional development day. As we watched children climb trees, light fires, and saw construction tubes – all under the watchful eyes of Land staff, who rarely intervened – many of us were reminded of our own childhood days, when we spent countless unstructured hours playing outdoors, unsupervised, alone or with friends; days when we tested our limits and learned boundaries.
Needless to say, my Pre-Primary colleagues and I won’t be breaking out the hammers and matches on the playground any time soon. But recalling my own experiences as a child, supported by research on the importance of play, enables me to see how stifling conventional playground rules can be, no matter how well intentioned.
Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why children need to play in school
Yes, safety is paramount. But these days I am more likely to assist a child who wants to jump from a piece of equipment than I am to discourage her from doing it at all. I am more likely to bite my tongue and watch when a child tries his hand at sliding down the monkey bars for the first time. And I am far more likely to see the brilliant smile of accomplishment on the face of a five year-old who takes a calculated risk – and succeeds.