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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The importance of water play: get that cotton wool wet!!!

It's absolutely bucketing down here.  Sorry about the blurry picture- that's water on the lens. And that bit that looks like a river leading to the dam- um, that's actually the lawn. It's coming down faster than it can flow away, and has been for three days now.

Where I live, this isn't unusual- I live in a wetland area, and we get flooded in at least once a year. To survive in a place like this, you really need to understand water and have respect for its power, or you'll find yourself doing stupid and dangerous things like swimming in floodwater, or driving through floodwater, or underestimating the power of a current.

There's a bridge near my house where a young man drowned some years ago, because he had no respect for the power of water. His car was washed off the bridge during a flood because he didn't understand that the water didn't care that he wanted to get where he was going, and it would always win a directional battle against a car. That car just bobbed up like a toy boat, and over the rail it went.

I didn't think twice about that aspect of things when I moved here, because I was brought up with a healthy respect for the power of water from early childhood. I know quite a lot about water, really, and it all stems from the way I was allowed to play with it when I was a child. I love water- but I also fear it, in a very rational way.

And as I stood in the bucketing rain today with a shovel, clearing channels so the water could run away instead of being trapped where it'll kill the grass my animals need to survive, I thought about how some children won't be allowed to play with water because of parental fear, or because of lack of opportunity in an increasingly over-regulated environment. And I thought, that's worse than sad; that's actually dangerous.

I was brought up in a time when children weren't usually wrapped in cotton wool. My grandparents had a wonderful country property which included a gully with a permanent creek running through it, where my brother and cousins and I would catch yabbies (little crayfish) by tying some meat on the end of a string and ever-so-carefully pulling the string up while the unsuspecting yabby gripped the meat with his claws. The trick was to go terribly slowly till you got him to just below the surface, then lean out over the water and quickly yank him up and over onto the rocks into the bucket, before he could let go in surprise.

Many a time we had a yabby let go midway and start scurrying back to the water over the rocks; then it was a matter of grabbing him in exactly the right spot where the nippers meet the body, so he couldn't reach back over his head and pinch your hand. That was another learning experience! Talk about facing your fears- you only had a moment to decide if you were brave enough.

That's me, with my brother and my aunt holding the yabby. (By the way, we always let them go- the game was to count them, not eat them!)

What did I learn from playing at that creek? How not to fall in, for starters. Before I got anywhere near the edges of the creek over the deep holes where the yabbies lived, I was allowed to play in the shallows and shown how to look at the surface of a rock to see if it was mossy or wet. I learned by doing- slipping in the shallow sections of the creek and falling on my backside, getting up bruised and wet, while my father or his sister, my aunt, looked on and said "I told you so". I learned to look for flat, dry, clean rocks, to look where I was going, to test a rock before I put my weight on it. When you've fallen on your tush enough times, you start to listen when your elders tell you things, because they were right before- you've proved it yourself.

And so you don't lean out too far off the rock, or you sit down on the edge, and you wear sensible shoes, and you don't go down there alone. You keep an eye out for each other.

Eventually when we were a little older, my brother and I were allowed to go to the creek unaccompanied by an adult. Neither of us could swim, but we'd learned our lessons and we were trusted to be sensible. Neither of us ever fell into a deep section of that creek. We'd learned to assess the risks and be careful, by playing freely in the company of our 'spotters'.

Today as I was digging those channels, I remembered the other thing we used to do down there- build dams in the sandy sections, and try to divert the water by digging little channels just like the ones I dug today. We were experimenting with the power of water. I can still remember how much effort it took to build a decent dam, and then how effortlessly the water would wash it away. The water was completely ruthless, and if it couldn't go straight ahead it'd go round the edges till the whole thing was eroded. It was fascinating to watch.

Same with the channels we built- unless you've tried to divert water, you'll always underestimate its strength and destructive ability. I thought of that recently when the local council spent weeks (and heaven only knows how much money) rebuilding a stretch of road that'd fallen into the river on a bend. It'd been open again for less than a week when the water had its way, and the whole new section toppled back into the river.

I'm no engineer, but I would have moved the road the first time round. If water wants to cut a corner, then there's no way of stopping it. I learned that when I was 5, through play. Why didn't the engineers know that? Didn't they play with water when they were young?

If you've never had the opportunity to play with water like that, how can you possibly appreciate that a human being versus a river in flood, or a strong current, or a rip at the beach, is a competition that's going to end in grief? If you've always had your hand held near the creek, how can you know what's safe? If you've never experimented, how can you learn?

And so if the only thing you remember about water and children is that a child can drown in less than two inches of water, you're missing something. Children need to play with water, and all the better if it's wild water like the water in my grandparents' creek; you actually can't learn very much about water in a swimming pool. They need to play with water and try (and fail) to control it, in order to learn respect for its power so they can be safe around it.

And you need to make time to take them there, and spot for them. Not hold their hand- just stay close until they've made enough little mistakes to learn for themselves that water is dangerous as well as fun. You honestly can't expect children to stay away from something that's fun, just because you tell them it's dangerous. They have to find that out the hard way. There's no easy way.

I think of the little boy swept out to sea the other day, who'd come from a country where there are no beaches. I think of adults who've met the same fate for the same reason, because they have no experience of water's power. The longer you leave it to let your children fall down, slip, get wet and dirty, maybe even find themselves with their head under the water unexpectedly, the greater the likelihood there'll be an accident you can't control later on.

Let them play with water. Be there. Their lives may depend on it.


  1. Great post Candy & so true, the more we prevent children from learning about dangers for themselves the more at risk we are putting them. Good luck with the flood & stay safe.

  2. I remember I took my nieces and nephews to the county forest preserve once on Earth Day, and they came upon this dirty little stream and were just having a huge blast playing in it! People were looking at me like I was so irresponsible, but the water came up to their ankles and they were as happy as I'd ever seen them! It actually inspired me to take them to Missouri that summer, where they got to spend a week swimming and playing in an actual river! Including jumping off of a fallen tree and splashing into water. So dangerous! So fun! :D

    1. Well good for you, Angel. I bet they adore you for letting them be kids!

  3. I remember when I was a child "Let's go swimming" meant, "Let's go down to the river!" I couldn't have been twelve the first time I swam all the way across. My dad was chatting with friends and drinking beers on the bank at the time, and I didn't ask if I could swim across, I just did it. There were drainage creeks that led down there almost from our doorstep. In the winter they were full of rushing water; in the summer they were full of blackberry bushes.

    My dad moved and my mom lived downtown, nowhere near any moving water. "Let's go swimming!" became, "Let's drive to the community pool." It took me a long time to realize that I just don't like swimming pools. I spend all of my time at the stairs because it's the shallows, the edge of the water, where it turns into land, that I always loved.

    Now I'm grown, and we moved near Puget Sound, and I have a toddler of my own. We're going to spend this summer digging and wet, you can count on it!


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