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Friday, August 3, 2012

Risky play, dodgy rules and the fine art of climbing trees

"Why aren't we allowed to climb the tree?"
A forbidden tree at
another centre.
It's tiny!

Sometimes a child pins you down. Brock (aged 4-going-on-40) had cornered me at the base of the forbidden tree, with no other kids or staff nearby, and fixed me with a very direct stare. I had a suspicion that I'd been set up.

See, even though I'm just a casual, the kids have got to know a few things about me. One is that I tell them the truth. Another is that my risky play threshold is unusually high, compared to what they're used to. And the third is that I'd rather be right there with them, interacting with the kids and supporting their play and laughing and answering questions, than standing around talking to the other adults.

So by putting me on the spot- me, the mere casual- Brock was showing a level of belief in me that I didn't want to abuse. I felt like I owed Brock the truth, but of course I also had to walk the fine line of professionalism. It's a constant problem when you don't see things the same way as your more established colleagues, this choice between authenticity with the kids and keeping your job.

Forbid climbing trees?
No way!
And yes, climbing the tree has been forbidden at this centre. I don't agree. I've never agreed. But it's not 'my' centre, and I have no power to make radical changes to the ethos there; all I can do is discuss, suggest and nudge. It's a centre that's come a long, long way in terms of risky play, and the 'no climbing the tree' rule is a bit of a hangover from the bad old days, when the yard was essentially risk-free and deadly boring.

This is a public playground.
The girl who's highest up is 5.
The irony is that the centre has a brand spanking new risky playground- the best and most adventurous I've seen in any centre. Nobody bats an eyelid when the children leap off the high platform of this structure, which is as high as any child could climb up the tree in question. But still, the tree-climbing rule remains.

Honesty is the best policy. I decided to show Brock how the tree looked to the people who'd made the rules.

"I think it's because your teachers are worried that you'll get hurt," I said. "If you fell out, you might fall on this wooden platform or on the ground over there. It's pretty hard. It's not as soft as the bark under the playground."

Kids and trees.
It's natural.
Brock looked at me somewhat dubiously. (Like I said- 4 going on 40.) He put one foot in the lowest fork of the tree, and when I said nothing more, he started to climb.

Now, before you have conniptions here, we're not talking about a big tree or a tree that's particularly treacherous to climb. It's a great climbing tree for little kids. Various limbs have been trimmed off over the years, leaving perfect footholds up to a point not so far up where it becomes impossible to climb higher. And as ever, I was spotting for him- close enough to catch him if he got into trouble, but not interfering in a way which would break his thought processes or confidence.

So up he went, to the point where he could stop and look around with no fear of losing his balance. (Seriously, folks, he was only about a metre off the ground.) The grin on his face was infectious.

"You're a good climber, Brock," I said. (And he was.) "Now that you're up there, I can show you some other things that worry the teachers."

Some trees are more risky than others.
Don't let kids climb gum trees- the limbs
have a tendency to snap without
warning. But isn't it glorious?
And so I pointed out a cut-off branch that could scrape his skin or catch at his clothes and cause him to lose his balance. I pointed out the hard pebbles underneath one branch. I pointed out the sharpish edge of the iron on the shed roof nearby.

"Your teachers don't want you to get hurt on any of these things."

Brock gave the various dangers a scathing look or two. He seemed as unconvinced as I was. (I mean, we're talking about a child who's very competent physically; he never looked anything but completely in control as he went up that tree.)

What the heck, let's be totally honest, I thought.

"And they worry that if you get hurt, your parents will be cross with us for not taking better care of you."

The blue eyes made full contact with mine again. I felt like I'd made some sort of breakthrough; the rule was somehow making more sense to him.

"I'm being careful," said Brock.

Some of us are still climbing
trees long after we're all
grown up...
And then he proceeded to talk me through how he'd approached climbing the tree. He pointed out the footholds and handholds he'd used, and how he'd chosen which one to use next. He went up and down that tree giving me a masterclass- Tree Climbing 101.

A few other children had wandered up by now, and they were listening intently. Two of them decided to try their hand at following Brock's instructions, with mixed success; I pointed out how tall Brock was, how long his legs were, how they might have to wait a little longer till they grew taller.

I was pleased to note that the new arrivals didn't ask me to help them. That's another thing they've learnt about me- I won't promote them beyond their ability. I want them to listen to their own gut feelings, and self-regulate- or in other words, stop when they start to feel unsafe.

And that's exactly what they did. Nobody got higher up that tree than they could manage. Nobody hurt themselves getting down. This is something that I've read about in books, but it's also something that's reinforced over and over again as I watch the children playing on their new playground. If you trust them to self-regulate, and shut up instead of expressing your own fears, they won't go beyond what they can handle.

These trees have been played in
by my family for generations.
So let's cut to the chase here, because I'm sure some of you are tut-tutting at me for allowing the kids to break a centre rule. Should I have stopped Brock from climbing the tree, just because that was the rule?

I care about the children's safety more than I care about rules. Let me tell you what would have happened if I'd told Brock to come away from that tree and stop climbing it.

First, he would have tested me, partly because he would have sensed that my heart wasn't in what I was saying. (Believe me, kids can tell right off whether you are speaking from somewhere real or just toeing the party line.) He would have started climbing the tree, because that's the sort of kid he is, and I would either have had to look like a fool and protest weakly while he defied me, or physically remove him from the tree- which would have been distinctly less safe than letting him keep going.

You try lifting a well-grown 4-year-old child who's clinging to a tree above your own centre of gravity, and see how safe it is- for both of you.

Second, if I'd succeeded in stopping him, he would have appeared to comply by walking away, kept one eye on me till I was interacting with some other child, and then gone round the corner and climbed that tree without a spotter. Knowing that he would get into trouble if he got caught, he would also have been keeping one eye out for teachers instead of giving his full attention to getting up and down the tree safely.

In those circumstances, he would have been far more likely to fall.

And think of the teaching and learning that would have been missed if I'd insisted on the rule being followed. How wonderful it was to see a small child teaching his peers! How great it was to give these children a chance to test themselves, and to learn to stop when they felt unsafe. They were listening to their internal voice. They were self-regulating their risk-taking.

And so I advocate that when you're considering whether to ban an activity on the basis of risk, be brutally honest with yourself and with the children. What are you afraid of? And are you actually doing the children an educational disservice by banning the risk?

I'll let Brock have the last word. As he waited for his turn to go up and down the tree again, he turned to me, eyes twinkling.

"I like this tree better than the new playground," he said.


  1. cheers to trees, playgrounds don't speak to you like trees do, you can't climb a tree without hugging it.

  2. The post is very nicely written and it contains many useful facts. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement. Thanks for sharing with us. Child Care Centre

  3. Reminded me how much I loved climbing trees as a child. Definitely agree that children are capable of knowing their own limits, I remember there was always a point where I'd stop climbing because I knew it would be too risky to go any higher.

  4. Check out this school in New Zealand

    The School With 'No Rules'


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