Monday, November 24, 2014

Where Am I Going To?

My own kids are obsessed with the soundtrack from the musical, Evita. We recently found a vintage vinyl recording of the Broadway show with Pattie Lapone and one song is stuck in my head. The plaintive refrain from "Hello and Good-bye," is "Where am I going to?" The subtext is kind of complicated and a bit adult and I've spent some time discussing all this with my twelve-year-olds, but that question, "Where am I going to?" reminds me so much of my work with young kids.

Dodge kids go outside every day, and most days we "go for a hike" together in smaller groups-- usually one teacher and six kids (a great, and unusual in early childhood ed, ratio, by the way). We often hear the same question, "Where are we going?" To which teachers often respond, "Where do you want to go?" This is a big question, in both literal and figurative ways-- Dodge is a big place and deciding about all sorts of things is a big job, but it gets easier to answer this question as the year progresses. Kids get to know Dodge Nature Center in a variety of ways. They learn about our playground, and then our immediate trails, and then those that are farther afield, and they also spend time navigating less trammelled wilderness, off the trail.

Each time a child traverses familiar and new terrain, they are growing and changing. They notice different things and use their bodies in different ways. This fall, I am particularly struck, not only by the kids growing abilities to navigate and understand where they are  relative to other spots around the Nature Center, but by how their hiking experience changes when we leave the trail for uncharted territory.

All the hiking they do, creating physical pathways through space and time, accruing experiences, not only develops childrens' muscles and coordination, it helps children establish and strengthen physical pathways in their brains, connecting hemispheres and helping the various parts of the brain integrate and function faster and better. When children spend time hiking trails, we see signs of growth and development in these areas:

-control and regulation of their bodies (physical)
-control and regulation of feelings (emotional)
-forging connections and building attachments with place and peers (emotional & social)
-awareness of spacial relationships, emerging mapping skills (math)
-memory, recall, association and building context (general cognition)
-noting, interpreting and documenting experiences with teachers and peers (literacy)

When children leave the trail to explore, following fresh deer tracks in the snow, for instance, they lose familiar way markers and references and their focus changes. Kids hiking on a very familiar trail tend to run (if the snow isn't too deep) or chat away with each other in a pack. Kids going off trail, through trickier terrain, tend to fall into single-file, following a leader.  The physical challenges are greater, and their focus moves outward to their surroundings. There is less chatting and no running. Chatting and running are, of course, great things to do, but going off trail seems to heighten the child's powers of observation in stunning ways. Kids become more aware of their own physical bodies as they negotiate thick foliage, pokey stuff, burs or fallen logs. They also become much more aware of their surroundings and they seem to notice much more minute details.

After the first snow, I set out with a small hiking group. Their bodies were a little disorganized and they were playing a game of bumping and pushing. I elected to try a session of Dodge wrestling, but kids quickly abandoned that project. Someone started complaining about cold feet and another child didn't like the bunchiness of her new snow pants. With a measure of desperation, I drew their attention to a big deer track. I worked up a lot of enthusiasm about the track and said I thought it must belong to the big, goofy buck--Mr.Buck--we'd seen lately. A boy perked up, "Mr. Buck?  He made you almost pee your pants!  Remember!  Where'd he go?" I looked around, "Well, I dunno, but he must be around here somewhere!" Then my little friend with cold feet took the bait, "How do we find him?" I threw up my hands, "I dunno!  Where should we look?" "Follow his tracks!" said the boy. "That sure was funny when he surprised you. I told my dad you almost peed your pants!" Cold Feet said, "He went this way." And off we went, following her through the raspberry canes, across the frozen stream and under the pines.

On and on we went. I kept asking, "Where are we?" and "Which way is the classroom?" or "Where is the Lab?" I wasn't lost of course, but I wanted to know what they were thinking, what they were seeing. Kids looked back the way we had come. Wheels turning, they looked around, searching for something familiar. "I see something up ahead." Turned out to be a familiar bench and I watched and listened as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. "We're close to the drinking fountain." "The Lab!" "And that's were the letters are." We nearly lost Mr. Buck's tracks when we crossed other deer tracks and kids had to discern the difference between Mr. Buck's tracks and the others. We followed him through the marsh and its long, tricky grass. We saw tiny, frozen mushrooms, and even smaller frozen fungus. Kids noticed that the old puffballs had lost their puff. We heard crows and speculated about owls. We saw chickadees and a cardinal. We followed Mr. Buck through many kid tracks and then over dead trees. Kids spotted buck scrapes and then we wound our way through a dense stand of burdock and out, across the Farm Road. We tracked Mr. Buck through the little orchard and the kids talked about the lack of apples. We followed Mr. Buck's tracks to the edge of the prairie and then we stopped. Someone said, "He went in the prairie." By then we were far from school and needed to budget time to get back to base camp. "How should we go back?" "Let's follow our own tracks," said Cold Feet. And so we retraced our steps, following Cold Feet, all the way back to the bridge where we began our tracking adventure. The kids seemed to feel puffed up and powerful, elated with a sense of victory. "We made it!" Nobody was complaining and everybody had something to say. "That was a big adventure." "We went far." "Mr. Buck went far.  He's hiding." "Those burs were tricky." "Next time we play on the ice some more."  "Next time we follow another deer!" said Cold Feet.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What Was I Scared Of?

scary monsters
Well, here we are on the heels of Halloween, squaring our shoulders to November and anticipating the challenges of winter. I actually love this "shoulder" season of November, the no-longer-autumn, almost-winterness of it. The trees are naked, the bones of the earth are revealed. We are starting to see owls now and squirrel nests are increasingly apparent. Most things are preparing for sleep, or flight. Not everything though. The people, turkeys and deer of Dodge are getting ready for the long haul. The tone is quiet, but there is an undertone of transition and change, a subtle excitement. Turkeys, scratch for the last easy pickings, chickadees seem positively frenzied and deer are of course entering the rut.

favorite big log
On Halloween Day, I had a close encounter with our resident young, goofy buck. He's no spike horn, but he seems a bit inexperienced.  Colleagues and I first spotted him from the windows of the Willow Room at DNP, the day before Halloween. He was strolling along the fenceline of the playground, munching grape leaves and getting his antlers tangled in trees and vines. It's always exciting to be chatting and then spot charismatic megafauna over your friends' shoulders. So the next morning, Halloween morning, I was heading out with a group of our enthusiastic preschoolers. Kids had just started climbing their favorite big old log, and I was telling them about the buck that visited our playground. I pushed my thumbs into my temples and wiggled my fingers, a-la-antlers, and pivoted to show the kids standing behind me. That's when I got my big surprise, the surprise that one of my young friends says, astutely, "almost made you pee your pants!" Mr. Buck, as the kids now call him, was standing right behind me, literally an arm's length away. I've never been that close to a white-tailed deer (key deer are another matter), and I was speechless. The kids looked from me and my fake antlers (yes, I still had my hands on top of my head), to the big boy with the real rack. The buck looked from me to the kids, and then he stepped even closer! Down went my antlers and down we went, sinking slowly and instinctively to our knees. Mr. Buck blinked at us and sniffed us and for a second I thought he might actually lick one of us (or maybe, just maybe gore us), but then he walked carefully around us in a half circle and then slowly, very slowly went on his way. This kids were quiet for about thirty more seconds and then the pent up energy and excitement burst forth.

the vagaries of duck weed
Was I scared? Maybe a little. I was more thrilled than anything. And so were the kids. They watched me to check my interpretation, as kids always do, and, being a nature geek, I admitted to being very surprised, but I think my enthusiasm was the thing that struck them, and it was a happy ending after all. This week, the same kids set out on our hikes intent on seeing Mr. Buck again. And Mr. Buck, in all his goofiness, has complied. The kids are so enthusiastic, and so non-plussed by Mr. Buck's largess, that I have now resorted to emphasizing his size and power. I now caution the kids to enjoy watching him, but to keep an eye on him and to maintain a respectful distance, "Look at those big antlers. He's so handsome, but he's a big guy."

slack linging
Kids have varying degrees of experience with risk, danger and cause and effect. We cannot rely on young children to have sound judgement all the time. They are really not supposed to have great judgement at this point in their development. Human beings' brains, current research says, are engineered to inhibit an amount of caution in order to develop properly, to know and learn limits through experience. Recent brain research points to the idea that people are engineered to take big risks right through young adulthood. It falls to parents and caregivers to help with boundaries, as there seems to be such a thing as too much natural selection. Eating deadly nightshade, falling into the pond or out of a tree, poking your eye out with a stick--  these and more constitute unacceptable risks here at Dodge Nature Preschool. Left to their own devices, children might fall prey to these risks and more. It is our big hope that here at our nature-based school, we are ultimately safe, but that we are also helping children access knowledge and growth through natural risk. In other words, risk is actually inherent in growing up, and sometimes children and adults court risk in order to grow and understand who they are and who they might become.

tree climbing
So, we don't celebrate Halloween per sae at DNP, but it is inevitable that the "spirit" of the season haunts our classrooms during that time of year. Halloween is a great excuse for children to have fun courting a little risk. Through dressing up or watching others dress up in costumes, children can learn some flexibility:  first something unpredictable or exciting happens and then there's a happy ending and an normalcy returns. There can be some great lessons about personal potential and reliable outcomes and safety. When kids know, on the macro level, that they are generally safe and loved, their own confidence can help them push the envelope to attain new skills. During the week of Halloween, we read a book that is beloved my most kids. It is called, "What Was I Scared Of?" and it is my favorite Dr. Seuss.

fascinating fungus
The story follows the plight of a fuzzy little fellow who tries to go about his daily business of fishing for "doubt-trout,"  fetching spinach in Grinitch and picking a "peck of snide." The trouble is, the little guy keeps running into a disturbingly vacant pair of pants. The pair of pale green pants "with nobody inside," nearly knocks him down in the road, they zealously row toward him while his on the Roover River and then they show up right in the middle of snide bush and the protagonist actually--horrors!--touches them. Just when my students are about to clap their hands over their eyes in fear, the pale green pants begin to cry.  Awww. "Poor empty pants with nobody inside...they were just as scared as I!" The tables turn and now the reader finds empathy for something she feared. As I said, most kids love this story, even kids who might be a bit anxious. The tale allows the children to play with fictional fear, to have a quasi experience that closely mirrors their daily experiences with fear of the unknown.

getting dirty
Readers of this blog know that Dodge Nature Preschool subscribes to the view that play acting is very good for children. We believe that children access power, and confidence, through all kinds of pretend play:  superheroes, princesses, ninjas, ninja turtles, bad guys, sharks, tornadoes, volcanoes...the list is limitless. We not only support role-playing (complete with the use of pretend weapons), we encourage it through the keeping of kid journals. These journals are places for kids to illustrate and document their ideas and imaginings. A kid typically draws in her journal, and when she is ready to tell the story of the drawing, or verbally interpret or label her thoughts, teachers sit down and dictate her ideas. We dictate verbatim, preserving kid diction and grammar. While the child dictates, they watch us write the words alongside their drawing. We repeat what the child says just after they say it, and, while we preserve grammar errors in print, we repeat the words with corrections. If a child says, "The guy goed up into space and blasted hims ship," we write just that but we repeat, "The guy went into space and blasted his ship." Then we read through the dictation with an eye toward acting, asking the child to designate their own role and to tell us how many of each actor she needs. If there are trees, for instance, we say, "And how many trees will you need?" The journal illustrations are shared at group and then the author directs her classmates to act out the story. It is not only great fun, but it is a great practice for cognitive, social and emotional development.

Challenge Hill:  a Dodge tradition
Last week, after reading, "What Was I Scared Of?"  We informally poled our students:  "What are you scared of?"  Some answers are nearly universal,  "monsters under the bed," "something in my closet." Some answers I consider a personal challenge as a nature educator, "wuffs," "foxes," "coyotes." I myself am inordinately worried about great white sharks (and paying my mortgage and sending my kids to college, but mostly great white sharks). Perhaps the answers that interest me the most, and those that I find most telling of the young child's experience sound something like this:  "Nothing.  I'm scared of nothing, especially not a monster under my bed, especially not spiders or tornadoes.  Especially not bears." Especially not. The poignant mix of bravado and wearing one's heart on his sleeve is simply vintage preschool. The child is telling us exactly about his experience fear:  I'm brave, and this is the stuff I'm trying not to be scared of. I can do it. One recent journal story tells a similar tale of bravery and fear and of a commitment to conquer fear.

A child who is growing by leaps and bounds socially and emotionally, took a big risk to illustrate and act out her journal story last week.  Here is what she drew and dictated:

"Once upon a time there was one pink door. It had something behind it. There was a princess on the other side that wanted to figure out what was on the other side. And there was a friendly dragon, and another green door. It had a crack. The princess and the friendly dragon wanted to see what was behind it. And then they saw a friendly tiger. The friendly tiger and friendly dragon looked and it was a friendly monster."

up close and personal
This child directed peers and acted in the story too. She smiled and she laughed throughout the experience. And then, instead of leaving group time, which she sometimes does if she's worried about the book we are reading, she sat down front and center and remained riveted throughout. Perhaps you've already guessed what the book of the day was.  It was indeed, "What Was I Scared Of?" If I was a gambler, I probably would have bet my young friend would not have stayed for that book. But she did. And you know what?  Our copy of "What Was I Scared Of?" has the added bonus of glowing in the dark; the reader has the option of taking a kinda scary book into a totally dark room! Guess who chose to up the ante and try out this thrilling option with her peers? My little friend found joy in running into our bathroom and shutting the door with a shrieking group of peers. I have a hunch, come spring, my friend, like so many of her peers, will be in a position to ask herself, "What was I scared of?"

friendship can be the biggest and most rewarding risk of all
For more information about story dictation, check out what the Queen of Story Dictation, Vivian Gussin Paley, has to say.  Many thanks to Vivian's friend and our colleague emeritus, Kris Rollwagen.  Kris was Dodge's Queen of Story Dictation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Fruits of our Labor: Bountiful Community Action

It's harvest time here at Dodge.  Once again, we are enjoying the sweet and savory fruits of our labors.  Our young students are plucking the last fall golds from the raspberry canes, picking ripe apples, pressing tart cider, delighting in digging monster 'taters from the black dirt beds and having a helluva good time heaving heavy squash into their little red wagons and rolling pumpkins right down the Farm Road.

This fall finds us savoring the less tangible fruits of our labors too.  The colors, sights and smells of autumn enrich our senses and remind us to be thankful for the natural gifts of Minnesota.  We can also be thankful that the Dodge mission to connect folks with their environment continues to resonate with our community and our neighbors in a variety of exciting ways.

We just hosted a very successful annual Dodge Ball at the new Radisson Blu at the Mall of America.  I am delighted to report that we harvested quite a bit of "lettuce" for my favorite cause:  The Dodge Nature Preschool Scholarship Fund.
Thanks to Jose Luis Villasenor, community activist and Dodge parent (of no less than three siblings in our Oak Room class!), attendees heard a heartfelt, firsthand account of the impact and rewards of land-based education for the youngest members of our community.  This fall, we are also reaping the rewards of sharing our mission with educational partners in our community.  Dodge has played host to a number of visitors who have been so impressed by our efforts in and examples of place-based, hands-on, environmental education that they have taken immediate, exciting action that will directly impact even more kids and families in our metro area.

As we welcome new families to Dodge Nature Preschool this fall, I feel it is important to let them know that their decision to join the Dodge community and to support place-based education is a terrific first step in what will likely be a lifelong, joyous and rewarding relationship with our natural world.  My new teaching colleague, Kari Ryg, recently shared her thoughts with parents at our annual Curriculum Night.  She said, "I've changed fundamentally as a person since I started working here.  Teaching outside, working with kids outside every day, has changed me, who I am and what I think about the world-- for the better."  Your choice to visit and enjoy Dodge and to enroll your children in our Nature Preschool makes abstract concepts--nature and education--real and concrete.  The people that use Dodge actually make the Nature Center and our School what they are:  places to explore the environment, to learn and practice stewardship of that environment and to grow in all ways that a person can, in partnership with the earth.  This is vital stuff!  What we do here at Dodge every day, not only means something to you who participate in day to day exploration and stewardship, it sets a terrific example and provides a guide for our neighbors.  I myself am delighted to crow about the fact that, after visiting Dodge, and seeing how we do what we do, the Lakeville school district has decided to make place-based, hands-on, environmental education the signature of their new STEAM initiative.  Dr. Lisa Snyder is now playfully calling the District initiative, "E-STEAM," and you can guess what that E is for.

Readers of this blog know that my own kids attend school in Lakeville.  I live in Lakeville.  I'm a teacher and a naturalist, and, more importantly, a concerned mom.  My own middle school daughters, while getting a great public school education, are not currently afforded the opportunity to partner with their own back door ecosystems in the same way that my Dodge Preschool students are.  I know that my Dodge Nature Preschool students benefit in all ways--cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically--from an integrated, emergent curriculum that partners with the natural world.  So I contacted Lakeville Superintendent, Dr. Snyder, and suggested that our school district might want to think about using our own local, natural resources to deepen and enrich the education of kids and families in Lakeville.  I cited Dodge Nature Center as a model for place-based, experiential education and I invited Dr. Snyder to visit us.

Guess what?  Dr. Snyder did in fact visit, and so did her District colleagues in Curriculum and Early Childhood.  Dr. Snyder and the District liked what they saw at Dodge.  They liked it so much, that the District is pursuing a sizable grant, in partnership with Lakeville Parks and Rec, to use local parks for classes and experiences.  They are working with the Jeffers Foundation to train teachers to use their own school sites for environmental curriculum integration, and they are planning a pilot series of environmental field days as early as this spring with the help of none other than our very own Dodge Board member, Chad Dayton, and his ground-breaking, wonderful organization, Wilderness Inquiry.

So, my own children are going to benefit from these efforts almost immediately.  And my friends and neighbors here in Lakeville can look forward to an exciting new level of inquiry and integrated learning that can only make our kids more engaged, more flexible, more resilient, more creative and more ready to shape the future.  Our kids, in turn, will share their new enthusiasm and their strong relationship to the local environment with us!  I've no doubt Lakeville will see an uptick in interest in our local flora and fauna, and in education.  Lakeville kids will get out there and learn more about the world and themselves.  Think of all the wonderful opportunities for cross-pollination that await!  ISD 194 can cooperate with a variety of local stakeholders in new and exciting ways.  Just think what will happen when the District works with our Area Arts Center, our Senior Center, YMCA Camp Streefland, Community Ed and Parks and Rec-- all in the context of environmental education.  So, Way to go, Lakeville!  And, Way to go, Dodge!  Without the Dodge example, Lakeville might not have emerged as a new regional, public school leader in integrated environmental education.

Community activism actually works.  So, I say joyfully to our new Dodge Nature Preschool families, "Your choice matters."  What we do here at Dodge, day in and day out, how we connect kids and families with their local environment, it's important and it matters, and it has a big impact on our friends and neighbors.

We often say to our Preschool families, "Thanks for choosing Dodge," and I'll gladly say so again and again.  I'll also say this to our friends and patrons, to the schools we serve, to our volunteers and to our supporters, "Thanks for choosing Dodge."  Thanks for investing in the idea of connecting people to the natural world.  Your choice means a bountiful harvest, in the gardens and beyond!  Without you, there would be no Dodge, and no Dodge legacy.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Junkyard Playgrounds: A Risky Business

risky business at Dodge
Have you heard of "adventure playgrounds?" There seems to be some chatter out there about a "new" trend in outdoor play spaces. People like risky play advocates, Rusty Keeler and Richard Louv, are tagging stories about edgy junkyard-esque spaces for kids. I take it some of these have been around for quite a while. Berkley's Adventure Playground has been going strong for twenty years, and that playground is based on a World War II era movement spearheaded by none other than a UK landscape designer--Lady Marjory Allen--who wanted to promote a "free and permissive" atmosphere for play and exploration over a concrete pad dotted with exercise equipment. Lady Allen's work certainly informs today's adventure playgrounds like The Land in Wales (you'll want to read the Atlantic's article, The Overprotected Kid. But, historically, what is the norm in Berkeley, let alone Wales, seems to take a while to filter into American culture at large, and I suppose here in "fly over" country we are perceived to be something less than cutting edge-- plus we do not have a collective memory of kids playing in bombed out neighborhoods as they once did in the war years of Lady Allen's UK.

climbing Dodge pasture fence in winter; a no-no in summer
But, finally, Minnesotans (with our strong, local history of agrarian culture and outdoor fun-- we are the land of 10,000 Lakes) are talking about these risky, junky adventure playgrounds too.  From what I hear, folks in NE Minneapolis, perhaps the heart of our local "alt" culture, are excited about embracing the junkyard ethic in risky play and exploration (probably no accident that NE Mpls is also historically the seat of heavy industry in the city, and residents have embraced that ethos and aesthetic in all sorts of ways that enrich our local culture). While pushing the envelope in this way may seem new, the idea of risk-taking that underpins such pining for childhood adventure is not.

preschoolers slack lining, barefoot
Readers of this blog will recognize that Dodge Nature Preschool has a long-standing tradition of helping children embrace appropriate risk as a natural, necessary, to-be-applauded part of child development (just moments ago, one of my students tried to decline my invitation to spread her own chive butter on a cracker:  "My parents don't let me hold a knife." Like it or not, we inhabit a time and place where even a butter knife seems to inspire worry). Here at the Preschool, we certainly have a much higher tolerance for early childhood risk taking than many of our peers in education.  Not only do we instruct children to use knives and saws, we routinely build fires with them, we let them play with sticks, we teach them to climb trees and we encourage them to wrestle, if they want to.

preschool ropes work
Safety is a hot topic for Dodge teachers, and parents, but not because we don't take risks with kids outside. As our Assistant Director, Joey, will point out, we talk about safety and constantly update protocols because we want to support risk-taking as much as we can (check out my former posts on working with kids and ropes and trees), and to teach families about the importance of embracing risk. Like Richard Louv, Rusty Keeler and David Sobel, we believe that risk-taking outside is an important vehicle for developing the "whole child," and for supporting the child's relationship with the world, specifically that natural world.

tree swings at Streefland
One night last week, I visited YMCA Camp Streefland in Lakeville for my daughter's open house. While touring around Camp, I was reminded that the Y has a long tradition of emphasizing physical risk-taking as character development. Streefland is a lovely place, tucked right off a major highway, actually, in the midst of what some might mistakenly assume is a sterile outer ring suburb. The camp occupies ravines and shoreline on the edge of very healthy, shallow lake-- so healthy it supports a rare and protected species of water lily (and all the campers know this and don't pick it). Everywhere you look, throughout the woods, there are opportunities for kids to test their mettle and have fun:  giant swings, ropes courses, canoes, kayaks, zip lines and something called the "black hole."
Streefland "Black Hole":
drain tile, sleds and screams
note Wee Bee lugging sled
These activities capitalize on natural infrastructure with minimal development for challenging fun. The camp activities--swings, zip lines, swamp walks--in fact highlight the natural components of the landscape, rather than obstructing or abusing them with junk. The paths are well worn and a lot of kids move through each summer, but the attitude and tone is one of respect for people and the environment, and it shows in the use of the land. As a leader-in-training last week, my daughter had a chance to take her "Wee Bee" charges out canoeing. Wee Bees are pre-k aged and my daughter and her counsellor filled a canoe with them and headed out to look for "sea monsters," and turtles. Even Dodge teachers shiver at the thought of taking preschoolers canoeing, but apparently, refreshingly, the Y embraces such risk-- and the payoff is huge, the kids running around Camp that night were full of stories and enthusiasm for the place.

lovely lake Kingsley
and a happy camper

a late vernal pond
& almost too much joy
Based soley on a very superficial scan of some of the junky "adventure playgrounds" in use out there, I am tempted to play devil's advocate. While I truly believe in and support risk as a valuable part of social, emotional, physical and cognitive development, I worry that advocating playing in a place that more closely resembles a favella or any developing world ghetto runs the risk of seriously insulting the resourceful residents of such places, and it looks for all the world like citizens of privilege are enjoying the benefits of "slumming it."  I realize that children developing in favelas are likely developing some great coping skills; I would argue, though, that those kids parents would probably say that their children are required to embrace a little too much risk. Privileged, well-educated America often pines for the "sandlot" days of yore-- when a "kid could be a kid," playing pick-up games in the vacant lot, or when people like me were free to range through cow pasture and forest for entire days with no adult supervision.

spring mud is boot-sucking mud;
you might lose one!
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world's residents cannot supervise kids when they want to and cannot choose where their children "play." Sobel and others have pointed out the fact that many kids actually hunt and catch their own food every day. Some kids eat animals they catch, instead of trapping them just for fun and observation. Kids the world over tend crops and siblings, and work out in the elements without REI rainpants or bug spray, let alone vaccinations or access to a hospital, should they fall from a tree and break their arm. Risk is relative, of course. World War II Londoners worried more about bombs falling from the sky than they did about abductors. Now privileged Americans worry too much about germs, and predators. But how much risk is too much? I'm not always sure, but I think here at Dodge Nature Center, and at our Preschool, we've discovered a balance, and that balance is largely dictated by how the natural world arranges itself.

not-so-risky rooster, Midas,
puts his life in preschool hands
Every day we use mostly what we come across in nature for the scaffolding of play and development through risk-taking. Trees make the best jungle gyms. Rocks and sticks are the best tools to manipulate for play and building materials. With very little modification to our biome, to the fauna and flora we encounter in our own backyard, we can provide kids with experiences that helping them grow healthy bodies and minds while preserving some idea of what it means to have a healthy relationship with the earth. I worry about those junkyard play spaces removing kids from what should be, arguably, a kind of ideal for a healthy ecosystem, not to mention an example and respite of beauty. Let's face it, people who work at Nature Centers are biased; we find nature itself, in its less-disturbed forms beautiful, and therapeutic. Dragonflies and sparkly clean, healthy ponds and milkweed and monarchs and Great Blue Herons are beautiful, and they are emblems of nature with a capital "N," because they remind us of the beauty of a functioning ecosystem.

tall grass prairie is lovely
...and itchy
Kids can learn a lot, I'm sure, from playing in a junkyard, and I'm sure that kind of play goes a long way to support "whole child" development too-- but not all the way. What's missing? What is missing is the child's relationship with the natural world, with the ecosystem. Instead of making a junkyard, clean up your municipal park, make it support more plant and animal life, make it more interesting and complex in the right ways. Make it a place where kids can climb living trees. If urban kids need a place to play, clean up the needles and condoms and then consider how that space can be a tiny haven of an ecosystem in the concrete jungle.

blind Fox snake;
kids & reptiles taking risks together
I know it sounds way less edgy, and it lacks that steam punk esprit de corps which I applaud for its whole-hearted urge to push the envelope, but I think children need examples of functional, healthy, natural beauty in their lives if they are to overcome nihilism and powerlessness, if they are to bond with and make good choices about the world we share with plants and animals.

Nature and health are rights, not privileges of course. If we take that stance, then we have a responsibility to develop and use play spaces with an eye to child development and an environmental ethic.  Places like Dodge Nature Preschool should not be enclaves and hang-outs only for REI denizens. Land-based learning should be supported and advocated in each and every community and municipality. As we know full well, kids today have to cope with tomorrow. Why create a dystopian playground to support risk-taking and development when you can court as much danger as you want playing in an actual ecosystem?

the closest thing to a junkyard playground at Dodge:
temporary play with trees, ropes, tires and a few barn boards
I'm all for adventure and risk and independence and autonomy in play, but I'm no nihilist. I think we can have risky fun, and support land-based learning, beauty and sustainability at the same time.
forest shoot out with stick arrows and yarn bows:
striking the balance between Waldorf and junkyard
kids, fire & mushrooms;
how much risk is too much?

Ice out!
Who doesn't want to take a risk come spring?

the first gesture of friendship might just be the biggest leap of faith