To seven-year-old Jonathan it was the edge of the world.
To everyone else at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex it was just the tall diving platform.
After climbing the stairs I inched my way to the edge of the 33 foot tall precipice and looked at the pool below. The voice in my head delivered a very clear “no way.” Just as I accepted the order from my mind another, conflicting, voice spoke up, “There’s no way you’re climbing down those stairs. You came up here, now jump.”
A fierce war was waged in my mind as I stood on the edge of the platform for what must have been roughly 20 minutes. I weighed the logical reasons to jump with the illogical reasons not to jump. Simply standing alone with my fright soon became a pool-full of spectators. Nobody had to teach me a formula for what happens when you mix fear and pride together; I already knew what it yielded. I stood motionless as lifeguards, swimmers, friends, and family members tried to convince me to jump or just come down the stairs. There was even the offer of money from a random adult if I could be brave and jump.
As it usually does, the time came for a decision to be made. I stepped to the edge and took a deep breath. The only thing the voice in my head could say after that was, “Get to the surface!” In the end I received a round of applause and the man who offered the money payed up.
I would not say I conquered a fear. I have never climbed to the top of a diving platform since. However, I do feel that I learned to be cautious of where I put my body. I do remember vividly the feeling of helplessness. I was afraid to jump, but also affirmed that I couldn’t climb down the stairs and let myself down, literally and figuratively.
I’m lucky enough to work at a place where I can share these type of experiences with young children.
Young children carry the desire to push their emerging physical abilities to the edge, and then jump. What does it say to their growth and blossoming capabilities when we deny them these opportunities? Experience is the only way to ‘nosce te ipsum’, or know thyself.
At Sunflower we don’t advocate parents lifting their children into a tree, or holding them as they cross the monkey bars. We assure the children we will be there if they get stuck and are scared, but it’s a job their bodies will be able to do in time. The intrinsic worth of an “I DID IT!” moment is breathtaking for everyone involved, but most of all the person who really did it. When a child claws, scrapes, and drags their body into a tree for the first time the world opens up, and you can see this expansion on their face.
The hard part, however, is deciding how to get down.
© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011
Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011
Many thanks to Jenny over at Let The Children Play! for sending my words all the way around the globe!
This is a great post Jonathon! I have a lot of thoughts on the issue myself. Go to any park and you’ll see some parent hovering over / under / around their kid with their arms out totally prepared for them to fall. On the other end of the spectrum, I used to let the boys go “wild” at the park because I let them climb on the outside of structures and on the top of the monkey bars and I got comments about danger and “Do you know your kid is…?”. I guess everyone has their tolerance level but where do you draw the line between smothering and risk? If I let my kid, would they really climb to the very top leaf of the tree and topple over or do we underestimate their ability to assess things? It’s interesting to me that in your story, everyone was encouraging you to jump off. Was it an age thing because you were 7, not a toddler? Or perhaps because it was a diving board at a complex and not something “unregulated” like a tree.
Really appreciate this post, Jonathan. Children (and adults, alike!) learn, grow, and discover by testing their abilities . . . this implies risk-taking. The “I did it!” moment is as powerful as you describe and equally translatable as children gain confidence and move through each developmental stage.
Goodness, the diving board, That brought back memories of peer pressure! I
Thanks for the comment! What a motivative force our peers can be!
I’m especially fond of the “I did it!”, I love when I hear someone say that. 🙂
Yesterday one of the Seedlings made it up into the tower on his own for the first time, and he let out the most profound, slow, wide eyed… “I …. Did … It.”
Brilliant post Jonathan, I was lucky to spend some time in Norway & saw children climbing trees & on top of buildings. When I expressed concern, the rely was ‘if they can get up they can get down, it’s only when adults help them up that they get stuck’, so we now adopt this approach in our school. I look forward to following more of your posts, Kierna
Hei Hei! I spent time studying / student teaching at a Swedish elementary school and I saw the same things, and had the same reactions at first. It was common if a ball went on the roof for two or three students to scale the wall and go get it, often pausing to enjoy the view.
The trust they had in their children’s abilities was staggering.
Thanks for the comment, feel free to share, or add us to your blogroll! We really do have the best job in the world! 🙂 http://nosuchthingasbadweather.blogspot.com/2011/10/best-job-in-world.html
“At Sunflower we don’t advocate parents lifting their children into a tree, or holding them as they cross the monkey bars. We assure the children we will be there if they get stuck and are scared, but it’s a job their bodies will be able to do in time. The intrinsic worth of an “I DID IT!” moment is breathtaking for everyone involved, but most of all the person who really did it. When a child claws, scrapes, and drags their body into a tree for the first time the world opens up, and you can see this expansion on their face.The hard part, however, is deciding how to get down.”
Ah, but if they get up by themselves, they “know” (in their bodies) how to get back down. We can trust this. We can trust children to take on body challenges and risks as they are ready (if we avoid “helping” them, by lifting them up onto the tree before they can get there by themselves). I love this post.
I teach parent/infant play classes, based on Infant expert Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach, where we allow babies and toddlers to practice moving freely, and to accomplish all gross motor milestones in their own time and their own way without adult interference or assistance. It is amazing to witness the “body” and spatial intelligence and self confidence these very young children exhibit, and carry with them throughout their lives.
Thanks for the comment Lisa!
I’m a firm believer that fear is a powerful tool for the body. There are times when it’s absolutely necessary to be fearful. I worry that by preventing children the chance to “take on body challenges”, as you said, we instill our own fears upon them. We want to nurture people who trust themselves, take on challenges, and also trust their intrinsic fear of a dangerous situation.
Do you have a website we can check out or a blog as well? Loved your twitter feed… lots of good links! 🙂
When I was teaching preschool, I would always refuse if a child asked me to lift him up to someplace high. My response was “If you can’t get there yourself, then I’m putting your body where it isn’t ready to be” They don’t want to be the only ones not on top, but the self esteem of doing it themselves is priceless. Besides, its not safe to be beyond their body’s capability. So they work harder to get there themselves, and eventually they get it. And success is so sweet.
Only two days ago, on a bike ride around Melbourne (Australia, not FL) I saw a parent body-lifting her young son along the monkey bars in a public play area. The sight saddened me. But I realised it’s not just about confusion: there were no other kids at the playground, so the mom had to be the playmate, and her son expected her to do the lifting. I think this happens a lot in playgrounds.
Rather than criticising ‘helicopter parents’ (not that you did this Jonathan) maybe we should be sharing the message that they will have more fun, and so will their kids, if they can arrange for other kids to be there too. Calling Lenore Skenazy: when is the next International Take Your Kids To The Park And Leave Them There Day?
I love the ‘Take Your Kids To The Park And Leave Them There Day’ Idea!!
Thanks for your comment Tim. I think kids do yearn for play-mates and also alone time. I see in the U.S. a lot kids rarely have time for themselves in a park or in their room to just play. I know it’s especially hard to create space for this in a co-op setting where space is limited.
I think it’s a great experience to have a play-mate, especially someone new. What do you think about the state of alone time?
I spent hours and hours when I was young just wandering in the woods alone. 🙂
So appreciate a fellow field professionals ability to put into words the memories of their own childhood AND the relevence to what we get to see and experience everyday with the young people we are privledged to know.
Thank you Jon- You have a wonderful way of helping “grown-ups” keep the magic alive in the everyday ins and outs of making a living and having a wonderful life.
Thank you Amber!! 🙂 I got the best start working with young children anyone could receive thanks to you. You’ll always be someone I look up to for your care and understanding of little ones, and for being such a great teacher.