by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
Learning involves risk-taking. Children, driven to learn about the world around them, naturally take risks. When we provide children with an environment that supports learning through appropriate risk-taking, we trust them to figure out their world, and to ask us for help when needed. Yet our societal attitudes about protecting children have resulted in squeaky-clean, “safe” playgrounds, where risk is minimized. And we’re now learning that these playgrounds inspire many children to take greater risks because they’re uninspired by the watered-down challenges left for them.
Diann Gano, owner of Under the Gingko Tree preschool, in Rock Island, Illinois, survived childhood. By today’s standards, some would consider this a miracle. Forests were her playgrounds, and manageable risk was a natural part of daily adventures. Looking back, she’s glad she grew-up when, where and how she did.
Diann had no girls in her neighborhood (which bordered a state forest), so she had to play with her four brothers and their male friends. To keep up with them, and to not lose face, Diann developed what she thought of as a boy’s sense of “risk-taking.” Following the boys’ path in the woods made all the difference to her.
“I grew up with four brothers, and no sisters, and our neighborhood was all boys. In our backyard was a state park, so we were given tons of freedom and we grew up in those forests… When you’re with four boys in the forest and they’re walking across logs, you don’t get to go down. You’ve got to go across with the boys. You might do it differently, but you’ve got to go across that log. It’s just an unwritten rule. Those are your playmates, and that’s how I played.”
Since 1986, Diann has developed a preschool in which children are outdoors most of the day for most of the year. In a standard playground the major variables (wet-dry, hot-cold) are few, weather-related, and can limit how the space is used. Diann’s Certified Nature Explore Classroom is alive with variables that constantly support new learning. She says, “The weather changes, the erosion changes… One day a child jumps over a plant. Six days later it has grown too tall for him to jump. Your classroom changes constantly. You see what works and what doesn’t… You see it as a challenge to keep adapting to your classroom.”
The fortunate children in Under the Gingko Tree find challenges that sharpen their physical, intellectual and social-emotional growth. Diann, trusting that the “risk-taking” in her childhood was profoundly valuable to her own growth, allows greater leeway for challenge than would most preschool operators. Children don’t experience a greater rate of bumps and bruises. Parents deeply value the wider arena of challenge that Diann provides. And graduates send their own children there.
Let’s look at one example of how children (and Diann) are challenged by the environment nature creates for them.
One day, a four-year-old boy and five-year-old girl noticed a leaf on the roof of their sandbox, about four feet off the ground. They wanted the leaf off the roof, and for two days, tried using stumps and other objects to assist in their quest.
Day three brought an “ahaaa!” experience. Earlier, children had experimented unsuccessfully in trying to push an open box, with child inside, down a gently sloping plywood board. They learned that plywood is not a slide, and that some things stay in place on a sloped plywood ramp. Using this information, the boy and girl angled the plywood up to the sandbox roof.
Standing nearby, with camera in hand and heart in throat, Diann watched- ready to intervene. The boy quickly got on the plywood and cautiously shinnied to the roof as the girl watched. Knowing their styles, Diann saw the girl as evaluating the best method of climbing, while the boy, younger, and less developmentally advanced, just charged ahead. As do all great climbers upon reaching the summit, the boy savored the moment, as he sat beaming with pride.
An entire article could be written about the many layers of learning and accomplishment represented in this episode- both for the children and for Diann. She had to stand aside and trust that the children would solve this problem safely. Diann saw the girl, understanding her own limits, choosing not to climb, but to support her friend. Diann understood that the boy’s embrace of the challenge might have been due to his not having the cognitive development to understand the “risks.” But his caution, and use of prior learning, resulted in success. This challenge, full of advanced problem solving, teamwork, trial and error, physical dexterity, and the sweet savoring of success- is a rich learning experience that could never have happened in a typical playground.
In talking with Diann, I was moved by a very simple core value that underlies her relationship with “her” children, and that makes possible the unusual learning opportunities they all experience daily. Trust.
Diann trusts that her own childhood experience is a valuable guide in how she runs her preschool. She trusts that children, when they are at the hard edge of challenge between what they know and what they are seeking to experience, will take one of three courses. They will either back-off, ask for assistance, or forge ahead with care. Each action is a learning experience.
Diann has a profound trust in the wisdom of children who daily take managed risks in the continually changing landscape of her Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. And she places deep trust in nature as being the greatest provider of enriched learning experiences for her children.
What if we all retained this valuable trust in our children, and in ourselves? What if we all recognized, and trusted, the power of nature to teach? In one small corner of the natural world, Diann Gano retains that trust, and that is making all the difference.
On the subject of differences- do you know the difference between Snow Mittens and Car Mittens? Visit our blog post, written by Diann, in which she clarifies this distinction in a very entertaining story. Click HERE.