Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Climbing Houlihan’s Tree


“Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared that some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

When I was 4 years old, my 5 year-old sister, Kim, and 3 year-old neighbor, Pat Houlihan and I climbed the tree between the house and the garage in Pat’s backyard. We climbed higher and higher until we couldn’t climb any higher. We were as high as the house roof and it was exhilarating; the view through the branches and leaves was fascinating. We couldn’t climb down either, but we were not concerned, standing on a branch with our arms wrapped around the trunk. When Mrs. Houlihan called and said, “Pat, Jeanne, Kim, where are you?” We called back to her and told her where we were. We also waved so she could see us. When she told us to come down, we said we would if we could, but we couldn’t. The branches were too far apart. It did not take Mrs. Houlihan long to call the fire department. Firefighters with ladders arrived soon and we were carried down. I can still climb Houlihan’s tree in my mind, sense my arms wrapped around the trunk, and thrill at seeing the world below. (In full disclosure, my sister says I climbed the tree alone.)

 Adventure playground-much like Bethnal Green
Twenty-five years later, I was doing research on adventure playgrounds in London for my thesis: looking at where children play on structures when they build the structures. One site visit was to the Bethnal Green adventure playground where children had used scrap lumber, ropes, discarded roller conveyors from the grocers, hand tools and nails to build rambling structures. I watched as children lugged plastic bread crates with them as they climbed up to a platform about 25 feet off the ground. Each child arriving at the platform settled into a crate and started rolling down the 40-foot run of the slide. Partially secured sheets of plywood were all that protected them from careening off the slide and down. I shuddered and winced as I watched child after child whip down that slide. Derrick, the Play Leader, cheered them on along with the other children. Each child emerged from the wild ride glowing and crowing with excitement. Their delight and pride erased the sense of alarm I had felt watching them.

Like most adults, I’ve seen both sides of risk taking, my own and children taking theirs. As many adults do, I wonder whether children today are finding the freedom to take and learn from the kind of physical risks that have long been part of play and childhood. Where are the settings children explore actively and with independence? Are there parks, playgrounds, empty lots, garages, and backyards close by and and is there time for children to explore heights, experience high speed, handle dangerous tools, be near dangerous elements (like water or fire), and engage in rough-and-tumble play? Along with some bumps, bruises, blood, and occasional bone breaks, children are assessing their capabilities, learning about the physical world, exulting at conquering a challenge, and feeling a grand sense of competence through their risky play.

The Necessity of Risk 
From positive and inviting, to healthy and necessary, and to be avoided at all costs, risk is understood in a number of ways. It is challenge, uncertainty, peril, and the possibility of loss. Risk is so present in our lives, running through many daily activities and settings, familiar and new, indoors and out that it can be all of these. It naturally runs through children’s play.
While adults may try to protect children from risk, children need to learn to assess and manage developmentally appropriate risk for themselves. Play offers opportunities for children to learn first hand about their own abilities; coordinate their movements; estimate distances; grapple with uncertainty; overcome fears; and push the limits of the familiar. Adventurous play and the risk taking that comes with it impacts a child's physical and emotional development.

We can miss children’s competence and all that they have discovered about their own abilities if we allow our worries and fears to overwhelm us and scour the environment of loose and interesting objects. Giving children more freedom and choice even at a young age allows them to assess choices, take more responsibility, and accept consequences. Along with curiosity, children explore in a progressive manner and monitor the possibility of risk. Often children will sense risk and approach it gradually, test a surface, crawl bit-by-bit to a ledge, climb a few steps up a ladder, or pick up a spade and feel its heft.

Boston Children's Museum
In play, risk takes a variety of forms; children explore heights, crawl into tunnels, pursue high speeds, handle sharp tools, are fascinated with water and fire, and engage in rough-and-tumble play. Clearly all risks are not the same. There are reasonable risks for children at particular ages and abilities and there are extreme risks where serious injury is possible. Valuable distinctions are covered in the Alliance for Childhood’s recent publication Adventure: The value of risk in children’s play

Challenging activities, for instance, might look scary and take some mustering of courage to do, but safety features mitigate risks.  Genuine risk when something could go wrong is present with moderate risk; but with preparation, risk assessment related to age, and adult oversight this becomes calculated risk. Advanced, or extreme, risk requires extensive practice and significant skill development and is an unlikely fit for museums.

Ready for Risk 
As museums expand into outdoor spaces, add climbers, sign onto Let’s Move Museums and Gardens, plant gardens, and outfit maker spaces, they encounter a greater range of issues related to risk. While they may not want to encourage the kind of risk of the 40-foot thrill ride at the Bethnal Green adventure playground, museums do have a significant opportunity to offer children some of the quintessential experiences of childhood with the physical challenges and risky play not available in other parts of their lives.
Expanding into adventurous play and exploration can, however, be challenging for museums even when they feel willing. On several master-planning projects I know of, the museum’s interest in offering children physical challenges and risk taking has been high initially. Play is in the mission. Twenty-first century skills including confidence, control, coordination, and creative thinking are in the learning model. Loose parts are in the list of exhibit criteria. High priority experience zones for the museum include a maker space, nature play area, and a multi-story climber. Lots of water is a requisite and even a zip-line is mentioned. 

Then caution creeps in. The voice of adult worry and operational considerations are louder than the voice of advocacy for rich experiences for children. In the evolving plan, as key experiences are identified, and structures are defined, members of the museum team begin to express misgivings about loose parts, heights, water, tools, and surfaces. Perhaps there should be fewer sticks, less sand, a lower platform parents can reach easily, and no ropes. The log to walk across should be on the ground not crossing over a ditch. Will there actually be real rocks? Will there really be hammers? Once I was asked to delete the word dirt from a master plan.

More opportunities for risky play and exploration inevitably involve increasing the tolerance for risk among museum staff as well as parents and educators. If museums value play as much as they say they do, value creativity, innovation, learner-directed exploration, and child-driven experiences, then challenge and risk are essential ingredients in the experiential mix that museums offer.

Museums Taking Risks so Children Can Take Risks 
Museums have enormous experience, expertise, and resources in creating safe, secure environments and engaging experiences for children and adults that they can draw on in providing adventuresome experiences in nature play, physical exploration, and maker projects for children and adults. At the same time, museums need to take some risks themselves to allow children and adults to enjoy the benefits of risks.
First and foremost, museums want to provide safe, secure environments. Concern for visitors’ health and safety is fundamental. Nevertheless, museums need to distinguish among a true need for safety, safety-for-its-own-sake, and exaggerated fears about serious injuries, liability, and insurance issues. Concerns about injuries, liability, and insurance should not be dismissed, but should be verified with information and supplemented by first-hand information about risk, challenge, injury in the museum’s particular environments and exhibits. In balancing safety and freedom to explore, the goal is to focus on reducing risks of serious injury while maintaining a spirit of challenge, creativity, and excitement.

Museums can increase their understanding and tolerance for risk by building on their own practices, drawing on examples from other museums, checking out resources and articles, and working with experts, and considering the following steps.

Experiencing great heights at Morris Arboretum
Improve at Assessing Risk. A lot of territory exists between throwing caution to the wind and locking up every loose part. Risk assessment is something staff from all across the museum should be involved in exploring this territory by:
Distinguishing between risk and hazard. Operationalize these conditions for the museum. Risk is something a person decides; hazard is something dangerous beyond one’s control. Think slippery floors. There can be an acceptable level of risk, but not an acceptable level of hazard.
Developing a shared vocabulary related to museum spaces, experiences, and activities. Clarify challenge, risk, and hazard and what each looks like for that museum and for different audiences and age groups. Coin and define useful terms like risky play, adventuresome play, or dramatic moments for a working lexicon.
Walking through the museum with new eyes. Invisible risks that someone is unlikely to recognize are potential safety problems: broken parts, trip hazards, and unstable structures. Also keep in mind, that if children and adults believe they are in an environment that is safer than it actually is, they will be less alert to risks that are actually present; they are likely to take more risks without knowing it.
Checking and challenging operational realities related to staffing and supervision in friendly and straightforward ways. Agree on ways to broker priorities about what’s possible and necessary; and about balancing safety and freedom to explore.
Getting a realistic idea of actual rates of injury. Adventure, mentioned above, has some useful data. Gather, monitor, and use data on injuries at the museum.

Learn From and About the Museum’s Own Risk Takers. The museum should learn about who ventures in and explores its exhibits, programs, gardens, and maker spaces everyday. What they expect and are comfortable with can be better understood and planned for by:
Talking with and listening to visitors about challenge, risk, and adventure. Field a focused conversation (or two) with parents and caregivers about their comfort with risk and challenge, for themselves and for their children at different ages. Some parents may be interested in risky play at the museum, a setting they trust.
Observing how visitors assess risk. Spend time in exhibits watching visitors approach something new, something risky. Notice the progressive steps they take to master a challenge whether it’s climbing, using a hot glue gun, or working a sewing machine.
Trusting others. Allowing risk places trust in the child, the adult, and the staff. With their commitment to rich experiences that offer choice and spontaneity; expertise in materials and tools; alertness to hazard and risk; and preparation in guidance and oversight, museum staff are critical to managing risk.

Manage Opportunities for Risk.To offer more and richer adventuresome play experiences and intriguing maker projects, a museum needs to understand the kind of experiences it ideally hopes to offer and the benefits of doing so. A careful and deliberate approach can start with:   
Identifying the benefits of risky play: Keep the value of allowing choices and spontaneity and the advantages of experiencing a variety of risks and challenges front-and-center in planning and evaluating experiences and settings. Name the benefits that are important at that museum; capture them in photos and in visitor's actual words.
Adding safety features and practices. Children’s museums incorporate many safety features throughout their exhibits and environments. Nets around a climbing structure, a fall zone, and a single entrance and exit to a climber that adults can monitor are standard, but not the only, features. Incorporating graduated challenges and opportunities within a range allows children to assess their abilities.  
Getting smarter about guidance. Experiment with different levels of guidance: staffing, cuing adult oversight, and preparation. Problem solve how to allow children and adults to explore dangerous elements such as how to build a fire or use a candle; offer opportunities for visitors to practice with unfamiliar tools; add control measures.
Testing an activity to understand its risks: Prototyping is a museum practice that lends itself to experimentation: working with unfamiliar tools, constructing forts, more open-ended activities, scaling experiences to a larger scale, introducing rocks, working with fire. Define what the museum hopes to learn, set up the activity, and plan to staff the area to understand what’s actually involved. Observe what children do. How do visitors handle risk? What were staff fears starting out and how realistic were they? How did staff feel watching visitors use an awl? How terrific did visitors seem to feel about their accomplishments?


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