Versions of Risk, Versions of Reggio

Last week, Teacher Tom posted this article about climbing.  In it, he shares photos of some of the amazing climbing contraptions that his students build in their outdoor play space.  Some of them took my breath away; a plank balanced on a swing – wow!  Now there’s something that could cost a public school teacher her job!  Looking at that picture, I find myself feeling equal parts jealousy and awe.  It takes a lot of courage and trust on the part of any teacher or parent to let children explore the environment and materials to that extent.  Chutzpah… serious chutzpah.

boy climbing stump

While I do plenty of things that may make other people shake their heads, I’m not in that league, much as I admire it.

This puzzling over my own comparative cowardice led me to think about how the work done in Reggio Emilia during the last 60-odd years gets translated as it moves around the world.  How many times have I heard teachers talk about “doing Reggio” as though putting coloured water in glass jars will somehow transform their pedagogy?  My wonderings brought me back to Jerome Bruner who discusses the value of locality in the schools of Reggio Emilia.  He writes that:

The idea of locality and a sense of local identity are absolutely essential. This is the heart of the Reggio model, it is the model of living within your locality and being conscious of your local tradition. This does not mean that you need to ignore what is universal about mankind. The great task is to translate the local into the universal, and the translation of universals into local use. Politics is local, morality is local, knowledge is local, meaning is local. The process of making these local matters into universals is a process of negotiating.

To be ourselves we must first be local: Reggiani, Modenesi, Bolognesi, Londoners, New Yorkers. It is a sense of our locality that helps us to appreciate the universal. This is what the Reggio schools help children to do – to see the universal in the local. That is how we can become ‘global’ without losing our sense of our own local identity. And that is what Reggio stands for. The ‘Reggio idea’ is a local idea. Yet, what is so striking about it is that is has inspired an international movement. Its international message is that you must take your local task seriously. (Bruner, 2000, p. 12)”

One of the things I struggle with as a public school teacher is how to reconcile the necessities of my job with my ideals.  There is a creative pragmatism that grows out of this wrestling.  Sure, kids can probably climb our chain-link fences safely, but we have a school rule against that and, if I want to have the relationship collateral with my administrators and custodian that I’ll need to embark on my next slightly insane art project, I might have to scale back the climbing a bit.  Please take a moment here and imagine what it’s like to be the custodian in any school I’m working in… exactly.

girl landing jump

So how do we translate those global Reggio ideas into a local context that not only has pretty strict rules about safety but also a mandated curriculum?  Maybe it has something to do with pushing just to the edge of those structures, to see how far they will stretch.  In the dance world we have this notion of structured improvisation – two terms that seem at odds with each other but that, in practice, work beautifully together.  You can sketch the outlines of a dance – first we enter one at a time, then we move forward and backward, then into pair work and then we exit one by one until only one dancer remains on stage – without actually deciding in advance what you’ll be doing in those moments.  Structure without choreography.  You can push right to the edge of chaos without going over, hovering there on the precipice with your arms circling.

That’s what my locality feels like to me, exploring the tension between child-led pedagogy and curriculum, between risk and safety, between climbing and falling.  Sometimes it’s about letting them climb the stump instead of the fence.

girl jumping

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My problem with the problem with sticks

There are a lot of things that get my knickers in a knot in schools.  Worksheets, for starters – why… just why?  The lack of attention we pay to the Arts.  Our obsession with testing as though filling in bubbles and making children who are more unique than snowflakes all complete the same task is going to provide us with magical insight that will transform education forever… oh, I could go on and on.

Right at the top of my list, however, is this kind of nonsense… the kind that I recently read about in this great blog post called Dear Public School: It’s Not Me, It’s You. In it, a mother details some of the nonsensical rules and, quite frankly, borderline abusive behaviour that she witnessed as her son started kindergarten.  It’s enough to make you weep.

“The kindergarten class didn’t have grass. I was told that there’s no running on asphalt.  “It’s not safe and can cause really bad scrapes.” By definition, scrapes are not really bad.  Scrapes, bumps, and bruises should be a part of childhood—they’re how kids learn to manage risk. Scrapes now prevent worse decisions later.

I was told that the school could not meet my child’s energy needs and that instead he needed to get his energy out at “running club” every morning. The thought of five-year-olds running laps to provide an energy release for what they should be getting through creative play at recess was stunning.”

Read the whole thing – it’s worth it.

Mercifully, mer-ci-ful-ly, we don’t have anywhere near this level of control in our schools here in Northern Town and, as I think it would be in most Canadian schools, a “no running outside” policy would be considered lunacy.  However, there is a very well intentioned tendency to manage risk to the point that there is no fun left outside for children.  As teachers, we become not just the ice police, we become the fun police.  Our job becomes to suck the life out of outdoor play in order to mitigate risk; we are playground vampires.

The embodiment of this paradigm is our relationship with sticks.  We have, forgive me, a stick up our you-know-where when it comes to sticks. We confiscate them regardless of whether they’re being used dangerously on benignly.  It’s “no sticks” just like it’s “no running.”

Children play with sticks; it is practically natural law.  Set a kid loose in a forest and within seconds she will have a stick in her hand.  They are magnetically attracted to them.  Our students have been seeking out sticks since they first wandered into the greenspace at the back of our playground.  We have a huge number of them right now since some brush was cleared to accommodate power lines.

They use them in myriad ways.  They use them as fishing rods, they use them to build cabins and tipis, they use them as walking sticks, to break ice, to dig, they hit rocks with them, just to see what kind of sound they make.  They also… it has to be said… sometimes wave them around, like swords.

two boys sitting on a log
they use them as seats

Now – I have seen children, little boys especially, turn chiffon scarves into swords – they will turn anything into a sword – absolutely anything.  Do they turn sticks into swords?  They do.  Do they occasionally hit someone with a stick?  They do.  Can we teach them not to do either of those things?  We can. We really, really can.

girl roasting a snow marshmallow
they use them to roast snowball marshmallows

Children can hit each other with their fists, they can kick each other with their feet… and yet we amputate neither.  We teach them not to; we work really hard at teaching them not to do that.  We can do the same with sticks.  We can choose to say: “here’s this amazing natural material that offers so many possibilities; we’re going to notice and validate the good and work on mitigating and modifying the bad.”  We can choose not to be absolutists and we can be intellectual enough to see the subtlety of the issue.  We want kids to run on the playground.  They need to run on the playground.  They also need sticks.  We rob them of so much when we take them away.

Have you see this? The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally)

Watch it and then think about that for a minute.  What are we losing out on by constraining children’s play to the point that we remove all of the risk?  What’s left for kids?  What kind of adults will they be?  Think hard before you confiscate that next stick… please.