Changeling Children

“In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road ~

Have you read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy?

I read it when I was on maternity leave.  I read most of it in the middle of the night, balancing a tiny screen while nursing a tiny baby, riveted awake by McCarthy’s prose and my own terror.  It is a terrifying, post-apocalyptic read – not usually my thing, really.  I’m not even sure why I started reading it but it was so good, so absurdly well-written, and so compelling that once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

I find myself coming back to The Road again and again, it’s become one of those touchstone books for me.

I think of it especially when I find myself somewhere desolate: a big city in November, an empty field in the middle of winter, early spring when the snow is half-melted and dirty.

This afternoon I had a Road moment.

The greenspace at the back of our school, which I’ve been writing about all year, has been devoured.  We went back there this afternoon and it was clear that some giant piece of machinery had eaten it.  All that was left were mounds of snow and dirty dead grass, topped with broken tree limbs and masses of pointy twigs.  It was sad and frustrating and ugly and bleak.  I was devastated.

piles of snow and sticks, grey sky

But then I noticed the kids.  They climbed over the mounds of snow, they pulled out the sticks and carried the broken branches.  They lay down in the snow and looked at the sky.  They didn’t say anything.

kneeling girl holding a branch next to a pile of snow

They didn’t seem at all phased by the change in the landscape; they just accepted it and moved on.  Not a single child asked what had happened.  Maybe they figured it out because of the tracks in the snow.  Maybe they assumed that their green space was still intact, hidden under the snow.  I was so awed by their silence that I didn’t feel right asking them; it felt intrusive.  It had become a formless space, somewhere that they could approach as though new.  While I was busy grieving, they were exploring – venturing bravely into a new world.

boy kneeling on snow pile, girl walking away from camera

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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.