By Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator
Recently driving home to a later-than-usual evening with my children, I was mapping out the smoothest paths to bedtime. Upon being asked to shower as soon as we got home, one of my sons asked if he could go for a quick swim instead.
A swim entailed needing me to lifeguard, finding towels, picking up discarded clothing, wiping up wet footprints from the kitchen and potentially needing to break up too much fun as play got in the way of getting to bed.
I took a breath, thought a moment, and said to myself “Why not?” Why not say yes to a request rather than say no? Why not let go of the urge to herd my family along the most efficient path and let the child-requested, more-fun-path be the way of the evening? I was concerned about potentially needing to break up “too much fun”? Seriously?
(Hopefully) needless to say, the swim route won, and of course it was smoother than the shower route because it was chosen by the children. Rather than needing constant reminders to get the task done, they embraced the task with gusto.
I have noticed the same approach can win out in the forest. Shall we go through the puddle, or around it? Shall we open the outdoor tap for water play, or save it for later? Shall we get out the paints, or stick to chalk for now? Shall we stay on the trail or forge our own way? Someone’s shoes might get wet, or we might take longer to get back than usual, or we might use up all of the supplies.
Children always seem to choose the muddier, wetter, messier, longer, tougher, more convoluted path. Getting from point A to point B in the most effective way possible is hardly ever in their brains, because they are usually not really concerned with what comes next. Children do not usually list out their days into tidy sections of activity that can be checked off as soon as possible. They look around them, pull an idea out of their imaginations, or find one from inspiring peers, or listen to the messages being carried on the wind, and get down to the business of play.
What a gift to be able to give, that when a child comes up with an idea or a request, to ask myself “Why not?” before giving an answer.
Today a parent asked about bringing families to explore a certain pond. The answer to my “Why not?” involved a deep pond, murky water, a large group, some first-time visitors, and non-swimmers. Safety was a concern so my answer was no. I feel certain that we will be able to find a different pond on a different day that could work out- today was not that day.
Sometimes no is the right answer. Sometimes group members are tired, or staff are stretched, or supplies are low, or we are about to go on a hike, or some other perfectly legit explanation.
More often though, I have learned that asking myself “Why not?” (or being asked by the child who sees no reason for being denied some delightful fun) lets me see that there actually isn’t a very good reason to say no to a request. If I can say yes the play and the fun, the experiential-learning and collaboration, the self-direction and delayed gratification that emerge are authentic and rich and are often meaningful enough that we can go back to them over and over.
Children usually ask to take part in a certain activity because it calls to them. I would much rather have a child continue to ask me to support those interests, be they muddy or messy or wet, than have them learn that I always say no so that they stop asking. What a gift for a child to look at their environment and to see possibilities and potential rather than limits and stop signs. I’m not advocating for reckless abandon, but rather for mindful pausing and a willingness to take a step off the most efficient path.
Rather than say no, or later, or not right now, I am trying to ask myself “why not?” first, and seeing what comes of it. The answer may still be no. But, oh wonder of wonders, the answer might be yes. If that is the case then I’ll need to step back: much fun and deep play are most certainly on their way.