kid hanging upside down

Posted by Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator

(I did not take any photos of the zip-lining adventures as they unfolded, so I’ve included some snapshots of other inspired play by the same group. Click here for Carrie’s post about a soaking wet Thanksgiving zipline. )

Another member of the zipline contingent, hanging around on another day

I was involved in a discussion today about the power of story to truly illustrate the learning that can happen at Forest School. Afterwards, this story came to mind:

A child arrived on site in September, spent a couple of minutes looking at the rope that was strung between two trees and immediately announced that he was going to make a zipline.

He looked around on the ground for a zipping handle, found an adequate stick, and got to work.

He tried standing on a stump and extending his arms, but couldn’t reach the rope.He tried jumping- no good. He tried stacking two stumps on top of each other, but they fell over. He decided he would need to go up via the tree.

The tree at the end where he decided to start is big and old. It’s got three trunks emerging from a base and often has a child curled up in it. It has a tremendous circumference, so big that its really difficult to see around, let alone reach around.

He climbed up, reached as far as he could, and was barely able to grab the rope. His handle-stick fell to the ground. He climbed down, picked it up, looked at the rope, looked at me, and smiled. Did I think I could pass him his handle once he climbed back up?

I smiled back. Of course I would hand it up- just tell me when.

He climbed back up, reached around, grabbed the rope, asked for the stick. He was finally ready: up high at one end of the rope, stick in position, two hands on the handle…

He clearly didn’t feel very secure. It was a wobbly, uncertain sort of step around the old tree trunk, and it was hard to hold onto the makeshift handle, never mind dealing with the stretchiness of a weighted rope or coming around the tree pretty much blind.

He stood there, holding on for a few moments- contemplating, twitching.

He dropped the handle, let go of the rope, and climbed down. “You know what? “he said. “I don’t think I’ll do it this way.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It doesn’t feel safe.”

He proceeded (with help from collaborators) to move the rope lower so that it could be reached by standing on a stump, and zipped from there. They all did. They spent at least an hour modifying handles, adjusting rope angles, taking turns.

Three parents (none of them his) watched this process- looking back and forth between me and this child. Once he decided to change his plans because he didn’t feel safe they each looked at me, smiled, nodded, and moved on.

I nodded back, and moved on too.

 More zipping (and climbing) collaborators, testing some limits on anther fall day

I wasn’t sure whether this child would find a way to make his plan work. I did not feel comfortable for him to give it a go as it was. If he had not decided to step down I definitely would have asked him to pause to reconsider. I would have tried to find a way to help him see how his plan could be unsafe without directly pointing it out or explaining. He might have agreed with me, and he might not have.

How powerful for him to come to that decision himself- to work his way through a plan, test it out, and modify it.

How powerful for me to be reminded that placing trust in a child’s judgement can be the right choice.

How powerful for those parents to watch our process, to see this boy modify his plan based on whether or not he felt safe.

Sometimes the children I meet in the forest are ready to keep themselves safe, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they consider the thoughts and feelings of others before speaking and acting, and sometimes they don’t. Some days are filled with mediating, moderating, refereeing and redirecting, while others are filled with smooth collaboration, mindfulness and smart choices.

I might have needed to ask that boy to rethink his zipline plans. I might have needed to intervene or interject or redirect. If I had stepped in this would have been a rich learning opportunity.

I might have stepped in or interjected, but I held out, and I didn’t. I held back and he was able to own the whole experience, to think and try and decided and learn, and then to pass on this learning to his peers through their continued adventures. The learning in this instance was much deeper and richer. All because I was able to step back, to wait before speaking, and to trust this clearly competent and capable young boy.

Finding another high spot to rest and refuel. 

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