My beliefs and principles are often tested by outdoor experiences. I would like to be able to tell you that by now, I’ve got the systems sussed and my approach sorted. Only it doesn’t seem to work like that. Every group of children is different. Every outdoor space is different. So I am constantly being challenged.
Recently the concrete slope at the beach gave me an internal uphill struggle with myself. In the photo above you can see its profile. It’s a large outcrop of lumpy, bumpy stones set in concrete and is part of the coastal defences to stop the waves eroding the land around the end of the sea wall. There is a path that leads from the beach to the top of the hill. Before you know it, you are at the top of the concrete slope. In the photo below the children (aged 3 and 4yrs old) found themselves there more by default than intent on their first visit. Have a look at the girl on the left. You can see from her body language that she is a little unsure about walking along up there.
When the children finally met the sea wall, they were faced with a choice. Do they turn around and retrace their steps or do they go down the concrete slope?
For me I had wrestled with this situation prior to the beach visits going ahead. I knew the children would discover the path leading to the top of the hill. I knew this would result in a decision where they were most likely to go down the hill. I knew that although the surface was grippy even in wet weather, if these children take a tumble then it could be quite a nasty bumpy journey to the bottom.
I didn’t want to stop the children going from along the path or down the slope. I felt it was the sort of situation that the children needed to experience, because it’s a life skill. You find yourself in a tricky situation and you have to make a personal decision over what you are going to do.
As you can see from the photo above, the practitioners did a normal thing. When they realised what the children had decided to do, they rushed in to support. After all that’s what we do in pre-school, right? We support the children in their decision-making. And we don’t want the children to take a nasty tumble. There are repercussions if this happens such as feelings of guilt, of inadequacy or incompetency. We would blame ourselves and feel awful for the children and then we have to face the parent or carer, who may or may not be sympathetic.
At this point I stepped in and asked the practitioners to step back from the children. Rather than physically support them by holding their hands, I asked them to spot them instead. To walk beside them and just stick out a hand if the child looked like they were going to fall. My rationale was that the children will learn more easily how to balance and walk down the concrete slope if we are a little more hands off.
It was a very very difficult thing to do. The children were used to being helped. Moments before, the girl had been with me. She was very wobbly indeed and fell forward several times. At one point she said in a small voice, “This is very scary.” And I had to agree with her.
And that was it. The following two visits, no child went near the concrete hill either at the bottom or at the top. It seemed to have been enough of a big experience, thank you very much.
So this week, it was interesting to see the girl actively decide to go back up to the top of the concrete slope. Only this time, look at her body language. She is clearly much more comfortable than previously.
She knew what to expect and had made a plan.
Another child had watched the girl go up and wanted to come along too. He waited and watched how she got down and decided to have a go himself. At this point you can see there are no adults around.
Halfway down, he realised he could walk. Up he got and down he came. All by himself too.
It made me realise just how much progress, not only the children had made in terms of their acclimatisation and confidence but also the adults. That we were able to let the children be. This has been one of the key points of the beach visits. That the adults need time, patience and support to get used to being in a different place and to meet the different challenges which come with this too.
One of the bits of paperwork I have done, is to break the visits down into micro routines that focus on the little things we can do to enable children to become more independent. For me this is important in terms of children developing personal safety skills. Very often, as adults we fail to think about the tiny changes we can make that can have a positive lasting effect, such as deciding not to hold a hand but to spot, in this instance. For me, this is a long term and proactive approach to ensuring children are safe when out and about.